UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A university student majoring in special education takes control of a classroom and promptly gets down to business. With a small class of five elementary-age students, he lays out the ground rules (e.g. no phones during class), explains fundamental rules of grammar, answers questions from the students, and occasionally deals with the antics of a mild antagonist.
While this scene may be reminiscent of many classrooms across the U.S., it was unique in one significant aspect — the “classroom” was a virtual creation by a mixed reality simulation system called SIMPACT Immersive Learning and the “students” were actually avatars voiced by actors. Housed in the Michael D. Eisner College of Education at California State University, Northridge, SIMPACT is “used in university classes, K-12 schools, and professional trainings to provide rehearsal and feedback in the types of skills that were previously difficult for professionals to practice before they entered the workplace.”
According to faculty members in the Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling, and Special Education (EPCSE) in Penn State’s College of Education, integrating the technology into their undergraduate and graduate curriculums has enabled students to gain valuable teaching experience at a time when opportunities to teach in real-life classrooms are limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It really fits our (educational) model because our students learn a very structured format for teaching,” said Kathleen McKinnon, teaching professor of education (special education).
Over the summer, she added, there was a college-wide discussion on using the SIMPACT technology in classrooms, and eventually, the EPCSE faculty members got permission to use SIMPACT with financial contributions from the students. The faculty members arranged for each of the undergraduate and graduate cohorts to get three two-hour sessions.
“It is good practice,” McKinnon said. “The little bit of research that’s out there for virtual classrooms shows that short sessions with the avatars repeated over time help students practice the skills.”
During a SIMPACT simulation, the students take turns sitting in the “hot seat” to teach and collaborate with the avatars. At any time, students can pause to discuss the interaction with classmates, or they can discuss at the end of the session. Jeremy Moeller, assistant teaching professor in the Department of EPCSE, said that as an instructor he sees one of the system’s advantages is having the ability to talk to the actors in real time to control the flow of the session.
“On my phone, I text them if I want them to increase problem behaviors,” he said. “We work with the actors, which is really great because we know what’s going to happen in the session and they do a great job with delivering what we want them to.”
The timing of the adoption of SIMPACT turned out to be fortuitous in light of the decision by many Pennsylvania schools to conduct classes remotely or through a hybrid system due to the coronavirus crisis, said Linda Hutchinson-Palmer, instructor of education (special education) in the Department of EPCSE. In normal times, students engage in classroom teaching in local schools for eight weeks.
“It’s just not very feasible when it’s all online at this point,” she said.
According to the faculty members, one of the main benefits of SIMPACT for students is having the opportunity to gain practical teaching experience without the pressures of being in a real classroom.
“Since it is simulated, they can do things incorrectly, and it’s OK,” Moeller said. “They can hone their teaching craft in an environment that’s a little safer for them to really be OK with making a mistake, realizing it and getting feedback immediately from their peers and faculty members who are involved.”
Sarah Fox, a senior majoring in special education, said that she appreciates the opportunities that SIMPACT provides to practice teaching skills in a realistic yet supportive environment.
“SIMPACT gave me the opportunity to improve areas of my teaching by having realistic avatars that behaved similarly to students I may interact with in my own classroom,” she said. “It also gave me opportunities to practice parts of an explicit instruction lesson and get feedback in real time from my professors and peers.
Grace Moynihan, also a senior majoring in special education, said that SIMPACT is particularly valuable in building online teaching skills during a time when remote learning is the norm.
“Not a lot of people have a pre-service teaching experience like this, and not being in person for teaching has its challenges,” she said. “However, I feel SIMPACT better prepared me for behavioral management online."
The EPCSE faculty members said that they are hoping to continue to use SIMPACT in their classes in the spring 2021 semester.
“The students definitely get a lot out of it,” Moeller said. “The more practice our students get, both virtually and (in real life), the better off they are once they graduate from Penn State and go into a classroom.”