CJ leans back from her desk and eases her cellphone out of her backpack in the middle of a high school class discussion.
She complains — “It’s my boyfriend, I have to text him back” — when the teacher asks her to put the phone away.
Maria lays her head on top of her desk until the teacher asks her to sit up straight. Kevin plays air guitar.
Typical behavior for some high school students, but this is no typical high school class. It’s a virtual world, and CJ, Maria and Kevin are avatars on a big screen.
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The teacher who stepped into their world one day recently is a real college student studying education at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg.
Central Missouri instructor Phil Jones ordered up the scenario to teach behavior management skills by putting his students in the middle of virtual action created by TeachLivE, an education program developed at the University of Central Florida. The avatars, operated from TeachLivE headquarters, respond in the moment, with each other and directly to the instruction of the student teacher.
“It allows students to get into some situations that they would be involved in, in their actual classrooms with real children,” Jones said.
“I love it,” Central Missouri student Nathan Long said, “because I can actually see how it is making me a better teacher.” Long is from Gladstone.
Since its launch in 2008, TeachLivE has been used by more than 10,000 teachers in more than 50 universities and five school districts. The University of Central Missouri and the University of Kansas were among the first in the Kansas City area to use it. The University of Missouri-Kansas City is using the program for the first time this spring.
Education professors compare time in the virtual classroom to a pilot spending hours in a flight simulator.
“It presents an opportunity for students to practice,” said Terrell Brown, Central Missouri education associate professor. “If we practiced with real students in a real school, there would be the possibility for real consequences.” And student role play, he said, just isn’t realistic enough.
Still, not everyone is sold.
“Building relationships with students happens in the classroom, not through a video game,” said Brian Bennett, an Indiana high school teacher and frequent blogger on education issues. “As virtualization grows in popularity, we’re losing opportunities to form real connections with real students, and that’s a dangerous path.”
The virtual classroom is not meant to replace the real classroom, said Taylor Bousfield, a doctoral student at the University of Central Florida. “It is an additional teacher preparation tool.”
College students engage the TeachLivE camera using body motion. That part works a little like a motion-controlled video game. But that’s about where the gaming similarities end.
An education professor orders a TeachLivE session two weeks in advance, describing a skill set to focus on. The tech team then has the avatars perform in ways that test those skills.
TeachLivE developers say four minutes in the virtual classroom is equivalent to an hour in a real classroom because specific actions are programmed into the session. Students fidget, text, hold side conversations and interrupt each other and the teacher.
In a real classroom, a teacher might have to wait days or weeks before a particular scenario would present itself.
Some TeachLivE avatar action is programmed, but some is the work of a human in Florida controlling each of the five high school students.
When the live student teacher asks a question, the avatar responds in his or her distinct voice.
CJ is a little sassy and whines a lot. She kept disrupting the lesson Central Missouri student Jordan Coward was trying to present.
“Plagiarism is presenting someone’s work as your own,” Coward told the virtual class.
“But what if nobody knows?” CJ blurted out. “Kinda like if a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it.”
Each avatar — there are five so far — has a back story and specific personality that never changes no matter what teaching scenario is playing out. Some are independent, some dependent. Some are passive, some aggressive. Some avatars are English language learners, and TeachLivE is developing new ones with physical and intellectual challenges.
Maria is dependent and passive with a 150 IQ. She might act out, but it would be within the realm of her personality, like reading a book when she is supposed to be listening to a lecture.
“They really seem real. They are quick-witted and do things normal high school students would do,” said Kayla Taylor, a 22-year-old Central Missouri student from Lee’s Summit who demonstrated her teaching skills in the virtual classroom in front of several fellow students.
That’s another benefit of the technology, said Patty Alvarez McHatton, associate dean for teacher education at the UMKC School of Education. It offers a dual learning opportunity.
“The person interacting with the virtual kids is learning, but so are the students watching the interaction,” McHatton said. “Those watching might spot something the one teaching didn’t.”
The professor can pause the TeachLivE session at any time, give the college student instruction and then run the scenario again.
“In a real classroom, if I make a mistake, it affects real kids. I can’t press pause, walk out, collect my thoughts and start over,” Taylor said.
The safety of the virtual classroom led KU education instructor Marti Elford to adopt a slogan: “No kid was harmed in the making of our teachers.”