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May 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 8

Learning from Virtual Students

TeachLivE offers teachers a truly 21st century way to improve their practice.

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A new science teacher, Ms. Henrich, starts her lesson by asking her students, "How does technology relate to your life?" Her intent is to use the new Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in her science class.
Sean immediately raises his hand and blurts out his thoughts. After Ms. Henrich reminds him that he shouldn't speak until he's called on, he slumps in his chair. She then calls on CJ, who responds, "Who cares?" and laughs, which triggers Kevin, who's sitting next to her, to do the same. During this exchange, Ed politely raises his hand. But Ms. Henrich is busy scolding CJ and Kevin with no success, and she misses the opportunity to work with Ed.
Ms. Henrich's face reddens as she tries to ignore CJ and Kevin and to encourage reticent Maria to respond. Maria looks up from her desk, saying in a hesitant voice, "The Maven space probe will provide us with information from Mars, so that's a great use of technology for our future life on Earth."
But Ms. Henrich can't hear her. "I'm sorry, Maria, but because CJ and Kevin were laughing, I couldn't hear you. Would you please repeat your answer?"
"No," says Maria quietly.
Hoping to get another student to answer, she turns to Ed. "So Ed, what do you think?"
He responds politely and positively, "Miss, we use technology to fly planes."
Ms. Henrich praises Ed as she takes a deep breath and fights back tears—and in steps her coach, who says "Pause classroom!"

The Power of the Pause

Wait a minute. "Pause classroom"? Wouldn't that be a wonderful feature to have in a classroom where everything is going wrong, where the teacher's frustration level is so high that she's ready to walk out and try her hand at any other profession besides teaching? Although the students in this scenario certainly seem real, they're avatars in a computer-simulated virtual classroom called TLE TeachLivE.
For more than a decade, our team at the University of Central Florida has been thinking about how to harness the power of a virtual environment in education. This out-of-the-box thinking has required collaboration among computer scientists, content-area teachers, special educators, educational leadership faculty members, actors, researchers, digital artists, computer programmers, and an array of undergraduate and graduate students with a multitude of skills. We believe that virtual environments and simulations like TeachLivE have great potential to inform teaching practice.
We're years and maybe decades away from being able to experience interaction with a computer system through artificial intelligence that's indistinguishable from human interaction. Even so, simulated environments and the evolving technology of virtual environments are slowly creeping into the education space, in much the same way that Microsoft Word and PowerPoint crept onto educators' desktops more than a decade ago, and in much the same way that interactive whiteboards and mobile devices are gaining traction in classrooms today.

TeachLivE: A Mixed-Reality Environment

We can categorize virtual environments in terms of their level of complexity (see ","). Levels 1 and 2 are innovations that exist in the current education landscape; Levels 3 and 4 are works in progress.
Let's look more closely at Level 2—the mixed-reality environment—and at TeachLivE.

What It Looks Like

In our TeachLivE experience, teachers walk into a room that looks just like a middle school classroom, including props, whiteboards, and, of course, students. However, unlike the brick-and-mortar setting, the lab is a virtual setting. The classroom is projected on a screen, and the students are avatars.
The virtual students have personalities typical of real-life students. They're a mix of the independent and dependent and the passive and aggressive personalities that teachers find in their classrooms every day. They behave like typically or atypically developing students, depending on the objectives of the experience. Teachers may be working on objectives like providing wait time, asking stronger content-related questions, giving effective praise, or refining a crucial part of a lesson they're struggling with.
Teachers can work independently in the TeachLivE system, replaying their experiences so they can think more about how they performed. The coach can provide feedback in the middle or at the end of the session to help the teacher with the targeted skill. Just like a flight simulator helps train a pilot to fly a real plane, TeachLivE supplements real teaching but doesn't replace it. It simply enables a teacher, individually or with a coach, to work on a targeted skill in a safe environment that provides immediate feedback and multiple opportunities to self-correct. (See what a simulation looks like.)
Participants can interact with students and review previous work, present new content, provide scaffolding or guided practice in a variety of content areas, and monitor students while they work independently. Prospective teachers can learn the instruction and management skills they need to become effective teachers, and practicing teachers can hone and refine their skills.
In a real classroom, if a teacher were to repeat an instruction or a classroom management routine, students might get bored and become difficult to manage. This is not the case in TeachLivE. Here, teachers can engage in multiple virtual rehearsals until they master the routine. In addition, the instruction or management context may be changed systematically to examine how participants respond to a different classroom environment.
For example, a teacher might start with a session that focuses on classroom management, followed by sessions that deal more directly with specific skills and pedagogy. A coach usually determines when to transition from one session type to the other. Session types can also be increased in intensity, with students becoming increasingly difficult to control or exhibiting more serious misconceptions about the topic under study. The keys here are that content and pedagogy can be addressed separately or together and that intensity can be ratcheted up or down, depending on the teacher's needs and performance.
In the simulation we described at the beginning of this article, the cue "pause classroom" enables the coach or teacher educator to step in when the participating teacher is experiencing some difficulty and to suggest other ways the teacher might proceed. With this new information in mind, the teacher can either continue or start over, developing confidence in how he or she will respond to similar situations in a real classroom.
In real classrooms, only one teacher can practice a routine with a given group of students. With TeachLivE, over the course of a single hour, several teachers can instruct the virtual classroom. Further, any teacher who has had a demanding session can terminate the rehearsal, rethink his or her approach, and then reenter the virtual classroom to try again to teach the same students the same concept or skill.
We believe this virtual learning environment is a disruptive technology for professional development. We've found that just four 10-minute simulator sessions on a specific teaching practice—such as how to give targeted feedback or how to ask open-ended questions—can change at least one crucial teaching behavior.

How It Works

In this mixed-reality virtual environment, human knowledge and technological knowledge are blended to create seemingly authentic interventions. A human operator "puppeteers" the classroom for each user session. With a human in the loop, the experience seems more realistic because the operator can quickly adapt to the context of the session and make references to such topical issues as sports, weather, and news items.
You may think projects such as these require budgets of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not so. Today, our work uses what's already available in most schools: a fairly typical computer station with 8 megabytes of memory and a 256-gigabyte hard drive (the cost for such a station is typically under $2,000); a midrange graphics card; two separate USB controllers; a reasonably large display (for example, a 50-inch TV monitor); a webcam; speakers; a wireless lavaliere microphone; and a $90 Kinect System (a game-based human tracking system that enables you to use your whole body to physically participate in the game).
A TeachLivE session starts when the user's system connects to a University of Central Florida server system. That connection brings the TeachLivE system to life at the user's site, enabling the technical infrastructure at the university to deliver the experience recommended by the teacher's coach.
TeachLivE is currently being implemented in teacher education programs across 38 university campuses, in four school districts in the United States, and with one client in the United Arab Emirates.

Three Ways to Use It

Our lab at the University of Central Florida, as well as the labs in partner sites, typically uses TeachLivE in three different ways.
  • Individual sessions. Teacher candidates complete sessions alone at a prescheduled time. The lab may be staffed with an expert coach to give candidates customized feedback, or it may only be staffed by a system operator who makes sure the system is functioning correctly but who provides no feedback. Candidates may individually reflect on their sessions in writing or do so later with their class.
  • Small-group sessions. Teacher educators send a group of three to five candidates to do the sessions together in the lab. This format gives the candidates an opportunity to see peers practice and to discuss strategies for improvement, building collective knowledge. Candidates may rotate through the session, practicing, observing, or providing structured feedback to peers.
  • Whole-class sessions. A lesson is delivered in front of an entire class of participating teachers, with either the teacher educator or participant teacher as the instructor. Both formats enable the teacher educator to pause the classroom and discuss with the candidates different approaches a teacher might take in a given situation.
Although these three approaches move teacher education closer to an automated process, the process is nevertheless embedded in a realistic and dynamically changing environment, and it calls on teacher candidates to engage in meaningful discourse about effective teaching.

Coaching in TeachLivE

TeachLivE enables coaching to occur in one of four ways. We mentioned the first way in the opening scenario: An expert coach intervenes ("Pause classroom!") and provides the support and cues needed for a positive outcome. The coach might suggest other ways Ms. Henrich can start the classroom, such as letting students do a think-pair-share before calling on anyone—which would work well with talkative students like CJ and Kevin—and conversing with quiet, insightful Maria to push her thinking while the others are discussing the opening question.
In a second approach, the coach asks the teacher to reflect on his or her experience and to come back the following day to try again without coaching. In a third approach, the teacher does the simulation with a group of peers who provide feedback or who have each experimented with a different way to build the lesson, with varying results.
The fourth and newest way to embed coaching is just emerging in our work; here, no human interaction is involved between the teacher participant and the coach. Instead, the feedback comes from a report the coach has done in real time using an integrated video tagging system, which identifies targeted areas to improve.
After the session, the computer provides an automated summary sheet of feedback for the teacher, which can include any data tagged in the system, such as the frequency of higher-order questions or the amount of student talk compared with teacher talk. Some teachers may accept feedback presented by a computer more easily than feedback from a human because they view the computer feedback as neutral and more accurate. No matter the method used, the only behavior that teachers can change in the simulator is their own, which is precisely the power of simulation.

From Virtual to Real

Ms. Henrich has visited the TeachLivE lab four times to practice her lesson on the role of technology. She's successfully experimented in these simulations with starting out the class with a think-pair-share. Now she's ready to enter her own real science classroom.
She starts off with the same question, "How does technology relate to your life?" Just as she learned in the simulations, Ms. Henrich gives her students time to think about and discuss this question with a partner. Meanwhile, she talks with a quiet Maria-like student to draw out her thoughts.
Ms. Henrich then addresses her CJ-like student (CJ is the student-avatar who responded, "Who cares?"). Not surprisingly, the student says something that gets a laugh—"It allows me to text my boyfriend."
The Kevin-like student starts to laugh. But this time, Ms. Henrich immediately asks him to expand on the CJ-like student's great suggestion by telling how he uses technology daily. He proposes, "It also lets me play my music videos on YouTube."
After nodding in affirmation, Ms. Henrich calls on another student who says, "It helps us think about the pollution in our environment."
Ms. Henrich says, "Wow, that's insightful!" She then involves a polite Ed-like student and asks him for his thoughts.
"Technology," he says, "enables me to watch my favorite basketball games on TV."
Ms. Henrich then moves close to the Maria-like student and asks her how she might expand on these ideas. The student observes, "I see technology creating a literature revolution in changing the way people communicate through print."
Ms. Henrich repeats that amazing comment and smiles, saying to herself, "Wow, I've got a much better sense of what I need to do. These kids are easier than those in the simulator!" The students finish the lesson with a strong understanding of the topic, and they successfully complete the assessment of creating a concept map.
Ms. Henrich thinks about all the skills she's honed in the simulated classroom. In classroom management, she's learned how to increase student engagement and reduce behavior issues by engaging students in productive content-related discussions with one another, and she's learned how to provide more wait time with her questioning. She's also learned how to promote higher-level thinking by asking open-ended questions, ensuring that students understand the vocabulary words she uses in her questions, and using more think-pair-shares or grouping strategies before large-group discussions. She's determined to put all these skills to use in the next lesson she teaches—whether it's real or virtual.
End Notes

1 See Long, W. A., Jr. (1989). Personality and learning: 1988 John Wilson Memorial Address. Focus on Learning, 11(4) 1–16; and Long, W. A., Jr. (2011). Your predictable adolescent. Charleston, SC: BookSurge.

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