Long-distance learning with robot technology


You’ve driven a car to school. You’ve ridden the bus to school. Maybe you’ve walked or biked. But have you ever taken a robot to school? Students at Southeast Community College in Nebraska are doing just that.

Distance Learning Technology 

Distance learning technology is not a new concept. Southeast Community College in Nebraska has been using distance technology for years, allowing students on one campus to “attend” a course on another campus. But this technology had limits, so the college recently turned to something new: robots.

Southeast Community College now has four robots available, while two more can be found at the college’s Beatrice and Milford locations.

“Students can log in the robot via a web browser or iPhone app,” Christopher Cummins, director of instructional technology and virtual learning at Southeast, explains to Parentology. “They drive the robot with the arrow keys or W, S, A, D, or they can use a gamepad.”

Cummins says the big benefits of the new robot system are mobility, group activities, and training. With the robots, remote students are able to interact in class in a way that they couldn’t before. The robots have cameras, microphones and speakers to allow remote attendees to speak with the instructors and other students.

The robots are like something out of the future. They look like iPads on top of sticks, powered by wheels that let them roll through school halls. Despite their futuristic vibe, they’ve been easy for students to learn how to use.

“Most students and staff learn how to drive the robots in five minutes or less,” Cummins says. “Some pick it up immediately. You tell them the controls are like Minecraft or Fortnite and they say, ‘Oh yeah, I got it.’ And off they go.”

The robots help students who live in rural areas, reaching students in a 15-county service area.

The college first got the idea for this technology at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 2013, where they saw a robotics demo. After purchasing one robot, the district received a $120,582 Rural Utilities Service grant from the US Department of Agriculture so they could acquire the other five. Fast forward to today and the school is in its second quarter of testing the new robotic devices.

What’s Next?

What’s next for the robots? The college might train faculty to use the technology so staff can attend meetings remotely. They may aim for another round of funding to purchase more. And th technology might expand.

“During the grant phase of the project we will monitor usage,” Cummins says. “If students and staff like or dislike the robots, and use case scenarios.” When asked if he could see other colleges using similar robots, he says, “Yes, I don’t see why not.”

By Hailey Hudson