Virtually hands-on

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Texas Woman’s University senior Lauren Whited uses the TeachLivE classroom computer simulation program to practice being in front of a class Wednesday in Denton.
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Avatars step in to assist aspiring teachers

As the classic Disney song “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast echoes through the room, a student named Kevin is bobbing his head, with arms crossed, right leg crossed over his left, also tapping.

As the clip concludes, Alexis Ronquillo, a junior education major at Texas Woman’s University, asks Kevin and his four classmates to identify what happens in the clip that couldn’t happen in real life — singing candlesticks, dancing silverware and plates placing themselves, for example. Some hands shoot up to answer, while others bow their heads.

But the students aren’t anymore real than the singing candlesticks and dancing silverware. While perhaps more realistic, they are actually avatars on a screen that interact with TWU students as they practice teaching in a new program called TeachLivE.

“I think it’s cool that they talk back to you — you’re not just speaking to a classroom where everyone has to listen to you,” Ronquillo said. “These students actually interact with you and what’s on their minds.”

The TeachLivE lab at TWU is one of just 40 across the country using the new computer-simulated classroom, where education students stand in front of a screen and video camera to present lessons to the avatars.

The avatars answer questions, perform in class activities and act like typical high school students. Sometimes one will send text messages, another is eager to answer every question, and Kevin sits in the back bobbing his head, occasionally engaging.

Heather Haynes-Smith, an assistant professor, received a grant to study professional development from the University of Central Florida, where the program was developed, and was able to bring the technology to TWU. Now, any professors can use the technology for their students and help TWU students gain experience as if they were entering a live classroom.

The tool allows teaching candidates at TWU to practice giving a 5-minute to 10-minute lesson in a controlled setting that is close to an actual classroom while their professors watch, Haynes-Smith said.

“It’s hard to be out in the schools, and with early teacher education, there’s an opportunity to observe in the classroom, but you don’t necessarily always want them to have the opportunity to start teaching until they have a little bit more background and coursework,” she said. “But in here, you can do it, and it’s a safe environment.”

Watching the simulations also adds another layer to the college courses the teaching candidates are taking, said Dan Krutka, assistant professor. His students, like Ronquillo’s, enjoy the sessions, and it gives him new criteria to evaluate since they wouldn’t normally be in a classroom setting for his course.

“I feel like we were able to talk about the detail things after, like how do you answer this, how do you do a follow-up question, and you can notice problems in the questions,” Krutka said. “I think it’s all those little things you can’t see in writing a lesson plan but see in the actual teaching process.”

How the technology works is still confidential, but the avatars are controlled by real trainers. There are also more simulations available through the software, such as teaching in Spanish and special education.

Additionally, TWU will soon introduce a second component to the simulated classroom — meetings with parents and administrators.

The capabilities of the program are surprising, said Lauren Whited, a senior who recently used TeachLivE for the first time. This makes her want to use the program more, she said.

“It definitely does help a lot when you write a lesson plan, and for those of us who really don’t have that much experience in the classroom, it’s really helpful,” she said. “We can go in and see what could have been better, and what could have changed based on using the experience of having these kids to teach it to.”

JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @JennaFDuncan.


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