Standing in front of a virtual classroom, Jennifer Dion, a student in the Special Ed Preliminary Mild Moderate Credential Program, teaches five students that look and behave just like real ones. Sean is the teacher’s pet, Maria is the quiet one, CJ wants to rule the classroom, Kevin has learning challenges, and Ed is a thinker.
Only these students don’t go home at the end of the day. They power down. They are avatars.
Dion is using TeachLivE™, a program that allows her to put into practice what she has learned in class and only read in books. CSUN was the 11th university in the country to collaborate with the University of Central Florida to implement TeachLivE™ with the help of Dr. Sally A. Spencer, an associate professor in the Department of Special Education, and an $1.5 million program improvement grant from the Office of Special Education Programs in the Department of Education.
“The system is a virtual classroom,” Spencer said. “It has five avatars, each of whom represent unique personalities in the classroom. It is controlled by a combination of artificial intelligence and a live person, and it allows teachers to get in front of these five kids and practice their skills. The kids respond just like real kids, but you can’t ruin their lives. They can’t crash and burn.”
Dion said it’s not like talking to cartoons because she can gauge their interest and understanding by how they respond to her lesson. The avatars, who have names and back stories, are designed to have the typical traits you might meet in a real classroom.
“They will let you know immediately if you’re heading off target or if they don’t like what you’re saying, and so you are immediately thrust into the situation and think ‘Oh, my gosh, I have to pick this up because they’re getting bored,’” Dion said.