Student and Faculty Perceptions of Telepresence Courses

Key Takeaways

  • To deliver a high-quality learning experience to remote learning sites, Minnesota State University, Mankato, invested in telepresence-enhanced classrooms and then surveyed stakeholders to learn about their experiences and perceptions.
  • Both students and faculty reported that the telepresence technologies were easy to use and helped them connect with one another in synchronous distance learning settings.
  • Although faculty reported a lower level of connection with students — perhaps indicating a need for training in specific teaching strategies students said they preferred classes hosted via telepresence to asynchronous learning environments.

Carrie L. Lewis, Qijie Cai, and Michael Manderfeld, Instructional Designers, and Jude A. Higdon, Interim Associate Vice President for Information Technology, Minnesota State University, Mankato

Beginning in fall 2011, Minnesota State University, Mankato (MNSU), a medium-sized public comprehensive university, implemented classrooms containing telepresence units to extend its distance learning course offerings. We built telepresence classrooms both at the home campus and at remote partner locations across the state using Cisco TelePresence systems. These classrooms let students take synchronous classes at any location and connect to the instructor and students at the home location.

Two years after the implementation, we conducted a brief attitudinal study to determine how connected students and instructors felt in the telepresence environment. We needed this preliminary data on stakeholder satisfaction as input to discussions about continuing the university's investments in Cisco's TelePresence equipment and in expanded partner classroom sites. Here, we report on the study findings, which have implications for other organizations considering an implementation or expansion of their own telepresence initiatives.

Telepresence Overview

Models for live, visually based instruction — such as through satellite television, webcasts, and single-camera Interactive Television (ITV) — have existed for many years. However, technical limitations have generally relegated the pedagogies enabled by these technologies to a didactic transmission model: the instructor lectures while students passively receive the information, with little opportunity for feedback or interaction. The relatively recent advent of immersive, synchronous, two-way videoconferencing, or telepresence, has introduced new opportunities for faculty and students.

How It Works

Telepresence systems integrate live instruction and other interactive elements into distance learning environments. Essentially, telepresence is live video that allows for human-sized interactions, while offering clear sound and visual fidelity to individuals in remote rooms. Although telepresence technologies exist for smaller devices (such as personal desktop systems), for our purposes here, "telepresence" describes immersive experiences such as those experienced in appropriately structured classrooms or conference rooms (see figures 1 and 2, respectively).

Figure 1. A telepresence classroom for 18–30 students.

Figure 2. A telepresence conference room for 6–10 students.

The major distinctions between telepresence and consumer-level tools such as Skype or Google Chat are

  • video size via a large screen (human-sized vs. reduced size);
  • video quality (high-speed, real-time video with low compression vs. consumer Internet with high compression); and
  • access location (place-bound to telepresence rooms and equipment vs. available from any consumer-level device with Internet access).

Telepresence rooms require an appreciable investment in high-quality equipment, including cameras, microphones, video screens, noncommercial Internet (and prioritized quality-of-service to ensure proper bandwidth for the video and avoid "packet drops"), call-management infrastructure, and room retrofit or build. The place-bound technology also requires learners to travel to specified locations to participate in the learning experience.

Benefits and Challenges

According to experts, the keys to effective distance education are "social interaction, prompt feedback, engaging activities, instructional flexibility, the dynamism of a knowledgeable scholar, and adaptation to individual needs."1 The goal then is to find a delivery method that lets instructors provide all of these elements — expected in face-to-face courses — in a distance education course. As technology evolves and becomes more accessible and more affordable, institutions find it easier to build new types of classrooms.

For students who are geographically separated but able to meet synchronously, telepresence systems provide an opportunity for authentic social interactions with both peers and instructors. Because availability of these systems is key to social interactions in distance learning settings using telepresence, however, they must function effectively at all times. In addition, they must be high-speed, reliable, and inexpensive,2 and institutions implementing such systems must accommodate these requirements when retrofitting or building classrooms for telepresence equipment.

In distance learning courses, the telepresence technology becomes the method of information delivery and interaction; to use it effectively, instructors must receive pedagogical training specific to the new system as well as training on the mechanics. The tool itself is not a panacea for increasing classroom interaction. Rather, it is how the instructors and participants use the system that makes an impact on community culture and social interactions in the classroom.3

Survey: Attitudes toward Telepresence

To determine the general satisfaction level of faculty and students who regularly used the telepresence classrooms, we developed an electronic survey and sent it out via university e-mail to 30 faculty and 204 students who had participated in at least one of the telepresence courses since fall 2011. Participation in the survey was voluntary, and students who participated were entered into a drawing for a gift card. To further increase the response rate, we sent out a reminder e-mail two weeks after the survey was first distributed.

The survey consisted of four Likert-type and multiple-choice questions, one open-ended question, and five demographic questions. The first five survey questions for both faculty and students asked them to describe their experience with telepresence courses by selecting the relevant responses. We developed the survey questions around four areas: perceived development of an interpersonal connection between instructors and students, ease of use of the technology, stability of the system, and institutional support for teaching (for faculty) or support for learning (for students). (For reference, the survey appears at the end of this article.)

The survey respondents consisted of 18 faculty and 46 students. Of the faculty respondents, 39 percent were female and 61 percent were male, the majority (83.3 percent) of whom self-identified as Caucasian, with the remaining 16.7 percent self-identifying as Asian/Pacific Islander. The mean age of those faculty who chose to self-identify was 50 years. The average age of the student respondents was 33 years. The majority of student respondents were female (65.9 percent) and Caucasian (85.4 percent). The student participants represented five different colleges: 61 percent from the College of Education, 23 percent from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 8 percent from the College of Business, 5 percent from the College of Science, Engineering, and Technology, and 3 percent from the College of Arts and Humanities. When asked what courses student participants took via TelePresence, responses indicated that Special Education courses and Urban Studies courses were most heavily represented by survey participants.

Results from the Faculty Survey

We sent out the TelePresence surveys (see the box at the end of the article) to 30 faculty members who had taught at least one telepresence course at MNSU since fall 2011; 18 responded. Table 1 shows a summary of their responses on a 1–4 scale, with 1 representing not at all [connected, easy to use, stable, supported teaching] and 4 representing completely [connected, easy to use, stable, supported teaching].

Table 1. Summary of the faculty survey data

Areas

No. of Responses

Mean (out of 4)

Standard Deviation

Perceived interpersonal connection

18

2.89

0.96

Ease of use

18

3.12

0.63

Stability

17

2.94

0.56

Support for teaching

17

3.03

0.59

Perceived interpersonal connection was measured by the survey item: "How connected or not connected do you feel to your students in the remote classroom when teaching with TelePresence?" Eight faculty (44.4 percent) reported that they feel students in the remote classroom are "somewhat connected" with telepresence. Five faculty (27.8 percent) felt their students in the remote classroom were "very connected." Some faculty (29.4 percent) also indicated that they feel equally connected to the students in the "host" classroom. However, 70.6 percent of faculty respondents indicated that they feel less connected with the students at the remote sites than they do with students in the host classroom. The wide spread of responses on this item explains the high standard deviation that we see (.96), as it would appear that these respondents either felt very connected or not at all connected to students in the remote classroom site.

Ease of use was measured by two items on the survey: "The TelePresence room was easy to manage from a technical perspective" and "The TelePresence room was easy to teach in." The percentages of respondents who "agree" and "strongly agree" with the first statement are 27.8 percent and 50.0 percent, respectively; the percentages for the second statement are 66.7 percent and 11.1 percent, respectively.

Stability was assessed by the following survey item: "The TelePresence room was stable." Nine faculty (50.0 percent) agreed that the telepresence room was stable, and six faculty (33.3 percent) strongly agreed with this statement.

Support for teaching was assessed by two survey items: "The TelePresence room was effective to teach in" and "My overall experience of teaching in the TelePresence room was positive." The percentages of respondents who "agree" and "strongly agree" with the first statement are 50.0 percent and 16.7 percent, respectively. The percentages for the second statement are 55.6 percent and 22.2 percent, respectively.

Faculty were asked to compare their telepresence classroom experience with that of teaching in an ITV classroom. The majority of respondents (83.3 percent) indicated that they had never taught in an ITV classroom. The remaining respondents (16.7 percent) indicated that they felt the ITV experience was far inferior to the experience in the telepresence classroom.

Responses to the open-ended question indicated that faculty largely felt positive about their telepresence classroom experiences. They made suggestions for expanded camera ranges, additional or larger telepresence classrooms, and the addition of connected document cameras or whiteboards. Among their concerns were restrictions on movement for both faculty and students due to camera range. As one faculty member noted, "It is hard if you are one to walk around and teach, as the telepresence camera is fixed at the level of those seated, and not for one who is getting up and walking around." Another concern expressed was their remote students' inability to present projects (such as PowerPoint presentations).

Results from the Student Survey

We sent the survey to 204 students who had taken at least one course in the telepresence classrooms at MNSU since fall 2011; 46 students completed the survey. Table 2 shows a summary of their responses.

Table 2. Summary of the student survey data

Areas

Responses

Mean (out of 4)

Standard Deviation

Perceived interpersonal connection

41

3.16

0.78

Stability

36

3.25

0.50

Support for learning

35

2.96

0.70

Perceived interpersonal connection was measured by the following survey item: "How connected or not connected do/did you feel to your instructor in the remote classroom when you are/were in a TelePresence classroom?" The majority of students (87.8 percent) reported that they felt either "very connected" or "somewhat connected" to their instructor when in the remote classroom. The remaining responses were split between "somewhat disconnected" (7.2 percent) and "not at all connected" (5 percent). As with the faculty respondents, we see a higher standard deviation with this category given the wider spread of responses.

Student survey respondents indicated that they felt students in the host classroom had a slight advantage (46.3 percent) or a strong advantage (24.4 percent) over the students at the remote site. The remaining respondents (29.3 percent) felt that the students in the host classroom had neither an advantage nor disadvantage over students at the remote site.

Similar to the faculty survey, the stability of telepresence perceived by the students was measured by the following item: "The TelePresence room was stable." Twenty-five students (69.4 percent) agreed that the telepresence room was stable, and 10 (27.8 percent) students strongly agreed.

Support for learning was measured by two items on the survey: "TelePresence enhanced my learning experience" and "My overall experience of learning in the TelePresence room was positive." The percentages of respondents who "agree" and "strongly agree" with the first statement are 62.9 percent and 14.3 percent, respectively. The percentages for the second statement are 59.5 percent and 29.7 percent, respectively.

Students were asked to compare their telepresence classroom experience with that of taking a course in an ITV classroom. The majority of respondents (85 percent) indicated that they had never taken a course in an ITV classroom. The remaining respondents indicated that they felt the ITV experience was far inferior (10 percent) or somewhat inferior (2.5 percent) to the experience in the telepresence classroom. One respondent (2.5 percent) felt the ITV experience was somewhat superior to the telepresence experience.

In their responses to the open-ended question, students largely felt positive about their telepresence classroom experiences. Students said they would like to see more classes offered via telepresence, particularly because distance education students pay a "technology fee" for distance classes. Students at the remote sites indicated some dissatisfaction with the single-screen set-up at their location, however, stating that the single screen "made it difficult to interact with the whole class at once." Students also echoed the faculty members' statements about the ability to present and use a whiteboard, which would benefit both the host and remote sites. Finally, one student suggested that the instructor switch sites each week so that students in both the host and remote sites would feel more connected to the instructor.

Conclusions

Our preliminary investigation into student and faculty attitudes toward MNSU telepresence courses yielded largely positive results, which contributed to the university's decision to continue investing in the Cisco TelePresence systems for on-campus and distance learning classrooms. Current additions since this study was conducted include the renovation of a classroom in the College of Business to install a three-screen immersive TelePresence unit. Future plans include a three-screen immersive TelePresence unit installed in one classroom of the newly constructed Clinical Sciences building (2015–2016). Upgrades to current units include the installation of SpeakerTrack components, which will seamlessly track the current speaker and place that person on camera, moving as the speaker sits or stands. This add-on component addresses many of the criticisms of using telepresence for teaching rooms as opposed to conference rooms, as many instructors and students are accustomed to moving around as they speak or work in groups.

Although faculty and students indicated that they found telepresence courses useful, we did find some concern with the responses that indicated 70 percent of instructors surveyed did not feel connected to their students in the remote sites. Professional development in the pedagogy for and training on the technology could help faculty address this concern and should be part of the resource investment for successfully integrating telepresence systems on campus.

Currently, several system-wide conferences have been held on the possibilities of using telepresence to expand programs and courses in addition to discussions regarding best practices of teaching courses delivered via telepresence. However productive the sessions might be, the future focus should be pedagogical training for instructors on increasing social presence and developing interpersonal connections between the host and remote sites, and the development of formal training for any instructor assigned to teach a telepresence course.

Further, we must correct perceptual errors, including that students at remote sites cannot present projects using PowerPoint or other tools. In fact, the systems in our telepresence rooms offer screen-sharing capabilities, so essentially any presentation software could be used while maintaining a view of the other connected classroom (in the three-screen rooms). Active intervention could alleviate many such misconceptions, with training to refresh current telepresence faculty on the system's use in both the host and remote classrooms; such an intervention would also insure that faculty use the systems to the fullest extent possible (which would benefit the systems' return on investment).

Finally, faculty indicated that they felt less interpersonally connected to all their students — both in the remote and host sites. We see a high standard deviation in both surveys for this category, which could be due to the wide range of responses gathered for this question or could indicate that the question, "How connected or not connected do/did you feel to your instructor [students] in the remote classroom when you are/were in a TelePresence classroom?" might not accurately measure what the researchers intended to measure in terms of interpersonal, or social, connections. Reliability and validity tests would assist the researchers in determining whether these results arise from the sample or the survey instrument.

Whether the lack of interpersonal connection between student and teacher results from teaching methods specific to telepresence classrooms or is a phenomenon related to system set-up issues (such as the single screen in remote telepresence rooms) requires further investigation. Experimental design studies surrounding interventions or renovation of remote site rooms might help us determine a causal relationship. Additional studies could also examine the instructors' use of non-telepresence techniques to engage the students and determine the most effective combination of tools for increasing a sense of interpersonal connection. Discussion boards, small group work, synchronous chats, prerecorded lectures, or ice-breakers might all serve to enhance the social presence or sense of interpersonal connection between both student and instructor and student  to student. Soliciting both faculty and student feedback on what tools or techniques might assist them in feeling connected to the opposite classroom might uncover some valuable information that may or may not relate to the telepresence system itself.

MNSU has planned multiple professional development trainings starting in the fall 2015 semester. These trainings, hosted by the university's Center for Excellence and Innovation, will focus mainly on the pedagogical aspects of teaching in a telepresence room, including the importance of social presence and facilitating group work across sites and best practices for including both the host and remote classroom site equally in activities and discussions. In addition to the regular trainings, we'll hold targeted workshops for specific colleges that use telepresence rooms heavily, including the College of Education and the College of Allied Health and Nursing. By supporting current instructors teaching via telepresence and offering professional development on the pedagogy of telepresence teaching, we hope to increase the interpersonal connection felt by instructors and students in both the host and remote classrooms.

TelePresence Survey — Faculty

Thank you for choosing to participate in this study on the efficacy of teaching and learning with TelePresence. Your responses will remain entirely anonymous. We estimate this survey to take under five minutes to complete.

1. How connected or not connected do you feel to your students in the remote classroom when teaching with TelePresence?

a) Not at all connected.

b) Somewhat disconnected.

c) Somewhat connected.

d) Very connected.

2. Compared to your students in the "host" classroom (the classroom from which you teach, physically), how connected or disconnected do you feel to the students in the remote classroom when you teach with TelePresence?

a) I feel less connected to the students in the remote classroom than I do to the students in the host classroom.

b) I feel about equally connected to the students in the remote and in the host classrooms.

c) I feel more connected to the students in the remote classroom than I do to the students in the host classroom.

3. If you have taught in an ITV classroom, please compare the experience, overall, of teaching in an ITV classroom and a TelePresence classroom.

a) I believe that the ITV teaching experience is far superior to the TelePresence experience.

b) I believe that the ITV teaching experience is somewhat superior to the TelePresence experience.

c) I believe that the ITV teaching experience is somewhat inferior to the TelePresence experience.

d) I believe that the ITV teaching experience is far inferior to the TelePresence experience.

e) I have not taught using ITV.

4. Do you agree with the following statements?

 

Strongly disagree

Disagree

Agree

Strongly agree

Not Applicable

The TelePresence room was easy to manage from a technical perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

The TelePresence room was easy to teach in.

 

 

 

 

 

The TelePresence room was effective to teach in.

 

 

 

 

 

The TelePresence room was stable.

 

 

 

 

 

My overall experience of teaching in the TelePresence room was positive.

 

 

 

 

 

5. What feedback do you have about the experience of teaching with TelePresence in general?

6. What is your gender?

  • Male
  • Female
  • Other. Please specify

7. What is your race and/or ethnicity?

  • White
  • Black or African American
  • Native American or American Indian
  • Hispanic or Latino
  • Asian / Pacific Islander
  • Other. Please specify

8. What is your age in years?

TelePresence Survey — Student

Thank you for choosing to participate in this study on the efficacy of teaching and learning with TelePresence. Your responses will remain entirely anonymous. We estimate this survey to take under five minutes to complete.

1. How connected or not connected do/did you feel to your instructor in the remote classroom when you are/were in a TelePresence classroom?

a) Not at all connected.

b) Somewhat disconnected.

c) Somewhat connected.

d) Very connected.

2. Did you feel that the students in the same room as the instructor had any advantage or disadvantage over the students in the remote room?

a) I felt that the students in the same room as the instructor had a strong advantage over the students in the remote room.

b) I felt that the students in the same room as the instructor had a slight advantage over the students in the remote room.

c) I felt that students at neither location had an advantage or disadvantage.

d) I felt that the students in the same room as the instructor had a slight disadvantage over the students in the remote room.

e) I felt that the students in the same room as the instructor had a strong disadvantage over the students in the remote room.

3. If you have taken a class in an ITV classroom, please compare the experience, overall, of an ITV classroom vs. a TelePresence classroom.

a) I believe that the ITV experience is far superior to the TelePresence experience.

b) I believe that the ITV experience is somewhat superior to the TelePresence experience.

c) I believe that the ITV experience is somewhat inferior to the TelePresence experience.

d) I believe that the ITV experience is far inferior to the TelePresence experience.

e) I have not taken a class using ITV.

4. Do you agree with the following statements?

 

Strongly disagree

Disagree

Agree

Strongly agree

Not Applicable

TelePresence enhanced my learning experience.

 

 

 

 

 

The TelePresence room was stable.

 

 

 

 

 

My overall experience of learning in the TelePresence room was positive.

 

 

 

 

 

5. What feedback do you have about the experience of learning with TelePresence in general?

6. What is your gender?

  • Male
  • Female
  • Other. Please specify

7. What is your race and/or ethnicity?

  • White
  • Black or African American
  • Native American or American Indian
  • Hispanic or Latino
  • Asian / Pacific Islander
  • Other. Please specify

8. What is your age in years?

9. What is your major?

10. What course or courses did you take in the TelePresence room?

Notes

  1. Jorge Larreamendy-Joerns and Gaea Leinhardt, "Going the Distance with Online Education," Review of Educational Research, Vol. 76, No. 4 (2006): 567–605.
  2. Sergio C. Brofferio, Uberto Lauro Grotto, and Luca Maderna, "TelePresence Teaching Visual Equipment," Signal Processing: Image Communication, Vol. 16, No. 3 (2000): 307–320.
  3. Guoqiang Cui, Barbara Lockee, and Cuiqing Meng, "Building Modern Online Social Presence: A Review of Social Presence Theory and Its Instructional Design Implications for Future Trends," Education and Information Technologies, Vol. 18, No. 4 (2013): 661–685.

© 2015 Carrie L. Lewis, Qijie Cai, Michael Manderfeld, and Jude A. Higdon. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.