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‘Beam’ roams M state halls

Students at M State in Detroit Lakes stop and interact with the Beam robot being driven by M State academic advisor Sarah Hofmann. Staff members have been working with the Beam unit since July, and students are getting used to seeing it in the hallway. BRIAN BASHAM/DL NEWSPAPERS

Let’s say a student is scheduled to come take a tour of the Detroit Lakes M State campus but it starts snowing horribly. (This scenario is in January, not September or October, mind you.)

Not a problem anymore; no need to risk the highways, or even cancel or reschedule.

Instead, with a link from staff at the college, the student can log onto the Internet and get a personal tour of the campus through Beam.

The latest in technology has hit the four M State campuses — Detroit Lakes, Wadena, Moorhead and Fergus Falls — bringing the campus to the student.

“It’s a little more advanced than Skype,” said Karen Buboltz, director of student services.

While students and staff can talk back and forth and see each other via a computer screen, Beam can also move around. The machine is five feet tall and on wheels so it can roam about the campus just like a person.

The way it works is a staff member can drive the “remote presence” device from their computer. The computer screen will show the operator where they are driving, with arrows pointing out their path.

It is driven through the operator’s mouse or arrow keys on his or her keyboard.

Looking at Beam, the operator can split the screen also and show someone their computer screen as well. Where that might come in handy would be someone from financial aid showing a student certain documents or steps to working through the application process. The staff member can bring up the screen and show the student the documents.

The idea behind this long-distance technology is to bring the campus or a helpful staff member to the student — avoiding travel to the campus to see someone if it’s not needed.

With four campus locations and its online eCampus, Peter Wielinski, chief student services officer at M State, said the college often faces the challenge of scheduling assistance for students at times of high demand, such as the start of a new semester.

“With a distance of 50 to 100 miles between our four campuses, the use of the Beam units ensures that the most appropriate person can provide face-to-face support services anywhere on campus without delay,” he said.

Beam, which is manufactured by Suitable Technologies, can walk or “run” up to 3 miles per hour.

Staff members have been working with the Beam unit since July, and students are getting used to seeing it in the hallway.

“With anything new, it takes time to get used to,” Buboltz said.

She admits that when she first heard of the unit, she was a little skeptical, but now believes it’s been an awesome addition to the campus.

The four campuses are the first colleges in the nation to use this technology, she added, though businesses have already started using it.

“M State is excited to be a leader in innovation and incorporating technology into our ongoing efforts to enhance our services to students,” said M State President Peggy Kennedy.

Wielinski said that M State’s initial plans are to use the devices to enhance student services in the areas of financial aid, academic advising, counseling and information queries, and the college soon may be taking students and their parents on campus tours via Beam technology.

“This innovative technology allows M State to offer ‘no-stop’ services to students in the commons and hallways, in addition to our existing one-stop service centers,” Wielinski said.

While Suitable Technologies is loaning two of the Beams on a trial basis, the college did purchase two units through grants. They are about $16,000 each.

M State has estimated that the use of Beam units could save the college up to $45,000 annually in travel costs for student services staff alone, Wielinski said.

The devices could also cut down on travel time and costs for administrators and other personnel.

M State had the Beam units at the Minnesota State Fair last month to show students and parents how the colleges are advancing technologically.

“All it needs is a wi-fi signal,” Buboltz said.

And someone to drive it, of course.