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)

The redesigned Hapkit is produced by laser cutting or 3D printing, and is compatible with inexpensive hobby-type microcontrollers such as Arduino, making it easy to program and customize. Now that the device can be 3D-printed, it is possible for anyone to download the files and print their own, creating a large community around the device and spurring new ideas.

Though Okamura had already begun using Hapkit when teaching on-campus at Stanford, the university began offering grants to bolster innovation in their online courses, and she realized that an approachable online course in haptics could prove highly beneficial.

“MOOCs are becoming really big but are often missing that hands-on component,” said Morimoto. “Professor Okamura realized that haptics would be a good way to add that element. People learn in different ways, and having something physical can really help them understand things.”

Okamura began a free online course in fall 2013 called “Introduction to Haptics.” For this trial run, enrollment was limited to 100 applicants from the U.S., and each successful applicant was sent a Hapkit to use in conjunction with the course. At the end of the course, students noted that constructing the Hapkit helped them to understand what they were learning, and 77 percent of the participants passed.

“I helped Professor Okamura run the discussion boards, forums, and virtual office hours to help answer questions, and spent a lot of time helping debug and posting solutions to problems people might run into,” said Morimoto. “Overall everything went pretty smoothly. A lot of students helped answer each other’s discussion questions and the students were definitely engaged.”

Of course, the trial run was also a vital learning experience.

“There are definitely still challenges to teaching haptics without an instructor being there; it’s hard to grade what something feels like,” Morimoto said. “How do you capture what they’re feeling in order to quantify their grade? That’s what we’re continuing to work on, and we’ve begun taking force relays and graphing certain things to better understand the way things feel.”

Building on the experience, Okamura recently teamed up with Blikstein and Karon MacLean, a professor of computer science at the University of British Columbia, to obtain a National Science Foundation grant. Together, the team is focused on studying how to best use haptic technology to improve the quality of instruction, learning, and participation in the course.

Now, “Introduction to Haptics” is a MOOC free for anyone in the world. No programming background is needed, and the course is aimed at everyone from high school students to working professionals (though a background in high school physics and math are suggested).

Above all, Okamura believes the Hapkit could be used to simulate any physical environment and thus reinforce any learning experience, be it in an online class or a traditional one.

“What we really want to understand is how interacting with these haptic devices could help education across a broad variety of topics,” Okamura said. “Once we do get this out there, more people have access to it; what will they come up with? What design changes do they make?”

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