How Stanford is incorporating touch for online learning

A new MOOC on haptics, the science of touch, brings a hands-on element to the world of online learning thanks to a device called the Hapkit.

hapkit-stanford-touchPerhaps the largest criticism leveled at online learning is that it can be difficult for students to shake hands with, talk to, and form relationships with their peers or instructors in the way that on-campus students can. It’s also difficult for online students to participate in hands-on experiments or exercises considered critical for skill-building.

In defiance of these drawbacks to online learning, Stanford University Professor Allison Okamura has created a new MOOC that teaches students about haptics, or the science of touch, and gives them hands-on experience in the field by showing how to build a programmable device as a platform for haptics experiments: the Hapkit.

There are many major fields, including telesurgery and robotics, which demand a better understanding of the sense of touch. Thus, the course not only represents a major step forward in what can be achieved through online learning, but also provides students with unique knowledge and skills that could aid them in an eventual career in an ever-growing field.

“Haptic technology tries to make virtual experiences seem more real in order to improve how people perform tasks or enjoy virtual experiences,” said Okamura.

Okamura, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, designed Hapkit in collaboration with Paulo Blikstein, a professor of education, and Tania Morimoto, a third-year PhD student in mechanical engineering. The design is an update of a similar device Okamura (then a doctoral student at Stanford) and her mentor Mark Cutkosky, now the Fletcher Jones Chair in the School of Engineering, developed in the 1990s called the “haptic paddle.” However, Hapkit was redesigned with the specific intention of incorporating new, low-cost electronic components that students could assemble themselves for only $50-$100.

Hapkit has a sensor, motor and controller board that can be programmed using a personal computer to produce specific sensations. Users should then be able to touch the device and feel what they programmed, such as what it’s like to run their hand against a wall, apply pressure to a spring, or click a ballpoint pen.

Watch for more information on the Hapkit:

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“Watching the first time students feel…something they don’t know what to expect and seeing the expression on their face is really exciting for us to watch,” Moriomoto said.

(Next page: learn more about the course and how Hapkit works)