LiU students teaching virtual pupils

In a project that is unique in Europe, students of teaching at LiU are training in a virtual classroom. It is hoped that the method will give students confidence in leading classes.

Classroom teaching is one component of teacher education that students often express a wish to spend more time on.
“Many students say that they feel that they don’t have sufficient knowledge about leadership in the classroom situation. They find it difficult to manage conflicts, and they can’t always interpret signals about whether the pupils truly understand what they have said”, says Marcus Samuelsson, associate professor in teaching methods at LiU.
He believes that students must practise more if they are to feel secure.
“But it’s not possible to arrange more education in the workplace, and it’s not even certain that the students of teaching encounter pupils who demonstrate classical research-based misconceptions when they are on such a placement.”
For this reason, students of teaching at LiU are starting to practise teaching in simulated classrooms. One advantage of the simulations is that teachers and fellow students can watch a student teaching. Afterwards, they discuss how the session went and give immediate feedback, something that is difficult in a conventional classroom.
Before a student of teaching can enter the virtual classroom, virtual teacher training, he or she is told about the situation there. 

Associate Professor Marcus Samuelsson.

Class is to arrange a school disco

In one subproject, for example, the student of teaching is a supply teacher, and the class is to arrange a school disco. Once inside the simulation, the student meets five pupils, represented of avatars of a type made popular in the Sims game.
“The avatars have different personalities. One is focussed on the task, while lacking social skills. Another is very dependent on the teacher”, explains Marcus Samuelsson.
The pupils react in the virtual classroom to the leadership shown by the student.
“If, for example, the student doesn’t have a clear plan, one of the avatars will react against this”, says Marcus Samuelsson.
The program used is called “TeachLivE” and was developed in the US. LiU has been using it on a licence obtained as part of a research project. The avatars in the classroom are semivirtual, which means that a person who controls the system lies behind them.
“We have trained two simulation specialists, who have backgrounds in teaching and the theatre. They control the avatars with a unit that looks like an X-box controller. They also use Morph vox, a sound conversion program that creates different voices for the various avatars”, says Marcus Samuelsson.

As close to ‘live’ as you can get

Ivana Abrahamsson has tested what it’s like to teach in the virtual classroom.
“It’s a great way of practising. It’s as close to ‘live’ as you can get. The pupils played different roles: one was shy while another was causing disturbances all the time. Exercising authority means that you keep order in the class.”
She is very satisfied with the exercise.
“I have quite a bit of experience of leadership, but it can even so be difficult to walk into a classroom. We have had education in the workplace on the programme, but we would need to practise more using this type of tool to gain more confidence. We should have more of this in the programme”, says Ivana Abrahamsson.
Håkan Samuelsson has also taught in the virtual classroom. He has four years’ experience as a teacher and is taking the professional qualification course for teachers.
“It was useful to teach in the virtual classroom. It could be a situation you meet in real life, albeit rather extreme. We had a lot to discuss afterwards. It would have been difficult to create anything similar in a conventional classroom. We were five adults who participated in the discussion. If the five of us had been in a real-life classroom, the pupils would have behaved differently.”

 

An exercise in the virtual classroom.

Part of a reseach project

Several other Swedish institutions of higher education are interested in the project and collaboration in the future. This is because several simulation projects are being carried out at LiU. However, another reason is that LiU is the only institution of higher education in Europe that has a TeachLivE licence. Marcus Samuelsson is aware that many schools are also interested in the training that TeachLivE makes possible. For example, teachers who experience problems in the classroom and cannot establish authority can be offered the opportunity to practise in similar situations and be given feedback.

The virtual teaching practice is part of a research project that investigates whether this type of training affects the students’ confidence in their ability to teach.
As many as 20% of newly qualified teachers leave the profession within five years. Marcus Samuelsson hopes that training in the virtual classroom will lead to more teachers remaining in the profession.
Preliminary research results show that training in the simulation does have an effect, and that it even increases student confidence as they prepare to meet pupils on their education in the workplace.
“We believe that if we can reduce the number of students who feel unprepared when they start work, we can reduce the number of students who subsequently leave the teaching profession. We also believe that better prepared newly qualified teachers will teach better, to the benefit and happiness of pupils.”

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