Quick Take: Tele-presence makes it possible to have a class with all the benefits of distance and face-to-face teaching, all at the same time.
With its ‘Profesor Avatar’ project, Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey seeks to enhance the teleconferencing system by using real-time image projections. As a result, distance learning gains a human quality.
The class begins at the scheduled time and, in the middle of the room, the teacher bursts into it like lightning. The students recognize the familiar body shape and hear his words. They greet him back, although they know they are speaking to air. In reality, no one is there, it is only a projected image – bright and clear – transmitted as if by magic.
This virtual professor, seemingly of flesh and bone, is a revolutionary innovation the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM) has implemented to replace teleconferenced classes. The idea, which turned into the ‘Profesor Avatar’ project, began with the intention of solving the enormous difference that exists between attending a face-to-face class versus a long-distance, online lecture.
This innovation resulted from a collaboration between three professors at the university: Luis Eduardo Luévano Belmonte, Eduardo López de Lara Díaz, and Eduardo González, who together analyzed student-teacher communication challenges, and found telepresence technology to be an answer to this challenge. Increasing student interest was also a clear goal. The professors hoped to reduce a student’s tendency to lose focus when solely interacting with a screen.
As a result, they decided to complement the telepresence technology with a robot that the professors refer to as a ‘telepresence kit’. It is a system that, when working simultaneously, has shown to have an incredible effect on the connection and empathy generated between the students and their teacher.
But, what are these technologies and how exactly do they work?
The telepresence robot is an instrument that allows the teacher to have a physical and autonomous presence within the classroom, while controlling it remotely. In addition, this automaton has several features that reinforce its interaction potential. For instance, it has two cameras that transmit audio and video in several directions, which provide the ability to give students personalized attention. “It’s a robot that improves telepresence best practices, but its effect is also amplified when it works in conjunction with a projection,” explains professor Luévano. “This technology allows us to generate an image of the professor, which is much more accessible and expressive than that of a computer or television,” states Luévano.
The robot is complemented by a projected image, since it provides the illusion that the professor is in fact in the classroom, and the robot works to give him or her human characteristics that make their presence feel ‘real’. “When we take these technologies and use them together, we come up with a package that could potentially take distance learning to a new level of connectivity,” he says.
In an effort to demonstrate the transformative power of their initiative, Profesor Avatar’s team launched “Challenge i.” This challenge is a collaborative network that was extended to three more universities in Latin America (Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala, TecSup in Peru, and Pontificia Universidad Católica in Chile) in order to demonstrate the collaborative capacity of telepresence technologies. It was tested through a pilot class on how to build an electric power generator using recycled materials only.
Thanks to this ‘kit,’ students from universities in Mexico, Peru, Guatemala and Chile were able to work together to complete this challenge. “We thought technology was going to be the leading actor, but it was not,” recalls Professor Luévano. “After overcoming the initial fascination that comes when implementing semi-futuristic and innovative solutions, project leaders were surprised to see that the technology was quickly adopted by students.”
At the end of class (carried out last year), the quality of the synergy generated with the implementation of this initiative was a great sign. More than 80% of students felt comfortable with the telepresence system, and more than 90% said they would participate in an activity like this again.
But the success of “Challenge i” has not been the only achievement accomplished by Profesor Avatar’s team. Recently, they received the Silver Award in the category of Best Use of Information, Communication and Technology Tools in the 2016 Reimagine Education Awards.
Currently, the biggest challenge for Profesor Avatar is to become a high-impact initiative within the world of education. The necessary requirements to use the telepresence kit effectively cannot be found in many places. However, as these technologies become less expensive and more accessible, projects that use them will grow exponentially.
In the meantime, the potential of the things Profesor Avatar can do comes to life little by little at the universities and institutions where it has been adopted. At the Instituto Tecnológico de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey, where it was born, students who otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance are attending lectures by world-class educators.
Institutions in Germany, large regions in African, and even the Government of Colombia have demonstrated their interest in increasing the scope of this initiative.
For Profesor Avatar’s founders, his goal has never been to replace the teacher’s role. On the contrary, he aims to get educators where they cannot be in person. “The human element has always been the leading actor,” says Luévano. “With Profesor Avatar, distance learning can get that human aspect to it, and possibly innovate the E-learning field.”