Imagine that you're trying to teach a lesson on cell division, and one student will not pay attention. Even worse, she keeps talking back to you. The interaction is starting to distract other students, too. Finally, you snap. You yell. And you realize that it will be hard to rebuild rapport with the student at whom you yelled.
"Pause." Like the deus ex machina in a Greek play, your instructor freezes the action and asks you what went wrong and what you could have done differently. Then you and your students return to the beginning of the lesson as if you had never lost your temper—and you try a new strategy for keeping the student's attention and keeping your cool.
This scenario (and ones like it) are playing out in roughly 75 teacher prep programs across the country as they employ a new tool in teacher training: virtual students. TeachLivE, created by the University of Central Florida, allows real teacher candidates to teach a class of student avatars. These avatars are controlled by an "interactor" who gives voice to the student avatars and manipulates their movements with the push of a button—all in real time as the candidate teaches the class.
This new technology could offer teacher training the capacity to satisfy the classroom equivalent of medicine's Hippocratic Oath: when aspiring teachers test their skills on virtual students, they can "do no harm." Of course, TeachLivE is not meant to take the place of student teaching—it's intended more as a practice tool.
The potential uses for TeachLivE could include an introduction to teaching, an opportunity to practice skills and a summative assessment of teaching skills.
Several institutions are already using TeachLivE to give aspiring teachers a taste of classroom interaction that goes well beyond customary visits. The experience of being in front of the room rather than on the sidelines will help them decide if the job is right for them.
A second use of TeachLivE involves using it as a stage to rehearse teaching. Preparation programs' presentations at a recent TeachLivE conference suggest this is the most prevalent use. A few examples of skills candidates have practiced with avatars' help include asking deep questions, delivering lessons to ELL students and addressing student misbehavior. Preparation programs often find that TeachLivE practice sessions are more effective when teacher candidates are told what to teach—so that their focus is on how to teach. (This mirrors our thoughts about anchored assignments in Easy A's.)
As for TeachLivE's use as a summative evaluation, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) is piloting a new performance assessment, NOTE, which will employ TeachLivE in three of its four performance tasks. Intriguing as the concept it, this will be a very heavy lift for an April 2016 roll-out.
With its potential to give candidates more opportunities to hone their craft before they enter the classroom, TeachLivE is a technology with a great deal of promise.