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Laurie Leake, a Slidell junior in special education, teaches her "class" of five avatars or simulated students in preparation for facing a real classroom of children. The avatars represent sixth grade learners of diverse ethnicities and personalities that are typically encountered in a middle school classroom.
Southeastern junior Laurie Leake had never faced the daunting experience of teaching a classroom of middle-schoolers.
"It has taken me nearly 20 years to get to the point that I can finally pursue my passion of teaching" said Leake, a special education major from Slidell.
Leake, like other teacher candidates at Southeastern, gained the opportunity to first work in a simulated classroom before having to experience the real thing. The university is one of a handful of institutions nationwide to use the innovative program designed to help in the formation of future educators.
|Assistant Professor of Education Nicki Anselmo-Skelton, left, provides feedback to Laurie Leake following Leake's teaching session in Southeastern's virtual classroom|
The software gives teachers in training the opportunity to respond to multiple situations within the classroom environment through the use of avatars, the virtual, computer-generated "students" who populate the simulated classroom.
"It is a virtual classroom filled with real-time avatars," said Associate Professor of Education Nicki Anselmo-Skelton. "The students in our lab can talk to the avatars and the avatars respond."
Researchers at the University of Central Florida control the avatars, which represent sixth grade learners of diverse ethnicities and personalities that are typically encountered in a middle school classroom, Skelton explained. Their behaviors reflect everything from those in a "perfect" classroom to the other extreme, where the students may be completely out of control. The virtual classroom and its avatar middle-schoolers are projected from a computer via Skype onto a screen or SmartBoard.
"Teaching the avatars was an extremely enlightening experience for me," said Leake. "The avatars brought for me the realities of standing in front of a group of children. They all have uniquely different personalities, and this is perfect because it reflects actual diversity in the classroom. The preparation is priceless because it allows me to make my mistakes and learn from them ... without affecting a real child."
Leake added the immediate feedback the teacher candidate gets from his or her faculty member is extremely helpful.
Anzelmo-Skelton brought the technology to the Department of Teaching and Learning through a Louisiana Department of Education grant to be a part of the TLE "TeachLivE" program. The initiative began as a pilot project at UCF in Orlando.
"Our young teacher candidates are able to work on behavior management skills; they are able to work on the pedagogy or the 'how' of teaching, and they're able to implement various instructional strategies," Skelton said. "The research indicates what you can do in just 10 minutes with the avatars takes an hour to do face to face."
"The avatar experience was absolutely amazing," added Ashley Lee, a senior elementary education major from Watson, who is also pursuing a dual certification in special education. "I loved the interaction between myself and the avatars and the fact that the avatars had different personalities, which presented some real challenges. This was just a glimpse of what is yet to come when we get into our own classrooms and good practice on handling behavior problems in students."
Skelton described the most "powerful" part of this technology as the opportunity for students to refine their instructional skills without impacting real students.
"Young teachers can make the mistakes new teachers are prone to do without affecting the 'students' at all," Anselmo-Skelton said. "It allows for a nice progression. Our young teachers can reflect on their practices and then build their knowledge and confidence with the avatars before moving into the classroom."
In addition to working on a grant extension for Southeastern from the Louisiana Department of Education, Skelton is also documenting the student teachers' experience with researchers from UCF and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
"Soon we're going to have research under our belts that I believe will say the avatars and the virtual classroom make a real difference in teacher behaviors and in student outcomes," Skelton said.