NewsJun 28, 2018

Avatars give student teachers real-time training

Lesley pilots virtual reality technology to prepare novice instructors for the classroom

A man looks at a wide screen TV where the images of avatars are displayed.

The first time teachers are put in charge of classrooms is often day one on the job, and that has the potential for disaster, say Tina De La Cruz and Maureen Creegan-Quinquis, members of our Graduate School of Education.

“We have students that know so much, but when they’re asked to (lead a classroom), the wheels come off somehow,” says Associate Professor Creegan-Quinquis.

For two years, she and De La Cruz have piloted Mursion, Inc., a new virtual reality tool that places pre-service teachers in realistic classroom scenarios that allow them to practice their craft before taking charge of a real class. Lesley received an in-kind grant through the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which provided access to Mursion’s databank of scenarios, characters and technology equipment. Since receiving the grant in 2016, De La Cruz and Creegan-Quinquis have worked closely with Mursion, Inc to introduce the platform to K-12 educators.

How it works

Mursion provides professional training using computer avatars that interact with users. In the first day of class scenario, the user is asked to establish classroom rules and make connections with students. Five middle-school avatars, each with different personalities, appear on a wide-screen television outfitted with a web cam. The scenarios are true to life: kids whip out contraband cell phones, answer questions with more than a little sass, toss verbal jabs at their peers and even compliment the teacher’s glasses.

“There is no script. As the (teachers-in-training) are going through the practice, (they) get stumped by the avatars,” says De La Cruz, project director for the Dean’s Office. “In the same way, in a classroom, you don’t know what the kids will say.”

She and Creegan-Quinquis have run the same scenario dozens of times, and each time the conversations take different paths.

Student teachers can and do get flustered by the unpredictability of the interactions.

“Tina and I have been able to hone in on what’s possible with the avatars to show students what can happen if you lose control of the classroom,” says Creegan-Quinquis. “The beauty is that when you can see the new student teacher is losing control or freaking out, you can pause the simulation, discuss with the rest of the cohort and try it again differently.”

She adds, “One of my favorite things about this is that no children are hurt in the process.”

Confronting biases

In classrooms, new teachers are often unaware of their microagressions and biases. Creegan-Quinquis remembers hearing one novice teacher say to an Asian student, “What do you mean you’re not good at math?” in defiance of the stereotype. Similar thoughtless and hurtful comments can come out during Mursion simulations, and lead to classroom discussions that raise awareness of long-ingrained biases.

“If you don’t know, then you just move through life being oblivious,” says De La Cruz.

Other Mursion scenarios include one-on-one parent-teacher conferences, an evaluation meeting with the principal and a job interview.

“I think this is a critical opportunity to send out teachers that are much more culturally responsive and ready for real life,” says Creegan-Quinquis.

The reality in virtual reality

With a traditional teacher preparation curriculum, she says, “You take a bunch of courses and you’re lucky if you ever meet a principal, parent or kid student before you do your student teaching. Ironically, because it’s a technological virtual reality, they’re getting a more organic experience.”

More than 250 Lesley students have participated in the simulations. They largely find the practice helps them be more self-aware and prepared for their careers.

“It was a fantastic experience,” says Marc Firenze ’19, a master’s candidate. “All the emotions that I experienced in terms of being in front of a classroom were a lot of the same emotions that I experienced using the avatars.”

Firenze worked in financial service technology before his career shift to education, so the practical experience was helpful preparation before he begins his new job as a high school math teacher in the fall.

“It’s a great learning tool. Hopefully we get to use it more,” he says.

A female adult avatar is displated in an office on a large screen TV.
Mursion's parent-teacher conference scenario gives teachers in training practical experience.

Creegan-Quinquis and De La Cruz see great potential for the tool. They believe it would benefit substitute teachers, who rarely receive any instruction on classroom management, and would improve other facets of the university.

Chief Diversity Officer Lilu Barbosa is interested in using Mursion to help faculty and staff explore their biases as part of ongoing efforts to create a more equitable campus.

“While we can read and learn about topics such as facilitating conversation with a diverse group or responding to difficult moments during dialogue, it does not guarantee that there will be a complete translation toward improved action or behavior,” he says. “The Mursion training tool is something that potentially can be added into a larger developmental training experience where individuals can not only strengthen their content knowledge, but also their practical skills.”

Changing people’s perceptions is part of the Lesley experience says Creegan-Quinquis.

“We’re really interested in using whatever tools are available to get teachers to self-reflect about the assumptions that they make,” she says. “You can’t walk away not having learned something.”