While events were put on hold during peaks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Reesa Rotman wanted to take advantage of this quiet time in her life to focus on returning to school.
She started her first semester in Weatherhead School of Management’s Master of Science in Positive Organization Development and Change (MPOD) program in January of 2021. The program is a 17-month, hybrid program, offering online and on-site learning.
“I liked that the program was hybrid, so I wouldn’t have to travel all the time,” said Rotman, who lives on the West Coast. “And Weatherhead has a very good reputation in organization development.”
Because of pandemic restrictions, Rotman’s cohort wasn’t able to meet in person until their last scheduled residency this spring. Unfortunately, this coincided with her being seven months into a difficult pregnancy.
“There was no way I would be able to make it on my own to campus without help,” she said. “I thought they would Zoom me in like we did with our other courses.”
Instead, Rotman showed up to her cohort’s first in-person class, gliding around the room to talk with her peers and professor as a telepresence robot.
The robot looks equivalent to an iPad sitting on top of a long pole attached to wheels. The iPad screen shows the person’s face who is using the robot. The person can easily move the robot from left to right, or forward, by clicking on directional arrows on their screen. To Rotman, the experience was as close to being in person as she could imagine.
“With the robot I could go chat with someone individually in the room and when we had group work I would sit there and huddle with the group in this robot body,” she said. “I felt like I had a presence in the classroom.”
Beyond class, Rotman attended a cocktail reception this spring with her cohort as a robot. “I could look around and drive the robot over to whoever wanted to chat. It opened up a host of different possibilities way beyond what Zoom could offer,” said Rotman, who graduated this spring with her master’s degree.
The conversation to use robots came about during the winter of 2021 when Permco Inc., a hydraulic pump manufacturer in Streetsboro, Ohio, wanted to send a few of its employees to receive their Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree from Weatherhead School. Because of the pandemic safety measures Permco was taking, the student employees were not allowed to come to class in person.
“After some wonderful conversations with the creative minds at Case Western Reserve, we were able to come up with a way that would make it possible for students to attend class without losing that in-class feel,” said Bryce Dalton, director of talent development at Permco, and one of the part-time MBA students who uses a robot to attend class. “This is what led to the beginning of this game changing pilot program. These robots are amazing.”
In the fall of 2021, Permco supplied Weatherhead School with 12 telepresence robots––
at no cost to the school––
which have been used by Permco employees, as well as other students and faculty members who were in need of a robot.
The use of a robot provided part-time MBA student, Valentina Morales Huerta, the opportunity to continue to grow as a professional, while having peace of mind that she wouldn’t get her newborn and toddler daughters sick by attending a class in person.
“The flexibility I got from Weatherhead to be a mom and be able to grow as a professional is really life changing,” said Morales Huerta.
For Professor of Organizational Behavior Harlow Cohen, the robot allowed him to be at the same cocktail reception that Rotman attended as a robot.
“Because I’m immunocompromised I was unable to participate in person, so I attended with the robot,” he said. “It was so simple to click on a link and be dropped into a robot to interact with the students while they had appetizers and drinks. I was even able to make a speech at the event.”
The ease of using the robots makes these a viable option for students who can’t get to class, Cohen said.
Other professors who have taught courses with a student robot, share similar sentiments.
Professor of Organizational Behavior Chris Laszlo, had three student robots in his Managing People and Organizations course and one student robot in his Flourishing Enterprise course for the spring 2022 semester.
The use of the robots are, “very similar to having a student in the front row,” he said. “They’re at the same height as a student who would be sitting at a desk and the screen is filled with their face.”
If a student using a robot wants to ask a question in class they can do so by raising the height of the stick of the robot, similar to if a student was raising their hand.
“It’s pretty realistic,” said Department Chair and Professor of Accountancy Tom King. “What is really cool is when class ends and students disperse into groups a robot rolls right up to a group and joins the conversation.”
King, who had a couple of student robots in the fall 2021 semester for his Financial and Managerial Accountancy course, said the partnership with Permco provided a solution for hybrid learning.
“We have to figure out hybrid learning and the use of robots is very helpful in this journey,” he said. “This is a school that’s based on innovation and we try new things.”