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Practice Spotlight

Telepresence robots and Tertiary Education: The next frontier of remote learning?

TAFE Queensland recently participated in a trial to explore some of this technology – called telepresence robotics – to see how it could be applied in a TAFE environment.

It began with a conversation between Ben Farkas from technology innovation company TeleIn and David Swayn, who works for STEPS Group Australia.  David is working in a role that focuses on access to tertiary education for students with disability, and David and Ben had worked together several years ago to develop a virtual reality tour of university.  At that time, telepresence robotics was an emerging technology and still not quite stable enough for large scale deployment.  

On both sides there was a keen interest in using emerging technology to better people’s lives, and a recent discussion turned to “how the recently improved technology might work for students with disability in tertiary environments”.

There isn’t a lot of evidence on the efficacy of telepresence robotics as a reasonable adjustment for students with disability - but there have been some use cases in university and school settings, and there are scatterings of research.  TeleIN offered the opportunity to test out one of its VR robots in a tertiary setting.  David and Ben approached TAFE Queensland who took up the offer to test the equipment out and allocated staff to see how it could be used. 

Figure 1 David visits Ben from TeleIn via a telepresence robot to talk about the use possibilities.

“For this trial, we really just wanted to see [whether] the robot will work as intended in a TAFE learning environment if we were to try and use it for students as an access option,” David said. The idea was to use this emerging technology for good, to give students more choices in how they engage with their studies than they would otherwise have.

Of the trial, TAFE Project Officer Connor Page who oversaw sharing the robot with other students said, “As today's world continues to progress with technology, I believe that TAFE QLD should also progress with it as well.” Connor has been a TAFE student in the technology field, is a mentor for neurodiverse students and worked with the team to field test the robot and collect data about the project.

Figure 2 TAFE Disability Liaison Officer, Tina Cook stands with the Robot, which looks like a tablet on a segway.

Tina Cook, TAFE Disability Liaison Officer for QLD North says of the robot “There was a learning curve with the technology, but I can see its potential to help build more inclusive environments.”

Students with temporary injuries who have a stay in hospital, students with an extended illness, students who may benefit from participating in a classroom environment in a more distanced way or from home, and a broad range of other circumstances could benefit from this interactive technology.

Ben Farkas, Managing Director of TeleIn, said the technology was designed to “augment and to give people new opportunities”.

He sees the robots as “an enabling technology” that allows mobility and flexibility to those who might otherwise find it difficult to engage in a particular setup.
“People who may not traditionally be able to attend classrooms or lectures because of physical conditions, disability, illness, injury, that kind of thing, now have an equal opportunity to be able to attend just like their peers.”

He added that the technology has been specifically designed with simplicity in mind, to remove any extra barriers to entry: all that’s required is basic computer skills, and access to the internet. Users dial into the robot via a web interface and control it using the arrow keys and mouse. Importantly, he said the robot offers an active experience; the user can ‘drive’ the robot around a room and up to a person they want to interact with, as opposed to, for example, a laptop or screen sitting stationary on a table.

Farkas said this results in “a much bigger connection” between people.

In the classroom, the telepresence robot looks a bit like a tablet on a segway. The tablet shows the user’s face and allows them to interact with their peers in the classroom, or even present their work on-screen to the room or the teacher. They’re a reasonably simple and approachable setup. The robots have charging docks so they can recharge themselves after a session of use requiring access to strong Wi-Fi. At the other end, the user uses a device like a tablet or computer to drive the robot, making it quite easy to use and direct. 


Figure 3 Photo of the robot with the screen showing the words 'TAFE Trial'.

There are some other things to think about with the use of the robot, including privacy, security, and individual user accessibility. David believes most further education institutions would be on top of the cyber security aspect, but users will likely want to consider their privacy and says there are still things that can be done to make the web interface and technology more accessible for all.  Some work has already been done, for example allowing the pairing of an XBOX controller to use the joystick for navigation as opposed to keyboard or mouse input.
David raises that the pandemic brought with it several new ways of living, studying and being, and there is a wider acceptance of the role of technology and hybrid working within the community.

“I think in the future we’ll see the use of technology and in-person presence… as more of a normality, an everyday occurrence. We’ve gotten really used to doing meetings remotely… and that creates a lot of opportunity for people to participate who otherwise wouldn’t be able to.”

Ultimately, he feels that the trial at TAFE Queensland has proven that telepresence robotics could be used within the tertiary environment successfully. He said practitioners should be given the opportunity to play around with it to understand the pros and any limitation they might face, before rolling it out as part of standard operations.

Following the trial at TAFE Queensland Cairns campus, David said he would like to see students with disability further explore how the telepresence robot could be used and would be interested to see research collaborations occur to further explore the impacts and applications.  “We did this project on the side of other daily duties and responsibilities. It’d be great to see someone invest more time and resources in to building a stronger case and resources around this technology in tertiary settings.”  People interested in the technology can contact Ben Farkas from TeleIn.

Written by: Danielle Kutchel

September 2023