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University of Central Missouri
Administration 302
Warrensburg, MO 64093
Phone: 660-543-4640
Fax: 660-543-4943


TeachLivE™ Avatars Add Virtual Touch to Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers

Contact: Jeff Murphy
WARRENSBURG, MO (March 31, 2015) – Standing in a virtual classroom at the University of Central Missouri, Adam Benson, a senior education major from St. Louis, gets a glimpse of working life that is familiar to most practicing teachers, but with a technological twist.

In a setting that looks like a large-scale video game, as Benson begins a lecture on free elections in the United States his attention is immediately diverted to one of the female high school students in his class. “CJ, would you please put your phone away,” the budding young educator asks the girl calmly. Before the session has ended, he has not only shared insights into the election process, but along the way, he has awakened a sleeping student, encouraged another to stop texting her boyfriend, and even coaxed others into returning items to their backpacks.    

Teachlive demo
Starlynn Nance, assistant professor of education and social studies director, advisor, and supervisor, assists with a demonstration of TeachLivE™, which creates a virtual classroom environment to help prepare students who are entering the education field. The technology uses avatars that actually interact with the teacher similar to real students.

The behavioral challenges Benson encounters in the virtual classroom setting may seem commonplace for many practicing high school teachers, but for a college student preparing for the professional world of education such simulation exercises provide valuable learning opportunities. They help UCM teacher education students to develop and hone skills in areas such as classroom management and teaching pedagogy long before they employ them in real-life situations.

Benson is one of many UCM students in the College of Education who are benefitting from TeachLivE™,  a classroom simulation program created by education and computer science faculty members at the University of Central Florida. The five students he is facing – the ones who ask questions, respond, and sometime even verbally disagree with his discipline techniques – are avatars. They are all carefully programmed to interact with the teacher in a way that is highly typically of American high school students.

Terrell Brown, Ph.D., associate professor of educational foundations at UCM, observed the technology in 2011 and began working with the Florida school to bring it to UCM. With Brown’s commitment, coupled with the dedication of fellow educators, Starlynn Nance, Ph.D., and Phil Jones, Ph.D., the College of Education began implementing TeachLivE™ in spring 2013, making Central Missouri among the first in Missouri to use this program.

Although Brown stresses actual teaching experience in front of real students as the best way to improve classroom skills, he believes digital teaching opportunities provide an effective way to help refine classroom techniques without putting students at risk.

“When you’re teaching students, and if something goes wrong you really can’t take it back,” he said. “So here (using TeachLivE™), we can stop the class. We get a chance to talk about what’s going on as far as behavior. Or, if there is something that is being overlooked with instruction, we can stop and reflect on it”.

 “The best part of it is that you get to do it all over again,” Brown added. “You can practice and refine that particular approach to teaching or managing a classroom.”

In the virtual setting, the student training to be a teacher stands in front of a large projection screen, which displays student avatars sitting at their desks. Incorporating technology such as voice recognition, video, and an Xbox connect, the teacher can actually move around the classroom as needed to manage students.

Brown said developers of this classroom simulation technology have taken many measures to ensure students who use TeachLivE™  receive an authentic teaching experience.

“This program was created by the University of Central Florida based on extensive research on human behavior at a particular age. They also looked at culture, socioeconomic status, where students are from, and different income levels to create a diverse student population,” Brown said.

 He added that TeachLivE™ offers different programs to reach younger groups of students and adults. Some applications that utilize avatars include experiences aimed at preparing teachers who will work with students with learning disabilities, and opportunities to participate in simulated parent-teacher conferences. Adults also can learn how to prepare for job interviews using this same technology.

  Brown noted that the program offers flexibility in the type of teaching environment students experience. The program, for example, has settings that allow a student to experience more complex behavioral issues. It also enables the student to try out new techniques in the classroom to help improve learning.

“It’s not really about behavior as much as quality teaching and finding key approaches that are seen as best practices and actually testing them,” Brown said.

Benson, who is now student teaching in an a high school classroom, said the experience with TeachLivE™ and the personal feedback he received from his UCM professors was vital to his growth as an educator. He used the program three times during the fall 2014, and insisted “the experience is completely worth it.”  

“Personally, I found it to be very helpful because I was able to put what I learned from my classroommanagement classes into action, and after the simulation was finished, I received feedback on what I did well and what I could work on,” Benson said. “Now that I am student teaching and really living my future career, I notice that the greatest benefit I received from TeachLivE was the comfort of interacting with students,” he added. “Even though this program is completely virtual, the interaction between the teacher and students is very similar to working with students in a real classroom.”

Since implementing TeachLivE™ into the UCM learning experience, Brown has had an opportunity to share information about this technology to peers from other institutions at a number of professional conferences. He and his colleagues are currently using the technology to conduct research which will determine if there are differences in the development of students who use simulations in their learning experiences verses those who have had more of a traditional learning experience. Once the results are compiled, they hope to publish their findings in a scholarly journal.