There is a new way to be virtually active in the classroom, and it’s via a robot named Kubi, an innovation of the Office of Information and Technology at the University of Colorado Boulder, which helps students take classes on campus while they are abroad or otherwise physically unable to attend.
Kubi itself is a robotic neck, often attached to a tripod, that holds an iPad through which a student can be video-conferenced into a classroom. With Kubi’s help, the remote student can control the iPad’s direction and focus.
Mona Attwa, an Arabic language instructor at CU Boulder, has used Kubis to help teach students who were studying abroad or had limited mobility. She says the Kubi is most effective when used with Zoom, a videoconferencing service. By using both tools, the student can utilize the audio, video and split-screen services of Zoom while benefitting from the mobility of Kubi.
Attwa finds that a multi-platform approach to the Kubi experience worked best for her and her students. By creating a shared Google Doc where a student studying abroad could submit assignments despite being in a drastically different time zone, Attwa could stay equally on top of students’ work, despite a lack of availability for office hours and face-to-face interactions.
Attwa endorses Kubi to teach students who cannot be physically present, but acknowledges that, especially in a foreign-language classroom, it’s better to learn face to face.
Especially when studying abroad, Attwa notes, “mentally, you need a student who is totally focused,” due to external pressures that might arise from studying in a foreign country. Time-zone differences and the fickleness of technology, for example, could easily diminish an interpersonal relationship between student and instructor.
Attwa mentions that Kubi is most effectively used for students studying abroad who want to keep up with semester-specific courses that may not be available when they return. As of now, Attwa has taught with Kubis for three semesters, sometimes even having two Kubis to one classroom.
“If there were ever issues, it was usually on my end, internet-wise; otherwise it worked pretty well.”
Two of Attwa’s current students, Lauren Hartshorn and Ashly Villa, have used Kubi in previous classes with her. Both were planning to study abroad, but needed to keep up with their Arabic classes so as not to fall behind.
Hartshorn, who studied in France, recalls that every night at 6, “I would sit down and take my 50-minute class over Kubi.” She adds, “If there were ever issues, it was usually on my end, internet-wise; otherwise it worked pretty well.”
Hartshorn acknowledges that it might be more convenient to take a class in person, “but a lot of the time that’s not an option” and describes Kubi as “really nice and easy to use.”
Hartshorn is confident that learning via Kubi did not affect her performance in the class, but did add that “it does require a bit of give from the teacher,” and is thus “deeply appreciative” of Attwa’s willingness to cope with time zones and technological snafus.
Villa, another of Attwa’s students, studied in Chile and echoed Hartshorn, but emphasized the shortcomings that accompany virtually learning a foreign language.
Though she calls Kubi “very convenient,” she also adds that it was sometimes difficult to engage with students in a class-wide discussion. Side conversations were just as clear to her as her instructor’s voice, meaning she “really had to focus” on what Attwa said.
Villa, like Hartshorn, says she did the same amount of work she would anticipate doing in an in-person class, but calls scheduling Skype sessions with an instructor in place of office hours “difficult.” Because of this, she advises that students considering Kubi “should feel confident” to handle the coursework on their own in case obstacles prevent a close student-teacher relationship.
Attwa, Hartshorn and Villa praise Kubi’s convenience and ease while acknowledging the drawbacks of learning a language without face-to-face interaction.
There are ways to compensate for this, such as when Villa sought out conversations with Arabic-speakers in Chile. She encourages those considering a similar Kubi experience to immerse themselves in the language as much as possible “with what you have around you.”