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Avatars to the Rescue: How Virtual Reality is Helping to Move Teacher Preparation Forward

Education leaders’ outlook for the 2020-21 academic year anticipates a widening gap in the supply of new teachers, according to a recent survey of nearly 200 responses from individuals in leadership roles at colleges of education. The survey, conducted by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) on how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting educator preparation programs, reveals that nearly half of respondents indicated that field placements (student teaching) have been discontinued for at least some of their students.

Teacher preparation is multidimensional, and clinical experience is an essential aspect in becoming a successful educator. However, due to the outbreak of COVID-19, teacher candidates’ face-to-face classroom training has come to a halt, causing them to miss out on the opportunity to hone their in-class, instructional skills before they are in front of their own students.

“Our survey examines the critical demands in teacher preparation as we continue to navigate the global health pandemic and prepare for the academic year beginning in the fall,” said Lynn M. Gangone, AACTE president and CEO. “With critical shortages already in the teacher pipeline, it is more important than ever to use technology innovation to move field placements forward.”

To ensure there is a consistent pipeline of qualified teachers entering the workforce, AACTE has collaborated with Mursion, a global leader in virtual reality (VR) training, to offer educators and students experiential learning through simulations. The collaboration provides teacher candidates an opportunity to complete clinical field experiences remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic and serves as a tool to enhance their pedagogy skills beyond the current health crisis. “Our collective vision is to provide rigorous practice opportunities in live and virtual settings for teacher candidates who will soon lead their own classrooms,” said Gangone. “Our members are focused on solution-based initiatives during this global crisis and are leading the way forward in education with innovative technology. We are delighted to collaborate with Mursion to provide colleges of education vital resources that can enhance their work in the short- and long-term future.”

While COVID-19 has brought to light the need for technology innovation in clinical practice, simulation training in education is not a new concept. For years, universities and other programs have utilized the technology to prepare pre-service K-12 teachers for the challenges of teaching. In fact, Mursion’s virtual training technology is currently utilized by more than 65 universities, including Harvard University, University of Virginia, and California State University Northridge. To date, Mursion has conducted more than 50,000 training simulations in a variety of industries.

Avatars in the Classroom 

Simulation training with avatars is changing the learning landscape using artificial intelligence (AI) supervised by humans. While AI can do extraordinary things, it does not have the ability to replicate an emotionally intense conversation on its own. It requires the support of live professionals. AI can replicate authentic classroom environments and student behaviors, while trained professionals orchestrate the spoken dialogue between learners and the avatars. Participants can hone their skills through private practice with an avatar facilitator who provides guided reflection, or a live coach who can evaluate participant performance and provide additional feedback and mentoring.

This technology affords educators and teacher candidates the opportunity to practice their understanding and enactment of pedagogical content knowledge, which is essential to being a good teacher. Users can rehearse and master essential teaching skills such as behavior and social management, balancing diverse learning needs, and communication with students, peers, and parents. Essentially, simulation training allows for the weaving of theory and practice in real time—all the time.

Studies show that simulations are an effective instructional method, because they simultaneously engage trainees’ emotional and cognitive processes. VR simulations provide students the opportunity to practice interpersonal behaviors at an accelerated pace, receive rapid corrective feedback, and assess behavior with real people without the pressure of real-world consequences. “The virtual reality simulations provide a safe place to practice the most challenging pedagogical practices,” says Mark Atkinson, CEO of Mursion. “It is much better to make mistakes with avatars than real children. Like pilots, teachers are professionals; they want to ‘land” their lesson successfully. Better to crash in the simulator, than in real life.”

The Efficacy of Avatars 

In 2016, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded a national research project through the University of Central Florida to discover whether training in a virtual classroom could produce measurable changes in teacher practices. Researchers found that after four, 10-minute professional learning sessions in the simulator, teachers significantly outperformed their colleagues in targeted teaching behaviors. “When researchers followed these teachers out into their classrooms, they significantly outperformed their colleagues who had the same, 40-minute dosage of learning sessions on an online virtual webinar,” says Atkinson.

This past February, University of Virginia researchers published, “Teacher Coaching in a Simulated Environment,” which evaluates whether mixed reality simulations that provide feedback and opportunities for “do-overs” have an effect on candidates’ perceptions and teaching skills. The researchers found that coached candidates had significant improvement on skills relative to those who only reflected on their teaching.

Avatars now and into the future

With the uncertainty of the pandemic, new teachers might not enter a classroom this fall, but rather a remote teaching environment. In the context of COVID, VR simulations are particularly helpful in creating settings that mimic the remote learning environments that educators are teaching in right now. “We can put avatars in a Zoom-like interface and mimic the kinds of trauma and stress a lot of kids are experiencing right now,” says Atkinson. “Additionally, we can help teachers get inoculated to the modality of teaching that they have never done before and help them cope with what is admittedly an enormously stressful challenge.”

While VR technology cannot replace the gold standard of in-classroom experience, during the current health crisis and beyond, it is a valuable tool for advancing the field of education through research, educator preparation, and ongoing skill development. 

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