Telepresence technology taking hold in classrooms


Telepresence technology has been steadily advancing for years, and Suitable Technologies is at the head of the pack.

The Palo Alto, California, company’s Beam Pro — a 5-foot-2-inch, 90-pound, five-wheeled robot with a 17-inch high-definition screen, six microphones and two cameras — has quickly established itself in classrooms and offices across the country as an effective telepresence tool.

The robot’s largest draw is in its simplicity and ease of use, which has played a large role in the worldwide expansion of the technology. Educational institutions, in particular, say it adds depth to the experience of remote learning.

Beam is, as Suitable Technologies describes it, an asynchronous communication platform, meaning that anybody who has internet access and a laptop or desktop can activate a Beam, as long as they are authorized to use it and the device is charged and unlocked. Controlling a Beam is even easier than accessing it — using the arrow keys and a mouse, the driver can rotate the robot 360 degrees and proceed over uneven surfaces while maintaining balance.

The robot, which is also available in a smaller, more compact model as well, has found a place in classrooms from elementary to higher education, according to Bo Preising, chief strategy and product officer for Suitable Technologies.

“The smaller beam … can really provide a collaborative environment or tool for [homeschool students] to still be a part of a school,” Preising said.

William Cain, a doctoral candidate and assistant director in the design studio at Michigan State University’s College of Education, is one of Beam’s many adopters in the world of higher ed.

“Beams have been transformative in how we’ve gone about supporting our hybrid students and our students who are learning at a distance,” Cain told EdScoop.

“At the design studio at MSU, we actually have two responsibilities,” Cain said. “The first is to support faculty in their technology efforts, so we were providing a service that way, and when it became apparent that we needed to support our hybrid track with very specialized technology … the hybrid, remote students wanted to experience what the face-to-face students were experiencing as well, not just in terms of class time.”

For Cain and others in his program at MSU, Beam has provided opportunities for remote teleconferencing outside the classroom, allowing traveling professors to attend dissertation defenses and weekly meetings. While Michigan State professors haven’t ‘Beamed’ into their own lectures yet, Cain anticipates such a development in the future — and he isn’t the only one.

“We have had visiting scholars from other countries, particularly in places like China, who have been very interested in the idea of star professors, guest lecturers … using robotic telepresence technology,” Cain said.

Cain saw the most effective use of Beam in classrooms that emphasized small group activities, where the robot could flex its mobility and multi-perspectival capabilities.

“We see robotic telepresence as enabling different forms of embodiment,” Cain said.

The physical space that Beam occupies, as Cain says, allows the user to feel like he or she is actually in the classroom, offering a far different experience from Skype and other 2-D teleconferencing technologies. Cain also likens the technology to enabling a “social presence — that sense of being with others, interacting with others and having others interacting with me.”

“Their movements are autonomous,” Cain said, referring to the robots. “It’s different from video conferencing because they can actually direct what we call ‘discernible attention’ to things that are of interest to them. Whether that’s when the instructor is speaking and they want to indicate that they have a question to ask, or if they want to break off into small groups, they can join that group autonomously and just wheel right over and join that group.”

Michigan State is far from the only success story in which Beam has played a role. In addition to being adopted by 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies, the telepresence device has been used by Pennsylvania State University, Cornell University and in both athletic and academic programs at Stanford University.