iCampus Experiments with Technology and Higher Learning

Cambridge, Mass., Dec. 1, 2006 — When Microsoft and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) wrap up their “Learning Without Barriers/Technology Without Borders” symposium Saturday night, it will mark the culmination of a seven-year exploration into technology and education that began as an idea kindled when Bill Gates shared a ride to the airport with then MIT president Charles Vest.



Partially funded by iCampus, MIT’s team of soccer-playing robots took second place in last year’s “Robo Cup” in Atlanta, Ga.

In discussions between the two, it was decided that one of the world’s most creative private-sector research groups should team up with one of the world’s most prestigious engineering schools to see what could happen to the education process when an infusion of technology and investment came into the hands of students, teachers and researchers.

From that conversation a formal alliance was born to investigate the effects of technology on education — The MIT-Microsoft iCampus Research Alliance for Educational Technology. Since its inception, Microsoft Research has invested US$25 million into the program. More than 400 faculty, students and researchers have taken part in iCampus projects, and more than 5,000 students have participated in classes enhanced by iCampus content. Additionally, more than 70 academic papers were published based on iCampus research.

While this weekend’s event marks the culmination of the formal MIT-Microsoft iCampus alliance, the results of the program are expected to have long-lasting and far-reaching effects for the future of technology and education, laying a foundation for ongoing programs at MIT, as well as similar efforts at leading institutions around the world.

“This is the largest investment we’ve made into this type of program at an academic institution,” says Sailesh Chutani, director of Microsoft’s External Research & Programs Group (ER&P), which spearheaded the alliance. “The iCampus experience has given us very interesting insights into what works and doesn’t work with regard to technology in academia. We expect to see a lot of activity as other institutions examine the results of this work and begin building on it.”

New Ideas for Technology-Enhanced Education Programs

Programs sponsored by iCampus range from classroom exercises powered by Tablet PCs, to remotely accessible laboratories that give students access 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to archived classroom materials, soccer-playing robots, annotated multimedia Shakespeare courses, GPS-tracked shuttle systems and a host of other applications that have enhanced the academic lives of students and teachers alike.

“Innovation happens all the time at universities,” says Paul Oka, ER&P program manager and co-chair of the iCampus Alliance. “What’s exciting about working with students is that they believe anything is possible. The student population and the culture at research universities inspire a lot of outside-the-box thinking. It’s exciting to work in this environment, because this is where you can get new breakthroughs and the opportunity to move in a different direction quickly.”

One such breakthrough, and a successful iCampus project, has been the Classroom Learning Partner (CLP) project. The system enables instructors in large classrooms to annotate their PowerPoint slides simultaneously on-screen and on Tablet PCs passed out to students prior to class.

When slides containing an exercise are presented, students work through them anonymously and submit their work wirelessly. This increases productivity and enables immediate feedback and discussion about classroom problems. The system developed through the CLP will be disseminated by MIT and Microsoft Research to classroom presenters worldwide, and made available to others via the Web.

“The interesting pedagogy shift behind this program is that the instructor can bring up examples of students’ answers, anonymously, and discuss with the class how that particular answer came to be,” Oka says. “This helps everybody in the class to understand the thinking behind it. And the instructor doesn’t have to prepackage a discussion about the right answer, because actually wrong answers or just slightly wrong answers are the most interesting ones to have those discussions about — the instruction is enriched by the creativity and thinking of the students during the class.”

In addition to enriching class content and allowing for immediate feedback from students, the instructor leading the project, Dr. Kimberle Koile, finds the system to be a tremendous new efficiency for classroom presenters. Koile teaches an introductory computer science course that requires complicated diagrams to explain key concepts. The Tablet PCs allow her to incorporate those diagrams into PowerPoint and share them with students, whereas she formerly had to sketch out the diagrams on the chalkboard.

“I’ve always been a big chalkboard person,” says Koile. “In the past I spent a lot of time diagramming on chalkboards and overhead projectors, and calling students up individually to get their answers. This system makes that process much more efficient, and it also allows all students in the class to participate in a way that doesn’t put them on the spot.”

Other enhancements to the classroom that iCampus has facilitated include automated transcription of lectures, and using SharePoint-based collaboration tools to facilitate iterative processes and feedback loops.

“We’ve seen all kinds of different approaches,” says Oka. “One of the projects was around the process for designing a robot, and facilitating collaboration among the student teams. They used a peer review evaluation process integrated with SharePoint to collaborate on design documents and improve the overall design. So we’ve seen technology transforming not only the classroom, but the entire learning environment in a variety of ways.”

Some other highlights include the following:

  • International Genetically Engineered Machine Competitions (IGEM). IGEM is new international competition where student teams build cellular state machines and counters, which has yielded such innovative designs as a photographic “biofilm” capable of capturing an image.

  • Remote Online Laboratories (iLab). The iLab vision is to share expensive equipment and educational materials associated with lab experiments as broadly as possible within higher education and beyond, thus profoundly changing the economics of engineering education. To date, iLab has been used by more than 4,500 students, including students in China, Australia, Sweden and sub-Saharan Africa.

  • MIT Online Assessment Tool (iMoat). The iMoat project worked in collaboration with other colleges and universities to create a Web service, based on Microsoft .NET technology, to organize the administration and evaluation of online essay examinations, such as those used to place students upon entry to college.

  • Natural Interaction. This project enabled a novel form of interaction with software, making it possible to describe things to a computer by sketching, gesturing, and talking about them in a way that feels completely natural.

  • Cross Media Annotation System (XMAS). Developed in conjunction with MIT’s Shakespeare Electronic Archive project, the XMAS program provides tools to enhance the use of video and image collections in humanities courses and in any subject in which precise reference to visual materials is needed.

Robotics a Key iCampus Investment

At MIT of course, robotics and artificial intelligence are hot topics among many students. One iCampus project that combines both is the Robotic Futbol Club — a team of soccer-playing robots that competes nationally and internationally in the annual “Robo Cup.”

“We compete against other schools such as Carnegie Mellon, which has a very strong team, as well as teams fielded by schools in Portugal, Germany, China, Thailand and other countries around the world,” says junior mechanical engineering student and Futbol Club president Kristina Halle. “We play by FIBA rules, with yellow cards and red cards, so the artificial intelligence has to be fairly sophisticated. It’s competitive, and the matches are very fun to watch.”

Playing five to a side, MIT’s team competes in the small size class with a group of cylindrical, wheeled robots 18 centimeters across by 15 centimeters high. The team is organized through an artificial intelligence system that monitors the game via an overhead camera and communicates wirelessly with the robots to coordinate their play.

Through the iCampus program, MIT has been able to lay the foundation for a team that should survive long after the current team members have graduated, according to Halle.

“It costs a lot of money to build robots, and iCampus has been a huge sponsor for us,” she says. “Their sponsorship last year is largely what made this possible, and we’ve also been using the new Microsoft Robotics Studio to aid in the design and simulation of our team and the AI.”

Another group at MIT that has begun to dabble with the Microsoft Robotics Studio in its work through an iCampus grant is the team behind the “Huggable” robotic companion prototype.

Designed with sensitive robotic “skin,” and the ability to communicate via an embedded PC “brain,” cameras, microphones, speakers and an array of emotive gestures, the Huggable is a teddy bear robot designed for use in nursing homes, children’s hospitals and other areas as both an animal companion, as well as a way for staff to keep in touch with the well-being of patients.

“With an onboard PC and wireless connectivity, the Huggable is able to communicate with staff in real-time,” says co-inventor and second-year Ph.D. candidate Dan Stiehl. “In a children’s hospital setting for example, if the Huggable is being held very tightly and rocked back and forth late at night, it can alert the staff.”



The Huggable robotic companion is designed for use in patient care facilities, and the prototype is expected to be replicated next year for clinical trials in Scotland.

The team has developed a prototype of the Huggable robot, and has already garnered interest from institutions around the world. A contractor has been identified in Scotland, and Stiehl expects work to begin soon on fabricating 15–20 of the robots so clinical trials can be conducted. According to Stiehl, iCampus has been instrumental in getting the project off the ground.

“iCampus has allowed us to develop a prototype, and that’s been crucially important because it’s allowed us to evaluate the design, redesign things, and get it to the point that by the end of the grant we will have something that can then get replicated in Scotland, so we’ll have enough to do these trials,” he says. “iCampus has allowed us to do all the development, create the robot, and get us to the point where we’re transitioning from this early phase in the lab, to getting out and doing the first real trials.”

The iCampus Legacy

According to Oka, these stories are the real testament to the success of Microsoft’s investment in programs such as iCampus. Through partnerships with universities worldwide, ER&P seeks to continually advance the field of computer science by helping to identify and ultimately support new directions and challenges in higher education. Much of the work incubated at MIT will continue to live on.

“Many of the projects are now directly supported by MIT departments and becoming self-sustainable,” he says. “With the iLab project, MIT is investigating building a consortium with other institutions for the continued open sharing of remote laboratories among higher educational institutions. The iGEM and Classroom Learning Partner projects have submitted new proposals to ER&P for additional support outside of iCampus. The Huggable project has generated a great deal of outside interest. The Futbol Club has landed additional sponsors. Microsoft has provided the seed to help the students and teachers bring these visions to reality.”

To continue to have impact on pedagogical research, iCampus has allocated resources to share and maintain the educational assets developed from the alliance over the next several years.

“In the innovation ecosystem, universities will always play a very big role, by giving people freedom to explore new ideas. For our part, we are committed to providing universities with resources to explore, and to sharing that knowledge so that other institutions can do the same.”

About This Week’s Symposium

Learning Without Barriers / Technology Without Borders” is a two-day symposium hosted by MIT and Microsoft Research that will bring together national leaders from industry, academia and government to focus on how technology is transforming the educational experience and technological advancements that can help address challenges affecting higher education.

On Friday, Dec. 1, speakers and moderated discussions will focus on the role of technical education on a national level and how education and innovation are key drivers in the economy. The morning panel will address the roles of industry, academia, and government in addressing competitiveness through education and technology.

The program on Saturday, Dec. 2, takes up the role of technology in education. Dan Atkins, the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) director of the Office of Cyberinfrastructure, will outline the need of the nation’s information infrastructure and the NSF’s agenda for addressing these needs. Moderated discussions that day will also include leaders from academia, industry and government. Demonstration of iCampus projects will occur throughout the day.

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