With New MOOC, Egerstedt Puts Robots in Students' Hands

Atlanta, GA

Last year, Professor Magnus Egerstedt taught thousands of people how to make robots move.

In his online class, “Control of Mobile Robots,” Egerstedt demonstrated the basics of control theory with a collection of robotic sidekicks that shimmied, scurried and skittered at his will. With students from around the world watching videos and taking exams, the course was embraced as a success.

How to top that? Easy: Do it all over again and put students in charge of robot-building.  

That’s what Egerstedt, the Schlumberger professor at the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, did for the second version of his massive open online course (MOOC), offered in spring through Coursera. Using low-cost, open-source hardware, Egerstedt and a cadre of his graduate students gave MOOC participants the chance to bring their own robots to life.

“In my mind, it’s a game changer,” Egerstedt said. “This hasn’t been attempted before, and it’s been really exciting.” Egerstedt’s MOOCs are open to anyone with Internet access, not just Georgia Tech students, and that made the new gamble even bigger. Although the first run of his class drew praise, Egerstedt was eager to throw hardware into the mix to help bridge “the practice-theory gap.”

After all, it’s one thing to watch a professor direct robots in a video; it’s quite another to do it yourself on a robot assembled with your own hands.

When some of his graduate students developed a robot for cheap, Egerstedt decided to follow through with the idea.

He partnered with SparkFun Electronics, Texas Instruments and MathWorks to bring low-cost parts to students, who were eventually able to build a machine named the QuickBot for about $140 to $220 each (depending on how advanced their robots were).

The excitement surrounding the QuickBot took Egerstedt by surprise. It wasn’t long before MOOC enrollees were sharing photos of QuickBots they’d tricked out to look like teddy bears and spaceships.

“It’s incredibly satisfying to see pictures of their different robots,” he said.

Ph.D. student Rowland O’Flaherty (one of the QuickBot’s creators) led the MOOC’s lectures on hardware, and he was surprised by students’ outburst of enthusiasm.  

“It’s kind of taking on a life of its own,” O’Flaherty said.

To encourage discussion, O’Flaherty built a website “for the conversation to carry on after the course.” Called O’Botics, the site can be edited by anyone and includes the code for the QuickBot. Visitor can add their own robots to the page, as well.

The course’s new material introduced some challenges. O’Flaherty pointed out that building a robot alone is very different from building one as a blueprint for students, many of whom had little or no previous experience with robotics. One small mistake could lead hundreds of students astray.

In Egerstedt’s first MOOC, students flooded the course forums to offer help with math and problem-solving. This time, they also supported each other in robot building, while O’Flaherty and fellow graduate students Jean-Pierre de la Croix and Smriti Chopra checked in regularly to give advice and answer questions.

In all, Egerstedt said, well over a thousand MOOC students built robots, and he’s excited to see what they do next.

“I think,” he said, “that this is going to live on beyond the course.”

Last revised August 1, 2017