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Telepresence Robots in the UW at Casper Counseling Classroom

Faculty member R. Paul Maddox uses one of the two Ohmni robots in the classroom


            When you think of robots in the classroom, what comes to mind? Does a four-foot-high, controllable robot with a wide-angle camera screen with an ultra responsive tilting neck pop into view? Because it should! The University of Wyoming at Casper students in the counseling education program now have the opportunity to use two Ohmni Labs Telepresence Robots for learning.

            Faculty members of UW at Casper, Amanda DeDiego, PhD, NCC and R. Paul Maddox, were awarded $5,000 from the John P. Ellbogen Foundation for the Ellbogen Dean’s Excellence Fund Research Seed Grants in the College of Education to buy the newest technology in classroom advancement. The purpose of this grant is to provide new and established faculty access to grant funding for research projects that can lead to subsequent grants and research. With the grant, they were able to welcome two Ohmni Lab Telepresence Robots into their program.

“We’re at the leading edge of equipping students to use technology for counseling for the now and the future,” Paul explains as he maneuvers the robot from his laptop out of its charging station and around his desk with ease.

Courtesy of UW at Casper

            The two Ohmni robots are being used primarily for teaching students play therapy and basic counseling skills to experience the role-playing that is essential for students in counseling. In the time of COVID-19, when close proximity is not an option, the robot allows the students to practice play therapy or basic counseling as if they were there with the client. For example, witnessing non-verbal cues is a large part of play therapy and by using the robot, masks don’t inhibit building the skills they need to be successful—as only one person is actually in the room no masks are required. It’s a good solution for therapy with kids, who have not been bothered by the fact that a robot is in the room with them.

“Robots in the classroom will become common place as time and advancements are made,” Amanda says through the robot she’s controlling in her office. “We are proud to give our students this experience now, and that we are on the cutting edge of what’s happening with technology in counseling.” The goal is not to replace face-to-face counseling, but to use it as a stop gap measure and help students practice their skills during the time of mask restrictions as if they were in-person. Using the robot is as close as they can get to being in the room without masks or social distancing. The robots also allow students who are at home to participate in activities with classmates as if they were in the classroom. “It feels like a nice way to include students who can’t come to class in person this semester,” says Amanda, reflecting on use of the robots in her Pre-Practicum course this fall. “It is great to offer students at home another option to be part of the class other than Zoom; it is easy for the students on Zoom who feel they are not as connected in class.”

Ohmni robot allows students to engage with classmates virtually

            “The students had mixed reactions. Some were on board right away and some weren’t so sure,” Paul noted. “But they all got used to it quickly, are excited to use them, and we have no complaints.”

The robot’s software is HIPAA and FERPA encrypted. No specific program needs to be downloaded by the user. The administrator can simply generate a link from their side and send it to the recipient who only needs Wi-Fi to use the program to control the robot. The administrator can set controls such of length of time the link is active and enable or disable certain functions.

“They are useful tools,” Paul continues, “Not toys. They help us to be able to reach people and work with students in a way that wasn’t possible before. There are many utilities for these tools.”

Amanda and Paul presented remotely at the National Association for Creativity in Counseling’s annual conference. Their topic? Facilitating experiential learning opportunities virtually through mobile robotic telepresence. They demonstrated the use of the robots in a classroom as part of the presentation, talking about robots while using robots. They also presented about the telepresence robots at the Wyoming Counseling Association state conference in 2020.

Faculty members of UW at Casper, Amanda DeDiego, PhD, NCC and R. Paul Maddox hold Ohmni Lab Robots

The telepresence robots have many uses that extend past classrooms to occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, nursing, and counseling. The robots have also proved useful on the occasion students aren’t able to be in-person for classes, for meetings between faculty members and students or colleagues, guest speakers, and doctoral students from Laramie can sit in on classes and even co-teach. The robots, unlike Zoom, offer a better telepresence because the robots can be controlled by the user—they can move themselves, be at eye level when people are seated around a table, move the screen on their own to look at different areas of the room, and see body language in more detail than a 2-D computer camera experience.

Congratulations to the UW at Casper’s Counseling department for offering their students the best technology has to offer!

Are you interested in taking the next step in your career? Earn your bachelor’s degree in Casper! For information on the online and classroom degrees offered, call 307-268-2713 or visit the website. The University of Wyoming at Casper is Your Local University!


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