M State is boldly going where no college has gone before as it welcomes “vBods” to its student services team this fall. With the arrival of the vBods on its campuses in June, M State became the first college in the nation to enlist “remote presence devices” to connect with its students.
College staff began training in June on the four devices, and staff members are putting the technology to work with upcoming registration events and the start of fall semester on Aug. 26. There’s a vBod stationed on each of M State’s campuses in Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls, Moorhead and Wadena.
Dr. Peter Wielinski, chief student services officer at M State, said the college invested in the new technology primarily as a way to help meet the needs of students. With four campus locations and its online eCampus, Wielinski said, the college often faces the challenge of scheduling assistance for students at times of high demand, such as the start of a new semester.
“With a distance of 50 to 100 miles between our four campuses, the use of our vBods ensures that the most appropriate person can provide face-to-face support services anywhere on campus without delay,” Wielinski said.
With a vBod on each campus, a financial aid or admissions officer on one campus can assist students on any of the other campuses, without any mileage expenditure or lost time for travel. A student in Wadena, for instance, will be able to talk face-to-face with a student services staff member in Moorhead and be walked through the financial aid application process as if they were in the same room together.
“M State is excited to be a leader in innovation and incorporating technology into our ongoing efforts to enhance our services to students,” said M State President Peggy Kennedy.
The manufacturer of the devices, Suitable Technologies, describes them as “video conferencing that you can drive.” The five-foot-tall devices, which are mobile and topped with a large video screen, can travel at up to 3 miles an hour and can “walk” alongside a person or be driven remotely from one location to another.
“We want to be proactively involved in going to students,” Wielinski said, adding that he believes students will enjoy interacting with the cutting-edge technology since most are already comfortable with electronic devices.
Wielinski said that M State’s initial plans are to use vBods to enhance student services in the areas of financial aid, academic advising, counseling and information queries, and the college may soon be taking students and their parents on campus tours via vBod technology.
“This innovative technology allows M State to offer “no-stop” services to students in the commons and hallways, in addition to our existing one-stop service centers,” Wielinski said. He added that their experience with vBods also will give M State students an advantage as they move into a workforce where they will be expected to work with robots and other mobile technology.
M State purchased two of its vBod units (called “Beam” units by the manufacturer) at a cost of $16,000 each, and Suitable Technologies loaned two more to the college for a three-month trial period.
Wielinski said M State has estimated that the use of vBods could save the college up to $45,000 annually in travel costs for student services staff. They could also cut down on travel time and costs for administrators and others who will be able to use the technology to avoid driving for meetings and allow the college to invite guest lecturers and experts to interact with students – without any travel time or expense.
The vBods and similar devices, commonly called telepresence robots, have been used primarily by private corporations to allow employees to telecommute from home or to reduce travel costs for global operations, Wielinski said.
Fans of the television comedy “The Big Bang Theory” will no doubt recognize the vBods’ similarity with the Mobile Virtual Presence Device invented by Sheldon in the Season 4 episode “The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification.”
The nearly two million visitors to the Minnesota State Fair will have a chance to meet a vBod in person this fall since the college is arranging to have a unit available in the fair booth sponsored by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, giving M State a virtual presence at the end-of-summer extravaganza.