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Bridging the Divide: Using Robots to Enhance Interaction in Synchronous Hybrid Courses

Amy Peterson (Michigan State University, USA)
John Bell (Michigan State University, USA)
Additional Authors
William Cain (Michigan State University, USA)
Cui Cheng (Michigan State University, USA)
Sandra Sawaya (Michigan State University, USA)
Session Information
October 14, 2015 - 2:45pm
Technology and Emerging Learning Environments
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Research Study
Institutional Level: 
Universities and Four Year Institutions
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Oceanic 4
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 3

This study examines learners' differentiated perceptions of interaction, social presence, and transactional distance in synchronous hybrid courses using robot and web conferencing technologies.

Extended Abstract

Synchronous hybrid learning class sessions reflect a number of trends in higher education. These include cheap and rapidly advancing technologies for synchronous online interaction; shifting economic conditions that make online forms of learning more attractive; and emerging student priorities that emphasize flexibility in scheduling and location (Henriksen, Mishra, Greenhow, Cain, & Roseth, 2014; Lefoe & Hedberg, 2006). A growing number of instructors and students at higher education institutions worldwide have experienced these trends first hand (Bower, Delgarno, Kennedy, Lee, Kenney, 2015). In response, different groups of instructors, students, and researchers have worked to provide support and promote inquiry into the nature and pragmatics of synchronous hybrid learning environments.

This presentation reports the results of a study that examined learners differentiated perceptions of interaction in synchronous hybrid courses that employed both video teleconferencing and robot-mediated interactions. Video teleconferencing enabled online students to see the face-to-face students and instructor, and also to appear on a large display in the face-to-face classroom. For robot-mediated interactions, each online student had his/her own device integrated into the classroom space, being able to turn the robot to look around the room as well as to speak and hear.

We used two perspectives, transactional distance and social presence, to identify factors that influenced interactions between face-to-face and online participants.

The first perspective, transactional distance, focuses on the psychological and communication space of potential misunderstanding between learners and instructors, technology and other learners (Moore, 1993; Chen, 2001). Synchronous hybrid learning environments further extend learning interactions from a single plane (in either the online or face-to-face environment) to two planes (across the online and face-to-face environments), which presents transactional distance with new challenges. These studies explore the transactional distance of online and face-to-face students in different models of synchronous hybrid learning environments, aiming to examine: (a) whether there is any difference in transactional distance between online and face-to-face students, (b) how students' transactional distance changes over time, and (c) whether there is a relationship between the model of synchronous hybrid learning environments and students' transactional distance.

The second perspective, social presence, focuses on a learner's feeling of connection to others in a computer-mediated learning environment. This construct has been an important topic of study in online courses, with researchers finding that students with higher social presence were more involved in class discussions (Cobb, 2009) and more motivated (Yang, Tsai, Kim, Cho & Laffey, 2006). Our studies are among the first to examine social presence in synchronous hybrid learning. We explored (a) whether perceptions of connectedness are different for face-to-face and online students, and (b) what factors influence interaction and social presence in synchronous hybrid classes.

The study was conducted in three graduate education courses at a large Midwestern university. Students (n=34) participated in the course via the two modalities: face-to-face (n=24), online (n=6), and both modalities (n=2). The participants completed a 28-item survey that included transactional distance and social presence items, and participated in semi-structured interviews, which were recorded as videos.

The students' responses in the surveys and interviews suggested three underlying factors that may have influenced interaction: the use of robots, instructor's facilitation of the modalities, and the use of small groups.

Partway through the term, some of the classes began using Kubis (tabletop robots that allows the user to control his/her view) and Doubles (driveable robots controlled by the user). This use of these technologies gave the online students more control over their view and participation. Some students perceived a different reaction from other students and the instructor when they used the robots. The use of special technologies such as the Kubi and Double seemed to contribute to a shorter transactional distance between the online and face-to-face students.

The instructor's interaction was another factor that influenced interaction and helped online students feel included. The instructor approach can play a role in shortening the transactional distance between the online students and face-to-face individuals. Based on the the interview data, instructor interaction contributed to the overall interaction in the course.

Another factor that may have influenced interaction was the size of the group. In some of the classes, students participated as part of small groups of 3 to 5 students. One face-to-face student noted "when we were in smaller groups, we felt more comfortable talking with online students because there was one online student in each group." Small groups seemed to contribute to a shorter transactional distance between the online and face-to-face students.

This study is the first to explore both transactional distance and social presence in synchronous hybrid learning. The results indicate that the use of robots, instructor's facilitation of the modalities, and the use of small groups all may be important factors that influence interaction and social presence. Further research is being conducted to more deeply explore these factors as they relate to synchronous hybrid environments.

Bower, M., Dalgarno, B., Kennedy, G., Lee, M., Kenney, J. (2015). Design and implementation factors in blended synchronous learning environments: Outcomes from a cross-case analysis. Computers & Education, 86, 1-17.

Chen, Y. J. (2001). Dimensions of transactional distance in the world wide web learning environment: a factor analysis. British Journal of Educational Technology, 32, 459-470.

Cobb, S. (2009). Social presence and online learning: a current view from a research perspective. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 8, 241-254.

Henriksen, D., Mishra, P., Greenhow, C., Cain, W., & Roseth, C. (2014). A tale of two courses: Innovation in the Hybrid/Online Doctoral Program at Michigan State University. TechTrends, 58(4), 45-53.

Lefoe, G & Hedberg, J. (2006). Blending on and off campus: A tale of two cities. In C. Bonk & C. Graham (Eds.), Handbook of Blended Learning Environments: Global Perspectives, Local Designs, (pp. 325-337). Pfeiffer, San Francisco, CA.

Moore, M.G. (1993). Theory of transactional distance. In D. Keegan (Ed.) Theoretical principles of distance education. New York: Routledge.

Yang, C.-C., Tsai, I., Kim, B., Cho, M.-H., Laffey, J. M., & others. (2006). Exploring the relationships between students' academic motivation and social ability in online learning environments. The Internet and Higher Education, 9, 277-286.