How virtual reality is changing the game of teacher training

The technology is being used as a teacher training and development tool for everything from classroom management to identifying students at risk of suicide

If you started your career in education as a teacher, think back to your first year. Chances are you experienced some pain points. Maybe a lesson flopped, you had no idea how to connect with students, or you flat-out lost control of the class.

New teachers learn important lessons in their first few years, but they do so sometimes to the detriment of their students. Students with disabilities, English learners and students in high-poverty areas—where beginning teachers are more common—especially can’t afford to lose learning time as teachers hone their skills.

What if, instead, novice teachers could work through pain points in a realistic classroom environment without impacting real students? Enter virtual reality.

The technology is being used as a teacher training and professional development tool for everything from classroom management to identifying students at risk of suicide.

Virtual classrooms with realistic students

TeachLivE is a mixed-reality classroom developed at the University of Central Florida in 2005 by professors Lisa Dieker, Charles E. Hughes and Michael Hynes.
It’s a virtual classroom where teachers can practice live lessons in front of student avatars who behave and respond just like real students. “I’ve been hanging out in this space for 15 years and I’m still surprised at times by what the student avatars say,” Dieker says. “It’s a little like Disney. You know Mickey isn’t real, but you still go up to hug him every time.”

The system is unique, because the avatars are controlled in part by a live person working behind the scenes who can inhabit the avatars during a simulation.
Two avatars are modeled after real students with disabilities whose families consulted on the project, Dieker says. “Martin” is a student with autism who has different levels of behavior depending on the attention that the teacher gives him. “Bailey” is a high schooler with intellectual disabilities who loves baking cupcakes on the weekend. “The teacher has to really get to know Bailey before they understand her background and challenges,” Dieker says.

The classroom was originally developed to help teachers practice managing student behaviors. It’s become particularly useful for teachers working on specific skills such as discrete trial training, asking higher-level questions, improving wait times, and providing more positive to negative comments, Dieker says.

“One thing we can do in the simulator that you can’t do in real life is decouple content and pedagogy,” Dieker says. “In a real classroom, you can’t say, ‘Oh children, please behave today because I want to work on teaching the perfect math lesson,’ but we can make all the avatars be on their best behavior. The next week, we could ratchet up their behaviors so there’s chaos and you can work on management.”

Specific skills can also be tagged, measured and recorded for review.

“Just like a professional athlete reviews footage of a jump shot, we could tag that targeted behavior and go back to review it,” Dieker says.

The TeachLivE technology is being put toward other uses, too. At the Kilmer Center in Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, students with autism practice peer interactions and job interviewing in the simulated environment. Administrators have also used adult avatars in the simulator to practice giving feedback and holding parent-teacher conferences.

Risk-free environment to make mistakes, ask questions

Virtual reality can also help districts create a safe, risk-free environment for staff to practice difficult conversations with students. In Texas’ Round Rock ISD, school staff use a virtual program by Kognito to satisfy mandatory suicide prevention training required by Texas state law.

In the web-based simulation, a school member role-plays a conversation with a student avatar who may be at risk of suicide or self-harm.

Read moreVirtual students train teachers in suicide prevention

“It has those real-world responses that you’d get from a student,” says LaShanda Lewis, the district’s counseling services coordinator. The adult taking the course must respond to try to get the student to see the school counselor.

Staff can complete the course when it’s convenient for them, but they can’t be a passive participant, Lewis says. “If you turn it on and walk away, it will be in that same spot when you get back.”

While Round Rock continues to provide in-person trainings on suicide prevention, Lewis says the virtual simulation provides a unique risk- and judgment-free environment for practice.

“It allows them to mess up and make a mistake without anyone else knowing about it,” she says.

Jennifer Herseim is an editor for LRP Media Group and program chair for Inclusion and Special Education at DA’s Future of Education Technology Conference.

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