Teachers encounter all sorts of situations when they’re instructing students in the classroom, and the Bagwell College of Education at Kennesaw State University is taking an animated approach to preparing teacher candidates for scenarios they will experience as educators.
Bagwell has a new laboratory where KSU students and faculty utilize mixed-reality technology to interact with avatars of children and adults, simulating a variety of situations and challenges teachers can encounter. The student avatars each have their own unique personalities, and the scenarios have low, medium and high settings requiring varying levels of problem-solving.
“The lab’s capabilities are endless for providing purposeful practice for teacher candidates before they ever step foot in a classroom,” said Kate Zimmer, interim chair of the Department of Inclusive Education and an associate professor of special education.
After securing grant funding to establish the avatar lab at KSU, Zimmer and one of her colleagues, special education assistant professor Melissa Driver, began integrating it into classes for undergraduate and graduate students earlier this year. Kennesaw State is one of about 30 universities in the country with a site license to utilize the technology offered by the company Mursion, which can be renewed annually.
The lab enables education majors to receive real-time feedback from their peers and instructors as they engage with the avatars, which can be programmed to be students ranging from second grade to high school. The student avatars have abilities and personalities such as an advanced student, an introvert, a rule-follower and the class clown, and will act accordingly, depending on how the teacher is conducting class.
“The mixed-reality aspect is the key, because having ‘students’ respond to you in live time increases the authenticity,” Driver said. “If you are effectively engaging the students, they’re going to participate and show interest in the lesson. But if you are unclear with your instruction or become unsure of yourself – maybe you’re rustling through your papers or taking too long to transition – the students will disengage and express their disinterest by becoming more talkative, acting out or just shutting down.”
Along with the child avatars of different ages and personalities, the program provides scenarios that teachers will encounter with adults. That could include practicing having a difficult conversation with a parent or preparing for a teacher-principal conference.
“In special education, for example, you work with such a variety of people,” Zimmer said. “It’s not just the interactions with parents, but also the many other service professions that you work with – a co-teacher, a principal, a paraprofessional – and it’s hard to be able to get that practice within a field experience.”
If a teacher candidate doesn’t know how to handle a particular situation or what to say next, the avatar lab offers a function that teachers don’t have the benefit of in a real classroom – a pause button. At any point, the teacher can pause the simulation and ask for help from their professor or peers.
“You can’t do that in real life when you’re teaching a group of seventh-graders,” Driver said. “Also, once you receive feedback, you can re-teach the same lesson – which you couldn’t do in a real classroom because your students already would’ve sat through that lesson once.”
That practical training is how the avatar lab is “changing the game” in how teachers are prepared for their careers, according to Driver. They can use the cutting-edge technology to practice teaching, work on classroom management and improve their communication skills so they can be ready for their first real classroom.
“The practice element for teacher candidates in the past often has been an either/or – either they’re learning through their coursework or they’re practicing on students out in the field,” Driver said. “This is truly a middle step to actually practice something they’ve learned before getting to the real-life students.”
Data has been collected and analyzed to show Kennesaw State stakeholders that the avatar lab is helping teacher candidates develop the skills that educators need. Also, the potential exists to develop external partnerships for utilizing the lab, such as universities that have partnered with K-12 school systems or the military, according to Zimmer.
“Once people understand how this can change not only how we prepare our students in the College of Education, but how this can benefit other students and also change how we interact with external partners, we feel it really will help elevate KSU’s name and exposure,” Zimmer said.
Not only for future teachers
The avatar lab isn’t just for education majors. The interactive program offers more than 30 simulation environments – inside and outside of classroom settings – so colleges or departments across the university can contract with the Bagwell College to practice conflict management or difficult conversations.
For example, a future health care provider could practice delivering a terminal prognosis to a patient, or a human resources staff member can simulate trying to placate an agitated employee who is being terminated. Another is a mock interview that students can utilize to prepare for interviewing for jobs.
“The scenarios are transferrable to any context,” Driver said. “Everybody needs to know how to communicate effectively or to de-escalate a tight situation.”