18 April 2017
Teacher candidates use simulator to hones parent-teacher conferencing skills
A new virtual-reality environment has been helping teacher candidates from the Curry School develop their professional skills over the past year. Interacting with avatars representing both students and parents provides teacher candidates with a valuable, low-stakes setting for initial experiences — before they go into the field.

Elementary teacher candidates taking a classroom management course at Curry spend time in a classroom simulator with five upper elementary student avatars, each of which are controlled by an offsite actor. As teachers-in-training introduce a lesson, student avatars demonstrate common behavioral challenges. In response, teacher candidates must apply appropriate strategies to reengage pupils or redirect distracting behavior.

“Thinking back to my practicum experience, I remember getting into a power struggle with a student that I couldn’t seem to get out of gracefully,” said former teacher Meredith McCool, who is a doctoral student in the Curry School’s curriculum and instruction program. “I would have much preferred to have had practice in the simulator, where I could have reflected on the situation with a mentor and even tried it again to see if I could achieve a different, and better, outcome.”
Last fall the teacher education program tried a different module offered by the company that licenses this proprietary technology — a module that incorporates parents and guardians. All teacher education students practiced interacting with parents in a virtual reality parent-teacher conference.

Jillian McGraw, Simulation Project Coordinator“Our teacher interns had to discuss a case-study student with a parent avatar for an 8- to 10-minute session,” explained Jillian McGraw, a doctoral student in curriculum and instruction who is overseeing the simulator project. The sessions were filmed and reviewed by faculty instructors for consistency; project objectives included establishing rapport with the parent, using professional language (free of judgment and jargon), and collaboratively developing strategies to help the pupil. According to McGraw, the engagement facilitated by the simulator is so authentic that students came away saying, “That was so real.”

The simulator is currently in the proof-of-concept stage for its use in teacher preparation and in other human services programs. Meanwhile, the Curry School seeks endowment support for developing a more advanced simulator that incorporates artificial intelligence. Once the ideal technology is available, the Curry School will be in a great position to establish a national center for teaching simulation that provides shareable research and models.

by Lynn Bell
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