Preparing the next generation of teachers with virtual reality

To better prepare prospective educators for the daunting task of teaching students, Southeastern has partnered with the University of Central Florida (UCF) to present the “Teach Live” virtual simulation program.
According to Dr. Nicki Skelton from the department of teaching and learning, the main goal of the program is to use the simulation as a training tool for pre-service and in-service teachers to markedly increase student performance. Even in the early stages of the program, its worth is without question.
“It will make a huge difference,” said Skelton. “It enhances the preparation for our undergrad student, and it makes people who are in the field better teachers, and that’s what it’s all about. The coolest thing about this is that you can make all the mistakes you want, and nobody is ever harmed. You can flip out, come back ten minutes later and they don’t remember what happened.”
During the simulation, teachers interact with real time avatars in a classroom setting projected onto a screen. The avatars are controlled by a “puppeteer” at UCF and portray middle school age children that display the unique attitudes found in students of that age. Some artificial intelligence is involved, making it possible for the avatars to play off of each other. In order for the teacher to interact with the virtual students, he or she is fitted with a headset that includes a microphone and motion tracker. The floor has the names of the virtual students so the teacher can walk up to them.
During a demonstration on Sept. 27, two education students tried the simulation out.
“I did not know what to expect when I walked in,” said Laura Knowles, an alternate certification Biology student. “Some of the personalities maybe threw me a little bit. I believe that this is very close to the real thing, and that it’s a great tool to prepare students for the classroom; just to take the edge off.”
Stacey Schmidt, a junior English education major, also participated and was also surprised by the unique behaviors and liveliness of the students.
“I can see why they say that 10 minutes of this is equal to an hour in an actual classroom,” said Schmidt. “Even though there were only five students, they were a very accurate representation of the types of students I remember when I was in school.”
Skelton explained that there are four levels of behavior for the class, which acts as a kind of difficulty setting for the simulation. Level one is no bad behavior, two includes slightly disruptive behaviors like yawning and stretching, three makes the class unruly and level four makes the class go wild. Skelton demonstrated just how wild the avatars get on level four, while displaying examples of how a teacher should not handle an unruly class: yells, threats and insults. After the room became quiet again, Skelton expressed her hopes for the program to observers.
“This may be the wave of the future,” said Skelton. “My graduate students teach in the lab school, then teach with the avatars and then they go into the real world to teach. Every one of those students in the simulation will be in a real classroom. This is all to make our teachers better prepared for the real world and to help students succeed, and as I said, that’s what it’s all about.”