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Ed Students Get Teaching Practice via VR

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How do education students in college get practice teaching in elementary grades when most K-12 schools are doing remote instruction? The Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling, and Special Education (EPCSE) at Penn State has begun using mixed reality in its undergraduate and graduate programs to help its students gain teaching experience.

SIMPACT Immersive Learning, the immersive system being used, was developed at the College of Education at California State University, Northridge. The practice classroom is populated by avatar students that are voiced by actors in real time.

In "normal times," students get about eight weeks of classroom teaching practice in actual schools, according to Linda Hutchinson-Palmer, an EPCSE instructor of education for special education. However, she noted, "It's just not very feasible when it's all online at this point."

During a SIMPACT simulation, students take turns sitting in the "teacher" seat, to work with the avatars. Behind the scenes, the instructor can text the actors to "increase problem behaviors," as Jeremy Moeller, an assistant teaching professor explained in a university article about the project. Students can pause the action to talk with their fellow students.

"We work with the actors," Moeller said, "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."

Sarah Fox, a senior majoring in special education, said that she appreciated 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." It also gave her "opportunities to practice parts of an explicit instruction lesson and get feedback in real time from my professors and peers," she said.

Grace Moynihan, also a senior majoring in special education, added that SIMPACT was especially valuable to her 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 observed. "However, I feel SIMPACT better prepared me for behavioral management online."

Adoption of the program wasn't a slam-dunk. There was a college-wide debate about using SIMPACT in classrooms during the summer. Faculty in EPCSE only received permission to adopt the platform once they also got the promise of financial help from the students. Then the instructors arranged for each of the undergraduate and graduate cohorts to get three two-hour sessions.

As Moeller explained, the use of the simulation adds the benefit of giving students practical teaching experience without the pressures they'd feel in a real classroom. "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," she said.

The EPCSE faculty members said they hope continue to use SIMPACT in their classes in the spring 2021 semester.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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