Faculty voice:

Christine Greenhow: Harnessing technology to solve educational problems

March 21, 2018

Christine Greenhow is an associate professor of educational psychology and educational technology and the 2018 recipient of MSU's Teacher-Scholar Award for excellence in scholarship and teaching informed by research. She is currently the principal investigator of research funded by the Bates-Byers Endowment for Technology in Education examining the affordances of robot-mediated learning for student engagement in hybrid education.

In an age where the internet and social media are changing the ways we do business and communicate, it is no surprise that a professor of educational technology would inquire how to harness these technologies to solve persistent educational problems. How can we get students more engaged in their learning? How can we reach students anytime, anywhere? How can we make all students feel a sense of connection to classmates and instructor? How can we make classes more accessible, interactive, and fun?

These are some of the questions that drive my research on social media in education and new technologies in hybrid education. Today, online learning is fast-growing as universities strive for equitable and alternative pathways to course enrollment, retention and educational attainment. Furthermore, hybrid or blended learning, which combines face-to-face with online learning components, has been shown to be the most promising approach to increasing access to education and students' learning outcomes.

One challenge, however, to successfully implementing blended instruction is that social presence, or students' ability to project their personal characteristics into the learning space, is reduced with potential negative effects on student engagement, persistence, and achievement. Online students often feel like they are interrupting what is happening in the physical classroom, and instructors, using traditional video-conferencing like Skype or Zoom, are often frustrated by their inability to look right into the eyes of remote students and give them the visual attention they deserve.

In pioneering research at Michigan State, we are experimenting with robot technologies to address these challenges. One study, also featured by Inside Higher Education and published recently in an open access journal, found that online students who use the innovative robots feel more engaged and connected to the instructor and students in the classroom which is important; when students feel more connected, they tend to do better. Another study highlighted that certain teaching strategies work better with robotic telepresence than others.

The potential power of robot technologies was first introduced at a faculty meeting in the College of Education's cutting-edge Design Studio when director Dr. John Bell and assistant director Dr. William Cain showcased the robot technologies they had used at a recent alumni event; online students in the college's hybrid doctoral program moved their "head-screens" or rolled around the room via robot technologies to look at and talk to alumni.

After this meeting, I collaborated with researchers in the Design Studio to introduce the robot technologies in my blended doctoral courses. Stationed around the class, each robot has a mounted video screen controlled by the remote user that lets the student pan around the room to see and talk with the instructor and fellow students participating in-person. Now, instead of looking at a screen full of faces as I did with traditional videoconferencing, I can look a robot-learner in the eye - at least digitally.

Our collaborative efforts to offer robot learning options led to our winning the 2017 AT&T award for our unique, inclusive approach to helping all students learn through innovative, technology-enhanced teaching.

At Michigan State, we strive to push the boundaries of knowledge and create the best learning experiences for our students on campus and all over the world. With robot technologies we are leading higher education in exciting new directions, producing insights that could be applied to enhance telecommuting, distributed research team experiences and so much more.

For a closer look at Greenhow's robot learning project, watch the video in the MSUToday Feature, Enhancing learning with robots.