Albert Einstein once claimed that you can be in two places at once. The boffin was right—and you don’t need to be a quantum physicist to do it; merely a business school student. MBAs are attending campus classes using robots, controlled from halfway across the planet.
Online learning has existed for decades, but schools are turning to newer forms of technology as the demand for digital degrees rockets and technology becomes increasingly prevalent in the workplace.
At Arizona’s W.P. Carey School of Business, MBA and Executive MBA students are able to attend classes virtually using “Gizmo”, one of three Segway robots with wheels that display a student’s face via an iPad strapped to the machine. A microphone and speaker enable conversations in real-time, while the wheels let students roam campus, interacting with anyone who crosses their path.
Lisa Bienstock says that she would not be able to get her Carey EMBA if it were not for technology such as Gizmo. “I’m a parent,” she says. “I also work full-time and I’m getting my Executive MBA all at the same time. I wouldn’t be able to do it if I didn’t have the support of ASU and technology like Gizmo to be in two places at once.”
She cites, as an example of how the robot has helped her, an instance in which she was attending a conference in Las Vegas but had to attend EMBA classes simultaneously in Arizona. “I was able to attend class through Gizmo, which was phenomenal as I didn’t miss anything,” says Lisa.
She controlled the Arizona-based bot from her Vegas hotel room using her laptop keyboard. “It’s great for parents or people who have sick children or disabilities — if you can’t get to class, you’re able to be there to participate [virtually],” Lisa says.
The robots may seem unusual but are now regularly roaming some campuses, with remote students routinely rolling into lecture theatres on wheeled machines, as well as meeting recruiters virtually using the devices.
MIT Sloan School of Management in Massachusetts, for instance, has been using robots designed by Double Robotics and Avaya Robotics since 2015, mostly in the executive education space where distance learning is more common than in MBAs.
Schools hope the robots mimic the feel of being on a buzzy campus, though nothing has truly replicated that experience yet.
Although recent advancements in technology have made remote study more realistic, business schools have long faced criticism that online learning is too passive, with chatrooms and recorded video lectures still common.
Robots enable participants to take part in the unofficial networking and learning opportunities across campus—key selling points of a business school degree.
“They let someone feel like they are part of a real environment; they can move around and interact,” says Peter Hirst, associate dean of executive education at MIT Sloan. “From a learning point of view, it provides a rich experience.”
Peter adds that the robots could enable remote participants who have mobility challenges or disabilities that prevent them from attending campus to do so.
“We have also been using these technologies to beam presenters who are remote into a classroom, so instead of them having to travel we send or obtain locally one of these robots,” he says.
Peter adds that MIT Sloan is “trying to combine these telepresence robots with a 3D imaging system. So, the remote person can steer the robot with their movement rather than a keyboard or joystick. We are working with vendors at the moment”.
Robots are prevalent in offices, too, with about 40 Fortune 100 companies using robots developed by Double Robotics, which sells them for $3,000 a piece. Schools believe experimenting with distance collaboration tools prepares participants for an increasingly tech-driven workplace.
Anuj Sharma has attended two executive education courses at MIT Sloan using robots that he controlled from India. “It’s a mind-blowing experience,” he says. “Every day I felt that the robot was becoming more of an extension of me. I could make it walk anywhere, talk to anyone; it’s a powerful experience.”
He adds that the bot saved him money on travel costs, and he did not have to take any time off work.
But Anuj adds that it was difficult for the other participants to adjust to speaking with a robot and there was some awkward hesitation to do so at first.
“They saw the robot not as me, but as a machine,” he says. “But as time goes on the interactions got better and I was able to move and speak via the robot more intuitively…I even asked a student if I could take her out on a date!” Perhaps tellingly, she said yes.