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September 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 1

Virtually in the Classroom

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Classroom Management
Jon wakes up for his first day of student teaching. He's excited. He gets to the school early, makes his way to his classroom, and waits for his cooperating teacher and his 5th graders to arrive. As the students come in, he greets them at the door, one by one.
Then Jon enters the classroom himself—and sees complete chaos. Students are running around, yelling, and throwing things at each other. Jon stands there watching, mortified. He has extensive knowledge on learning theory and teaching strategies. He has a three-page philosophy of education paper in his backpack and holds a 3.9 GPA. But as he stands there, wide-eyed, desperately waiting for his cooperating teacher to arrive, Jon realizes he is utterly unprepared to manage a classroom. He has precious little experience in controlling students and creating an effective learning environment.
As teacher educators, we've found that classroom management is the biggest struggle for our preservice teachers when they start student-teaching or permanent positions. It is also the most difficult skillset to work on in teacher-prep courses. Education students often give practice lessons in their courses, but addressing their college peers does not provide a realistic environment to develop classroom management skills.
To become comfortable with classroom management, preservice teachers need to have authentic experiences teaching K–12 students, as well as follow-up instructional coaching to help them make adjustments. Instructional coaching has become a popular form of professional development in K–12 schools and is recognized as an effective way to improve teaching (Knight, 2018). However, providing preservice teachers with ample opportunities to work in an actual K–12 classroom can be difficult. The logistics of placing preservice teachers in classrooms and arranging time for faculty to conduct observations and serve as instructional coaches are not manageable for many education programs. Additionally, some preservice teachers may not be ready to teach in an actual classroom, meaning that a classroom field experience could have detrimental effects on both themselves and the students.
So how can teacher-prep programs address the classroom management gap in training? The answer lies in technology and, specifically, in using virtual reality as a vehicle to mimic the environment of real-life classrooms.

Going Virtual

At Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota, we have implemented what we call the Virtual Avatar Learning Experience (VALE) for our preservice teachers. The VALE uses the TLE TeachLivE mixed-reality teaching platform, which was created at the University of Central Florida. This mixed-reality technology involves virtual experiences as well as human interaction. In addition, the technology employs an XBox Kinect to track the movements of the preservice teachers, allowing them to use proximity in working with the student avatars.
The VALE works like this. Preservice teachers give a lesson to five student avatars on a monitor. These five student avatars, in part controlled by human actors behind the scenes, each exhibit unique characteristics that are commonly found in elementary- and middle-school-aged kids, such as being talkative, excitable, bored, shy, quiet, disinterested, "too cool for school," or impulsive. If the preservice teacher is not engaging and doesn't provide explicit directions about expectations, the student avatars may try to get the preservice teacher off topic, talk to their neighbors, blurt out answers, use their cell phones, or fall asleep.
Preservice teachers interact with the avatars in much the same way they would with students in an actual classroom. They have to deliver lessons that are aligned to objectives, develop rapport with the student avatars, engage them in the lesson, and manage their behaviors. Each VALE session can be customized to fit the needs of individual teachers in accordance with where they are in their development. For each session, the behavior level of the student avatars can be set anywhere from a 1 (very compliant/obedient) to a 5 (very aggressive and disobedient). Ideally, this gives preservice teachers an opportunity to work with a wide range of student behaviors over the course of their training.
Mixed-reality teaching environments similar to the VALE are now being using in approximately 75 colleges and universities across the United States to prepare preservice teachers (Murphy, Cash, & Kellinger, 2018). Research indicates that using such training can improve teaching practice in actual classrooms (Straub et al,. 2015).
A preservice teacher at Dakota State University gives a lesson before a virtual-reality classroom.

Keeping It Real

We started using the VALE during the fall 2017 semester. In our initial trials, the 15 preservice teachers that were enrolled in K–8 Social Studies Methods and K–8 Mathematics Methods were given two opportunities to use the platform to teach brief lessons lasting 7–8 minutes each. (We kept the sessions short based on feedback from colleagues at another college that was using TeachLivE, who told us that brief trainings worked better for their students.) The first lesson they taught was a social studies lesson that involved having the student avatars build their vocabulary using a Frayer Model, a graphic organizer. Following the lesson, each preservice teacher was given feedback from one peer and a faculty member who had observed the session.
The preservice teachers were extremely nervous about teaching in this new environment for the first time, much like they would be before going into an actual classroom. On the whole, they struggled with giving clear directions and setting expectations. The avatars were able to get the preservice teachers off task by asking questions not related to the topics or blurting out comments. Even so, at the conclusion of their first lesson, the preservice teachers had enthusiastic comments about the experience—as did the faculty observers, who appreciated that their students were being given an opportunity to apply concepts taught in their courses. Following each session, faculty members held instructional coaching sessions with the preservice teachers to talk about what went well and what could be improved upon. They followed up with more detailed, written feedback.
Several weeks after that first session, the same preservice teachers taught in the VALE for a second time during their math methods course. The math lesson was based on the "Which One Doesn't Belong" activity (Danielson, 2016). The specific goal for this session was to improve on their classroom management techniques from their first VALE session and apply what they had learned about questioning strategies in their K–8 Math Methods course.
The preservice teachers managed the student avatars much better in their second VALE session. They set expectations at the beginning and conveyed a greater sense of confidence throughout the lesson. However, their pedagogical skills still needed improvement. Some of the students were able to effectively implement the "math talk moves" from their methods course to engage the student avatars in meaningful math discourse, but many struggled to do so. After the session, they again had very positive comments about the experience and the benefits they felt they were receiving by practicing in a realistic situation. Again, faculty had the opportunity to provide instructional coaching to the preservice teachers based on what they had observed.

The Value of Practice

To quantify the impact of the VALE, we had the 15 preservice teachers complete surveys before and after each session. Overall, the results indicated that the students felt the VALE was an effective tool to help them practice classroom management and student engagement (fig. 1). They also felt that their confidence in their classroom management skills had grown (fig. 2).
Figure 1. Student Responses on Whether the VALE Is an Effective Tool for Practicing Classroom Management
Figure 2. Student Confidence Levels on Classroom Management, Before and After First VALE Session
Overall, we found that the VALE offered several advantages in helping prepare students for the classroom. The true beauty of the VALE is its realistic feel. This "realism" provides many opportunities for authentic skills development. Learning about classroom management techniques during class discussions or by reading articles is one thing, but being able to practice these techniques in a realistic setting is a far more powerful way to learn. Our students learned the importance of being enthusiastic, setting clear expectations for behavior early in the lesson, engaging all students, and remembering each piece of the lesson during delivery.
As mentioned, the preservice teachers had intense "feelings" prior to teaching their first lessons in the VALE. This is not something we would be able to simulate without this tool. Those feelings of nervousness, anxiety, and excitement are the exact same feelings these students will experience when they get out into the field for student teaching and beyond. To be able to learn how to deal with these emotions before their field experiences is invaluable.
In addition, the VALE gave our preservice teachers opportunities to try out various classroom management strategies without the possibility of doing harm to real students. They practiced thinking on their feet and made decisions quickly—again, behaviors that are hard to teach in regular academic courses. Equally important, faculty members observed the sessions and provided feedback to help the preservice teachers make adjustments and develop their skills.
The power of reflection is a major area of emphasis in our program. With the VALE, the preservice teachers had many more authentic opportunities to engage in reflective thought, such as aboutwhat happened during the lesson, how they handled it, and what they would do differently next time. Since all preservice teachers had the same avatar students, they developed a shared language around student behaviors and strategies to address them. This allowed them to engage in meaningful conversations around practice—conversations that we expect will better prepare them for their actual field experience.

The Future of Classroom Management Training

Last year was just the beginning of the VALE in our program. Our plan is give our students more opportunities to work in the environment, enabling them to experience multiple behavior settings, teach in more content areas, and try out and develop a greater variety of strategies. In addition, we hope to expand the use of the VALE to include all education majors, not just the elementary education majors who are currently using it.
The role of teacher-education programs is to prepare students to be effective classroom teachers. An essential, though often missing, part of that is to help them develop their classroom management skills before they enter real classrooms. New possibilities to provide realistic practice settings have emerged with the increasing interest in virtual reality, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence. The VALE is one example of using a new technology to improve teacher training in classroom management. For us, it has provided the opportunity to increase the number of classroom experiences for preservice teachers in a safe environment and allow for focused instructional coaching. This will help our students once they get to the classroom—even as it gives us a glimpse of new opportunities in teacher training and professional development.

Danielson, C. (2016). Which one doesn't belong? Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Knight, J. (2018). "Coaching to improve teaching: using the instructional coaching model." In Coaching in Education (pp. 93–113). London: Routledge.

Murphy, K. M., Cash, J., & Kellinger, J. J. (2018). "Learning with avatars: Exploring mixed reality simulations for next-generation teaching and learning." In Handbook of Research on Pedagogical Models for Next-Generation Teaching and Learning (pp. 1–20). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Straub, C., Dieker, L., Hynes, M., & Hughes, C. (2015). Using virtual rehearsal in TLE Mixed Reality mixed reality classroom simulator to determine the effects on the performance of science teachers: A follow-up study (year 2). 2015 Mixed Reality National Research Project: Year 2 Findings. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida.

Kevin Smith is an assistant professor of mathematics education at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota.

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