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Robot-enabled learning putting SCC into the future
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Robot-enabled learning putting SCC into the future

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In the near future, humanoid learners at Southeast Community College will have a suite of cyber-enabled tools at their disposal.

Students will digitally transmit their presence across a 15-county service area, appearing in classrooms they will only experience from the glow of a computer screen.

Others will upload themselves into a touchscreen interface mounted to a self-balancing chassis on wheels, navigating SCC's Lincoln campus as a robotic avatar, driven by a personal device.

The robots will roll down long hallways, destined for lectures important to the study of human civilization — College Algebra and the History of Rock — while negating the need for backpacks full of textbooks and notepads.

At SCC, the near future is now, because just as William Gibson, the American-Canadian science fiction writer, said: "The future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed."

SCC is now in its second quarter testing the feasibility of giving students from far-flung places within its 15-county service area access to the robots at its 8800 O Street campus in Lincoln.

Christopher Cummins, the college's director of instructional technology, said the idea to use robots originated at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where Double Robotics was conducting a demo.

"That sort of got our gears rolling," Cummins said.

For years, SCC invested in distance-learning technology that allowed students on one campus to plug into a course offered on another. Those opportunities expanded with the advent of the college's learning centers, now operating in six communities across the service area.

As the capabilities of technology grew to address the education needs of SCC, the college saw a way it could better serve the needs of learners, Cummins explained.

"Students who need to interact, or participate in group activities, they are going to the learning center and using the teleconferencing equipment, but sometimes that can be the incorrect tool for what the instructor is trying to accomplish," he said.

Robots give students the chance to interact in class as if they were there, sitting in the front row, joining small group activities, or lingering behind to ask a follow-up question, even if they were physically present elsewhere.

SCC purchased its first robot for use in the health sciences department before applying for and receiving a Rural Utilities Service grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the tune of $120,582.

The grant allowed SCC to purchase five more robots. Four are in a docking hub just inside the media center at the Lincoln campus, while one each is available for checkout at the Beatrice and Milford locations.

Audra Podliska, a resource development specialist at SCC who helped write the grant, said the robots are intended to help students living in rural areas connect with college offerings they otherwise wouldn't be able to.

They run through computer, cellphone app or tablet, operating similar to Fortnite, Minecraft and other video games.

"This is the closest thing to being in a classroom without being in a classroom," Podliska said.

Joy Schultz said she never got a chance to finish her college education, dropping out twice when she was "a young punk teenager" before life took over, requiring her to care for her parents and a grandmother and raising her children.

Now with three of her kids attending school and the fourth going to day care part-time, Schultz, 36, reenrolled at SCC last summer in pursuit of a business administration degree. The college offered her use of the robots during the fall quarter in October.

Initially hesitant, Schultz has become a regular user of the technology, piloting the robots to four classes from a touchscreen at SCC's learning center just minutes away from where she lives.

"Being in Wahoo and a nontraditional student, I don't have to drive into Lincoln, which saves me time and money," Schultz said, translating into borrowing less in student loans to pay for her education.

Using the robots has also created a sense of routine she said has helped her stay disciplined. Schultz drives the robot the same route to class and parks in the same spot each time.

To date, she hasn't missed a class, taking pen-and-paper notes from Wahoo the same as she would if attending in person, all the while participating in group work or giving presentations.

"The teachers have been exceptional in that they include you in everything," she said.

Although the robots are something of a novelty — Cummins said traditional students will give "virtual high-fives and fist bumps" to robots they see rolling down the hallway — SCC is aiming to expand their use.

The college hopes to train faculty on using the robots, he said, allowing instructors or staff to still attend meetings on other campuses if they can't be there in person, while also expanding the use to interested students.

Podliska said once use of the current fleet of robots is maxed out, SCC may try for another round of funding to purchase more.

Schultz said the new technology has aided her in navigating a way to pursue her dream of becoming an accountant.

Others, particularly nontraditional students like her, should use the cyber tools available to them to go after their goals, she said.

"Anyone who is interested in staying in their hometown but still attending college should give them a try," she said. "It's really not as scary as it seems."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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