Virtual students offer crash course for teachers-in-training
“That's a cool sweat shirt, yo. Keeping it casual,” a slouching sixth-grader in the back of the class tells the young teacher in training.
“What do you know about biology?” asks the teacher, Dan Shiro, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee junior majoring in education.
“Anything I can look up on my phone,” CJ, also in the back, responds. CJ is not sure why she needs to learn about plant and animal cells when she has a smartphone.
Maria knows about cells, and the differences between plant and animal cells. But she's not going to volunteer anything unless the teacher asks her directly.
“I know bio means life,” says Kevin, the slouching kid who is much smarter than his laid-back demeanor might suggest.
While their personalities and attitudes may sound familiar, none of the students is real. They're TeachLivE avatars projected on a screen and programmed in real time to help education majors practice their techniques, and to test their patience when students misbehave. The entire classroom is computer-generated.
Many young teachers struggle with discipline and drop out of teaching because they become discouraged by classroom management issues, said Craig Berg, a UWM professor who focuses on science teacher education. Their students suffer because learning is disrupted by misbehavior.
As a TeachLivE partner, UWM pays to use the simulation in its teacher education. In a virtual classroom with only five students, teachers in training can make mistakes and learn from them without harming real students or their own confidence.
Think of it as giving teachers the same kind of simulated practice as pilots or doctors before they do their jobs for real.
“We can control the level of misbehavior,” Berg says. “We can reduce the complexity and take away a lot of the chaos, so they can focus on how they ask questions and how they respond to students. It makes a difference in whether you get students to think, or whether they shut down.”
TeachLivE feels like a classroom, not a simulator.
“It helps you get a grip on what it's really like,” Shiro, the aspiring teacher in a cool sweat shirt, says after finishing his first simulated class. “You have to try to teach to each personality. Just figuring out what they like, what their interests are, and what they dislike, will help me.”
After each TeachLivE session, student teachers review a video recording on their laptop and analyze what they did well, and what they could have done differently. They can pause the recording, go back over it, and add comments at critical points. The professor also can add comments and suggestions directly to the recording.
“Learning teaching is doing, reflecting and analyzing how am I going to grow and improve,” Berg says.
While the TeachLivE lab wasn't developed here, former UWM education professor Lisa Dieker—now at the University of Central Florida—is one of its creators.
Educators and computer scientists at the Orlando university created TeachLivE in 2012. The same year, the simulation was honored with an award for best innovative technology from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.
It is now being used at 40 colleges and universities around the country, Dieker said.
The simulation focuses on the art and science of teaching. Teachers in training learn to ask students better, open-ended questions. They learn to allow enough time after they ask a question for students to think about it and come up with an intelligent response or ask for clarification.
The student teacher stands in front of a white screen on which the computer-generated students are projected. The same virtual students—each with a distinct personality—interact with the student teacher every session so the teacher can get to know them and figure out what approach works best for each.
In addition to Maria, Kevin and CJ, there are Ed and Sean. Ed is quiet, but very respectful. Sean is a bit too eager to answer the teacher's questions, and to share information about himself and others.
Student teachers in the simulation know that someone, somewhere, is “behind the curtain,” controlling the avatars. But suspension of disbelief keeps it real.
Inthe simulation, the level of disruptive behavior is programmed to what is appropriate for each student teacher.
“Some teachers teach over the top of the noise to the ones who tune in,” Berg says of the real world. “Effective teachers minimize the behavior in ways to get kids refocused and engaged.”
TeachLivE developers just rolled out a high school version, starring the same students, a few years older. They also created avatars who speak other languages, parent avatars, and an avatar that can be a teacher or a principal to simulate a teacher evaluation or a parent-teacher conference, says Dieker, the Florida professor.
Shiro, the young teacher, wants to teach biology. “I love biology,” he says. “I'm going to try to pull them into it so they love it, too.”
He knows he must manage the classroom effectively to do that. “You have to be ready for every kind of personality,” Shiro says.
The goal is to keep students on track and get them involved in discussion.
“Sometimes, you can get kids in a classroom to debate while you stand there, listening, watching and keeping them on point,” Berg says.
Encouraging students to think more critically requires asking them higher-level questions, Berg says.
A science lesson shouldn't be a cookbook recipe. Students should be responsible for planning a lab and analyzing whether the results match what they expected, Berg says. Then the students should discuss where the errors occurred and what they could do differently to make the experiment more successful.
“When kids communicate and teachers listen in and have a window into students' brains, they find out what already is in their heads, what they are thinking or learning,” Berg says.
If a teacher gives a test that covers two weeks of a unit, and the whole class does poorly, “you've lost two weeks of teaching,” he adds. “It's a matter of how you maximize engagement of your students and feedback, so you know your effectiveness with that lesson.”
In a real classroom, if a lesson goes poorly, there are no do-overs.
TeachLiveE is not a replacement for working with real kids in a real classroom, Dieker says. It's also not intended to evaluate teacher performance, she says.
It's a tool to help teachers hone their craft.
“The only behavior you can change in the simulator is your own,” Dieker says.