Virtual Classroom Prepares MNU Teacher Candidates

By Rachel Phelps (’09)
November 13, 2013
Virtual Classroom Prepares MNU Teacher Candidates

Junior English education major Chrissi Hurd had to listen closely to catch the student’s words. Answering icebreaker questions on the first day of school, Maria, a middle-schooler, was speaking so softly the sound of her classmates was drowning her out.

Hurd asked her to repeat herself several times before the answer to the question, “What do you like to do in your spare time?” was audible.

“I like to read books,” Maria said.

About this time, Hurd became aware of a sound that wasn’t Maria or any of the other students. It was a beeper. Her seven minutes in the TeachLivE™ simulator were up.

“I didn’t even hear my timer go off at first,” says Hurd. “I was just working with her and tuned in to what I was doing.”

Maria and her four classmates are virtual characters in a mixed-reality program that allows education students to practice classroom management techniques outside of a traditional classroom. The technology is similar to Microsoft Kinect, which scans a game player’s entire body and reads movements to translate them to onscreen interactions without a controller. For TeachLivE™, the program scans the college student and allows him or her to work with a classroom full of virtual “students” onscreen. The “students” are avatars controlled by “TeachLivETM software operated at the University of Central Florida (UCF) which allows users to interact with pre-service teachers in real time giving them authentic real-world experience in a variety of scenarios they may encounter in a real classroom.

“As soon as the machine scanned me, there were five children staring at me, expecting me to say something,” says Hurd. “It was exactly what you’d see in a real classroom, except it was on a screen.”

The 11 students in Dr. Kim Humerickhouse’s classroom management class each got seven minutes in the simulator, running a “first day of class” scenario. Each scenario is planned out at least a week in advance, with parameters such as objectives and student behavior established. There are levels of behavior available for the classroom, ranging from 0 – no classroom misbehavior, to 5 - intense misbehavior, distraction, fidgeting, inattention, resistance and bullying behavior at high frequency. Humerickhouse says the virtual environment has one strong advantage over traditional classroom student teaching.

“This provides an opportunity for our pre-service teachers to repeatedly practice applying strategies learned in class without impacting real classroom students’ learning,” says Humerickhouse.

Avatars in a TeachLivE virtual classroom.Avatar "students" in a TeachLivE™ virtual classroom.According to the TeachLivE™ web site, this ability to work through scenarios more than once without disrupting an actual child’s learning time was an integral part of the development of the program. It was developed at UCF in 2005. UCF began partnering with other universities in 2009. Considered beta sites, the universities provide feedback to UCF about the program just as the interactors provide feedback for the education students. MNU is one of 10 new partners this year as part of a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant to UCF. The grant will help grow the program to 30 partners in three years.

MNU’s School of Education set up its own simulator lab through a grant-supported partnership with the University of Kansas’ Center for Research and Learning. MNU plans to continue partnering with UCF for more extended sessions as well, leading to work with area inservice teachers in addition to education students.

TeachLivE™ does not take the place of practica and student teaching. Hurd began her first practicum on October 29, and says the experience in the simulator helped prepare her for the experience.

“It was definitely eye-opening as to what students will actually be like in the classroom,” says Hurd. “I’ve helped out with classrooms before, but this experience was on a whole different level.”

Hurd says the avatars each had very distinct personalities, and she had to practice dealing with things like students who don’t stop talking when they are told, as well as being proactive about forming relationships within the classroom. Each student received feedback from a professional educator who observed their session.

“It was great because at the end of the simulation, you have feedback so you know what you did right and what you can recreate in the classroom,” says Hurd, adding that she received positive feedback for her ability to redirect the students’ attention and her decision to partner the students for an activity – creating the opportunity for relationship building.

Classroom Management students will have an opportunity to use TeachLivE™ again at the end of the semester, after the bulk of their instruction in management techniques. This will provide them a chance to see their growth over the semester.

“It provides an opportunity for our students to demonstrate how they are developing into reflective practitioners who strive to improve their skills in order to improve their P-12 students’ learning,” says Humerickhouse.

To find out more about TeachLivE™, visit their web site: UCF TeachLivE™. Or watch this UCF video: “Preparing Teachers With a Virtual Classroom”