The PEBBLES Project (Providing Education By Bringing Learning Environments to Students) allows students requiring long-term hospital care to continue to engage in classroom learning. This article in eSchoolNews online explains:
The robot in the classroom, which displays a live picture of Achim, provides what its inventors call "telepresence": It gives the boy an actual presence in the classroom, recognized by teachers and classmates. It can move from class to class on its four-wheeled base, and it could even stop at the lockers for a between-periods chat.
"The robot literally is embraced by students in the classroom as though [it] is the medically fragile student," said Andrew Summa, national director of the robot project, which is in use at six other hospitals around the country. Achim's teacher, Bob Langerfield, said his other students have become used to the robot and were treating it as if it were Achim after just a few days.
Although this project is focused currently on K-12 students, it shouldn't be long until there is a push at the post secondary level. How would the presence of "virtual students" affect your course goals & objectives, if at all?
For another perspective on virtual learning, Can e-learning replace classroom learning? (2004), Zhang, Zhao, Zhou and Nunamaker suggest the following regarding e-learning specifically:
Nevertheless, we believe that e-learning is a promising alternative to traditional classroom learning, which is especially beneficial to remote and lifelong learning and training. In many cases, e-learning can significantly complement classroom learning. E-learning will keep growing as an indispensable part of academic and professional education. We should continue to explore how to create more appealing and effective online learning environments. One way to do this is to integrate appropriate pedagogical methods, to enhance system interactivity and personalization, and to better engage learners.
As research in the myriad of other educational technologies continues to grow, we'll need to pay very close attention to the benefits and costs for both students and teachers.
Those that are concerned about emerging technologies such as the internet, course management systems (Blackboard, etc.), podcasting/ videocasting and gaming changing the way learning takes place, hold on for the ride... technologies will continue to offer previously unimaginable options and alternatives to both students and teachers (and researchers), but the facilitation of learning will remain both an art and a science. Pedagogy should be the focus no matter what technologies are used, from chalk to PEBBLES.