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Virtual Classroom, Real Teaching

Simulation Project Trains Teachers to Face Student Challenges

By Maryland Today Staff


Megan Tayman was about to begin teaching when she noticed a student texting on her phone. Tayman asked her to stop. The eighth-grader shot her a look and, with maximum teen petulance, said: “Hold on a minute, lemme finish my text.”

Such situations aren’t easy for novice teachers such as Tayman. In this case, though, the student wasn’t real. She was a digital avatar, who existed only on a large-screen TV in a classroom in the Benjamin Building.

The simulation, called TeachLivE, is an innovative experiment to help teachers learn to handle difficult classroom scenarios.

“It’s very realistic,” says Tayman M.A. ’14, who solved the problem by walking over to the student, repeating her request and calmly waiting for her to put the phone away. “You can’t always take what you learn in lectures and practice it in the classroom. With the avatars we can do that.”

The project is run by Jade Wexler, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling, Higher Education, and Special Education. She says it provides visceral but controllable training: “It feels real to the teachers, but there are no humans, so they don’t have to practice on flesh-and-blood students. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Wexler, who collaborates with researchers at the University of Central Florida, has been experimenting with the system since 2011. This year, dozens of her students have interacted with a range of avatars aged 12 to 17, who present a variety of challenges: They are confused, withdrawn, sullen, angry, overly eager, and so on—the kind of behavior that may confound new teachers.

TeachLivE is part of a trend in education, using immersive computer simulation to prepare teachers. Wexler recognizes that the approach is not yet proven, and so she and her Central Florida colleagues are conducting a randomized trial of TeachLivE. They are testing 240 Maryland middle school and high school biology teachers to find out whether the avatar method changes how they teach, and how well their students learn. Preliminary results should be out by this summer.

Watch the TeachLivE technology in action:


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