UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Because Associate Professor of Education Mary Catherine Scheeler has spent her career concentrating on ways to make special-education teacher preparation as effective as possible, she spent her recent sabbatical speaking with individuals — some human and some not — who could help her heighten that effort.
What's reality, Scheeler said, is when new teachers leave Penn State's College of Education, "they are ready to hit the ground running, they are good. But we're always looking for ways to improve what we do."
That's where the virtual reality comes in. Scheeler invested some time getting to know a quintet of avatar friends named Ed, Sean, Maria, CJ and Kevin. They are the stars of the educational show named TeachLivE, which originated at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and is an avatar-based simulation for teaching skills that is being used at about 50 universities domestically and globally.
Scheeler hosted a workshop on July 18 in CEDAR Building for education psychology, counseling and special education faculty and doctoral students to form an opinion on whether such cutting-edge technology is worth pursuing. The simulation stemmed from that used to train airline pilots and military personnel, according to Scheeler.
"My research is in providing immediate feedback to teachers using Bug-in-Ear technology and also in how can we better teach our pre-service teachers to generalize what they learn in the university setting to K-12 classroom settings," Scheeler said. "This just fit in beautifully with those two areas in what I've been interested in since I came to Penn State. Here's a way to enhance what we are currently doing in our teacher preparation program."
The concept behind TeachLivE is elementary: Technology that includes a computer screen with Skype capabilities and a prospective teacher on one end and the program's avatars on the other. They have personalities that vary from Sean's love of incessant chatter and attention-seeking behaviors to Maria's quiet, shy demeanor.
Ed is scholarly, CJ is obsessed with her cell phone and has a quick, sarcastic response to everything, and Kevin is the cyberspace Mr. Social who will comment about your clothes, the look on your face or anything that he notices in the classroom, before he'll answer an academic question.
Only one can speak at a time but all answer quickly with different moods and varying voice inflection. It provides a future teacher with a look at how interactions can go south if he or she is not prepared with not only conversation of some sort but discipline as well. The level of challenge that the avatars can deal out to a prospective teacher varies from ordinary all the way up to verbal provocation, and sessions only need to last about seven to 10 minutes to be an effective learning tool.
The avatars can be elementary age; they can age a few years to middle-school level; and they can add a few more years for high school simulation. The company also is creating a pre-school simulation and there are adults available as well. If a session gets out of hand, the student teacher or instructor can pause the program and restart from scratch, leaving no lasting memory of what just happened moments before.
The "teachers'" who stepped in front of the classroom avatars for two to three minutes on July 18 discussed the legislative branches of our government and talked about the proper use and possible uses of cell phones in the classroom. One asked what the students did the previous weekend, and one asked what they were going to do on the upcoming weekend.
Another purposely tried to not do a good job in front of the class and she did indeed lose their interest, even in just two minutes. The avatars acted like typical, excitable, middle school students, and they answered questions that allowed their personalities to reign.
Scheeler studied TeachLivE at UCF and watched it used at SUNY-Buffalo State with Penn State alumna Shannon Budin, who presented at the recent workshop along with special education doctoral student Andy Markelz. "My interest in my work is to make teacher preparation as effective as it can possibly be," Scheeler said. "And we want it to be efficient because we need to teach a lot in not a lot of time. We have a lot to teach our pre-service teachers before they leave."
She also thought the technology was versatile. "I could see where it could be applied in several different courses," she said. "The good thing about using this to prepare teachers is that you could work on accuracy and fluency with their newly acquired skills. They could practice and if it's not going well, you could shut it down, correct the practice and start it back up again as if it's a brand-new scenario.
"It's not to replace (pre-service teaching) but it's really to enhance what we're doing. It's not a replacement for practicum or work in a real setting with children, but a way to supplement, not supplant. The avatars allow for more practice with targeted teaching skills and more opportunities for feedback from the instructor," she added.
"I'm dedicated to preparing the best teachers that I can and I was a teacher, I was a student-teaching supervisor, so I'm always looking for ways that we can do that."
Scheeler said she might plan another demo as well as speak with administrators in the college to gauge interest. In addition to practical application of TeachLivE in courses, she also cited potential research opportunities for faculty and doctoral students.
"I thought it would be useful to share what I learned in my sabbatical with others," Scheeler said. "That was one of the objectives, go learn about it, bring it back here and see if people are interested and if we should we pursue it."