Robots bring online students closer to the classroom

Robots are bringing online students closer to the classroom in a trial taking place at the University of Aberdeen.

The robots are helping deliver teaching at the University’s Institute of Applied Health Sciences (IAHS). The IAHS is at the forefront of online education at the University, providing short courses as well as full Masters programmes to students around the world.

Developed to support the online student experience, the four robots - named Alvin, Anna, Ahmed and Abha - act as a webcam, microphone and speaker.  They can sit in on lectures, lab work, field visits, tutorials - anywhere where teaching is taking place.

Through their electronic eyes and ears, students can see and hear exactly what’s going on, and can ask questions. The robots light up to alert tutors to incoming questions, and can indicate if they’re unsure of something. Light-up facial features can signal confusion, or contentment when questions are answered.

Following the successful launch of On-demand Learning, the University now delivers online short courses and degrees to students in over 100 countries. The robot trial is part of an effort to create an enhanced learning experience for these students.

Dr Kirsty Kiezebrink, Senior Lecturer in the Institute of Applied Health Sciences, is using the system in her lectures and tutorials. 

“The strength of using the robots is that it allows our online students to be co-taught with on-campus students, which is a relatively new model," she explained.

“The current trial will assess whether this novel teaching method can help student retention rates and make for a more engaged learning experience.  So far the feedback has been very positive, with our online students reporting that they feel closer to discussions taking place in the classroom. 

“It is too early to say how widely this method will be rolled out, but we will continue to assess the value in using the robots as we look to enhance the learning experience for our online students.”

Nancy El-Shayeb, an MSc Clinical Nutrition student based in Malaysia, added: “Using the robots made me feel like I was in the classroom and meant that I could exchange ideas and take part in group discussions, which is very helpful in online learning.”