By Marti Elford, Ph.D.
Most teachers I talk to remember with great clarity their first class – the excitement, the hope, the nervousness, and the surprise. Time after time teachers share that they are so surprised at how different their first teaching experience is compared to what they thought it was going to be. Many confess to being underprepared, and some say they were completely unprepared. Every teacher I talk to agrees that some things just cannot be learned until you do them.
Traditionally, teacher preparation programs focus on developing teachers’ content and pedagogical knowledge. Usually, future teachers complete at least one course in classroom management. Teacher preparation usually includes field experiences and microteaching experiences, and practice teaching (Elford, James, Smith, 2013). With content and pedagogy and field experience, why do many teachers report feeling unprepared for their first teaching experience? Maybe it is because they haven’t had enough opportunities to practice.
In many other professions, practice or rehearsal is part of the preparation. For professional athletes practice occurs on the playing field of their sport before they face the pressure of the game. Actors and dancers rehearse on stage until their performance warrants applause. This practice takes place to prepare for the performance, when the act of doing the work really matters. Even surgeons practice surgery in a simulation before the possibility for error presents risk for the patient. Until recently, there has been no way to really practice the performance of teaching until teachers were in classrooms in front of students. Enter TeachLIvE – a virtual learning environment made for teachers to practice the science and the art of teaching before they face the weighted responsibility of shaping the learning experience of the students under their care.
TeachLivE, the product of collaboration between the departments of education, computer science, engineering, and simulation technology at the University of Central Florida, offers a practice environment Toss in some very talented interactive performers and 10 Beta sites, like KU’s Department of Special Education, for testing this new technology, and several years later, a simulation for teacher preparation exists. In this simulated, virtual learning environment teachers practice and rehearse delivering content and managing behaviors before they face the high stakes of performing those important tasks with actual students.
TeachLivE is better experienced than described; it’s even better experienced than viewed on video or as a member of an audience. The quality that makes TeachLivE unique lies in the suspension of disbelief that occurs when a person steps into a simulation and becomes part of the scene (Elford, 2013). This suspension of disbelief commonly occurs when people get caught up in a movie or a book, and the characters seem to become “real people”. We find ourselves thinking about them and talking about them as if they are part of our lives. Suspension of disbelief can only occur if certain elements of reality are constructed in the new environment. Filmmakers and directors and people who make video games are experts in this area. I’m no expert, but I’ve seen it happen again and again with more than 500 students at KU who I’ve guided through a teaching simulation in our TeachLivE Lab.
For the last four years, I’ve been privileged to partner with faculty and course instructors, (and the skilled professionals at UCF) to design situated learning scenarios for students who aspire to become teachers. In KU’s TeachLivE Lab, student face a large projection screen, the participant-teacher interacts in a spontaneous manner with a group of ethnically diverse student avatars sitting at their desks in a middle school or high school classroom. An X-box Kinect reacts to the participant-teacher’s movements around the classroom by altering his or her visual perspective on the student avatars. This effect simulates the classroom management technique of proximity and enhances the suspension of disbelief. The participants actually “feel” like they are in front of a group of students. Throughout the 10-minute interactive role-play session, the participant-teacher experiences the effects of a virtual learning environment as a teacher who organizes, manages and instructs virtual students. This virtual simulation provides future teachers the opportunity to practice evidence-based classroom management techniques relevant to any subject-specific lesson before applying them in actual practice with real students (Dieker, Hynes, Huges & Smith, 2008).
The student-avatars projected on the screen may seem a little cartoon-like at first, but each one exhibits behaviors so typical of adolescents, that in a short time, participant-teachers find themselves discussing music or movies or fashion that interests teenagers, as they build rapport with the student-avatars. By the end of the 10-minute interactive role-play session, the participant-teachers have made connections with the student-avatars, (Ed, Sean, Maria, C.J. and Kevin) and they seem less virtual and more real.
It is hard to describe what happens in a simulated environment, but if you’ve been to Disney World, you know that there are rides that make you feel like you’re flying, even though you’ve never left your seat. People have varied reactions; some are scared; some cannot wait to do it again. I’ve seen the same reactions in the TeachLivE Lab. Of the 500+ students who have taught the virtual students, only a few reported that they “never want to do that again”. The resounding responses include: “when can I do that again”; “that was really fun”; “that was not as scary as I thought”; “that was so much more valuable that practicing in front of my peers”; “why don’t we get to do this in all our education courses”.
A body of research is emerging that confirms the value of simulation for teacher preparation. Since the development of the virtual learning environment known as TeachLivE, research investigating its use and establishing best-practice has begun to appear in conference proceedings, dissertations and peer-reviewed journals. A list of a few of these documents is included below. Much research remains to be done concerning the use of TeachLivE in teacher preparation. A few future discoveries include: a) how the experience of the virtual learning environment transfers to the actual classroom; b) how many practice sessions in TeachLivE produce sustained teaching behaviors; c) what important lessons do teachers learn about themselves and their teaching behaviors as they interact with student-avatars. No doubt more questions will arise as answers emerge. However, the cry for experiential learning methods in education coursework is a loud one. With the technology available to provide the experience, evidence-based practices must be researched and established.
Most of the students who participate in TeachLivE agree that the experience helps them prepare for their actual classroom. Some students who were already doing their student teaching expressed frustration about not having had the opportunity to practice in TeachLivE earlier in their education program. TeachLivE may not be the perfect solution to teacher preparation, but it offers one more way for prospective teachers to practice the instruction and management skills needed to become effective teachers before they stand in front of their first classroom.
Dawson, M. Lignugaris/Kraft, B.(2013). TLE TeachLivE™ vs. role-play: Comparative effects on special educators’ acquisition of basic teaching skills. In A. Hayes, S. Hardin, L. Dieker, C. Hughes, M. Hynes, & C. Straub. Conference Proceedings for First National TeachLivE Conference. Paper presented at First National TeachLivE Conference: Orlando, FL, University of Central Florida.
Dieker, L., Hynes, M., Hughes, C., & Smith, E. (2008). Implications of mixed reality and simulation technologies on special education and teacher preparation. Focus on Exceptional Children, 40(6), 1–21.
Dieker, L.A., Rodriguez, J., Lingnugaris-Kraft, B., Hynes, M., & Hughes, C.E. (2014). The Future of Simulated Environments in Teacher Education: Current Potential and Future Possibilities. Teacher Education and Special Education 37(1), 21-33.
Eisenreich, H., & Harshman, K. (2014). The influence of TeachLivE on anxiety levels in preservice and inservice mathematics teachers. Proceedings from Ludic Convergence, 19.
Elford, M. D. (2013). Using tele-coaching to increase behavior-specific praise delivered by secondary teachers in an augmented reality learning environment. (Order No. 3559157, University of Kansas). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 133.
Elford, M., James, S., & Haynes-Smith, H. (2013). Literacy instruction for pre-service educators in virtual learning environments. In A. Hayes, S. Hardin, L. Dieker, C. Hughes, M. Hynes, & C. Straub. Conference Proceedings for First National TeachLivE Conference. Paper presented at First National TeachLivE Conference: Orlando, FL, University of Central Florida.
Enicks, A.N. (2012). Using TeachLivE™ to improve pre-service special education teacher practices. Ph.D. thesis, Western Michigan University. (pp. 1-123).
Gregory, S., & Masters, Y. (2012). Real thinking with virtual hats: A role-playing activity for pre-service teachers in Second Life. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 28(3), 420-440.
Hayes, A. T., Hardin, S. E., & Hughes, C. E. (2013). Perceived presence’s role on learning outcomes in a mixed reality classroom of simulated students. In Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality. Systems and Applications (pp. 142-151). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.
Hayes, A. T., Straub, C. L., Dieker, L. A., Hughes, C. E., & Hynes, M. C. (2013). Ludic learning: Exploration of TLE TeachLivE™ and effective teacher training. International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations (IJGCMS), 5(2), 20-33.
Peterson, M. B. (2014). Pre-service special education teachers’ frequency of opportunities to respond in the TeachLive virtual classroom.
Rabuck, L. B. C. D. D. How TeachLivE is Helping Kennedy Krieger Build Model Classrooms. Proceedings from Ludic Convergence, 11.
Rodriguez, J. (2011). Comparison of Feedback Methods for Pre-Service Teachers Delivering Mathematics Lessons in the TeachLivE Lab. Proceedings from Ludic Convergence, 28.
Straub, C., Dieker, L., Hughes, C., & Hynes, M. (2014). Mixed-reality computer simulation: A new paradigm for higher education. Presentation delivered at the Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy Conference on higher education pedagogy.
Whitten, E., & Wallace, L. (2014, March). The Trifecta Model: Teacher Preparation with Technology. In Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (Vol. 2014, No. 1, pp. 2690-2693).
Dr. Marti Elford is the Program Designer for the online High Incidence Teacher Education Practicum program at the University of Kansas. Dr. Elford has experience as a classroom teacher, a reading specialist, and an instructional coach. Dr. Elford earned her Ph.D. in Special Education at the University of Kansas as a doctoral fellow with L-TEC, Leadership in Teacher Education Core. As a post doctoral fellow, Dr. Elford supervised two research projects: a Poses Foundation grant studying Instructional Coaching, and TeachLivE, the use of simulation in teacher preparation programs.
Dr. Elford’s research interests include the impact of coaching for pre- and in-service teachers on professional growth, using virtual learning environments, such as TeachLivE, for teacher preparation and professional development, and using technologies such as bug-in-ear to deliver immediate feedback to teachers and students.