CSUN Education Students Practice Teaching with Avatars in Virtual Classroom

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.

The new technology has allowed Dion and other student-teachers to be taught differently. They are required to take courses and complete assignments, and eventually get some experience doing fieldwork at a local school. But now TeachLivE™ allows them to get their foot in the door sooner without the added pressure of dealing with real students.

Dion said TeachLivE™ has helped her improve her teaching because after giving her lesson, professors can debrief and offer feedback. The exercise is also captured on tape to allow students to see themselves in action.

“I like the fact that they tape the professor’s feedback, because you’re in there and your adrenaline is coming down because you’re nervous and just went through it, and they’re giving you all this constructive feedback and you’re like, OK, yeah, I get it,” she said.

TeachLivE™ is being used in the university’s Special Ed 403 class taught by Professor Beth A. Lasky. The class gives student teachers going for their mild to moderate special education credential an early fieldwork experience.

Lasky, who admitted not knowing what an avatar was when the system was first introduced in a faculty meeting, said she was only able to supervise student teachers doing fieldwork twice during the semester. Now she can provide more feedback and this excites her.

Amanda Schramling, who is in the Special Ed Credential Program, is another student who has used TeachLivE™. She said TeachLivE™ is beneficial for students who have never taught before.

“I think it’s great for new students,” Schramling said. “You’re able to practice, practice, practice and you’re not harming children or, messing up any sort of curriculum that they may be getting.”

Returning student Demitra Christine, who is in the mild to moderate special education program, said inexperienced student teachers who are having a hard time teaching their lesson can easily start over unlike in real classrooms.

“There’s a lot of things that are very different about it than a regular school environment,” Christine said. “You can’t see what kind of work they’re producing, so you need to make sure that you ask a lot of questions. And there are some minor facial expressions but for the most part you have to rely on your own teaching methods.”

Ronnie L. Grant, a senior infrastructure technician in Information Technology, was in charge of setting up the program in the Michael D. Eisner College of Education.

Grant said the setup was a challenge because unlike other universities, CSUN’s space has a control room with a one-way mirror into the virtual classroom. Five stools are set up in the room to represent the students.

His focus has now turned to finding a better way to capture the video of students using TeachLivE™. Grant and the professors would like to be able to record the student teachers with the push of one button instead of setting up cameras. He’d also like to see it in other departments in the university.

“There’s a lot of places on the campus where having your students be able to interact with real people via avatars can make for a great learning experience that they wouldn’t get just sitting in a lecture hall,” Grant said.

For more information about University of Central Florida’s TeachLivE™ system visit http://www.ucf.edu/teachlive.

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