Avatars teach teachers how to teach

Would-be middle-school teachers can practice classroom management skills on avatars designed at University of Central Florida, reports Steve Kolowich on Inside Higher Ed.

Monique, the eager-to-please girl with the chirpy alto, is raising her hand again. But I’m more interested in drawing Maria — who hides in the back row and avoids eye contact — out of her shell.

“She don’t wanna talk to you, man,” says Marcus, confidently flip as usual. “She don’t talk to anybody.”

Vince, the pallid kid with dark hair who sits at Marcus’s left, chuckles — just like he did earlier when Marcus told me he “found” the Mercedes-Benz hood ornament, now draped around his neck, “in the parking lot.”

Central Florida’s Lisa Dieker hopes TeachME will “eliminate the trial-by-fire approach to classroom-management training, and replace it with something more instructive and less dangerous,” Kolowich writes.

Dieker and the TeachME team — which includes members of the university’s education, engineering, computer science, mathematics, and theater departments — believe they have created a virtual classroom so real-seeming that it could drastically improve how prepared novice teachers are by the time they venture into the blackboard jungle as student teachers — and in so doing, reduce teacher turnover by weeding out likely candidates for burnout.

Perhaps more importantly, it could limit the students’ exposure to underprepared, ineffective teachers. And, the team assumes, improve learning outcomes.

The five avatars aren’t animated by artificial intelligence: They’re controlled by drama students or professional actors who’ve studied student behavior.  That means the teaching scenario isn’t scripted. A teacher educator acts as auxiliary puppeteer, controlling knobs that create non-speaking outbursts, such as giggling, or “cranking up the chaos” if a teacher-in-training is riling the avatars.

Teachers-in-training don’t need to travel to a simulation lab; they teach via Skype.  However, TeachME requires a well-trained actor to speak for the five students; the avatars’ body language is set in advance.

Central Florida is collaborating with other universities. Utah State’s TeachME pilot focuses on disabled, illiterate, and autistic students. Other partners are working on a program for Teach for America and one for rural schools. 

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  1. Charles R. Williams says:

    It would make more sense to reduce drastically the time spent in education courses and replace it with apprenticeship programs. Also, assistant principals need to be involved in hiring decisions. They need to be held accountable for the success and retention of the rookie teachers they hire.

    This kind of simulation could work but may not be practical because of the cost of staffing it.

  2. georgelarson says:

    Wouldn’t it be easier and cheaper to use a class of would-be middle-school teachers to simulate a clasroom of students. I know I could easily simulate the student from hell for them.

  3. george, most education students experience these simulations in college courses. when i was in school, we had to teach various lessons to our peers, who acted according to the age level of the lesson. it sucked. it was totally unrealistic and some people act like idiots just b/c they can. it’s really over the top and not helpful.


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