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Pre-service teachers actively engage with avatar-based program

2021-04-14-Virtual Reality
UNG students interact with computer-generated avatars in a simulated scenario as part of an applied behavioral analysis course taught by Dr. Brooks Peters on UNG's Cumming Campus. The immersive mixed-reality environment replicates classroom situations that allow UNG pre-service teachers to practice their problem-solving skills. After the scenario, Peters can give her students immediate feedback on their performance.

Teaching kindergarten through 12th-grade students with disabilities requires patience and skill. Dr. Brooks Peters and Dr. Jennifer Sears share those skills with University of North Georgia (UNG) students in their education courses.

Usually, both assistant professors of elementary and special education re-enact real-life scenarios to show how to handle behavioral issues and much more. But the duo thought a better way existed.

Peters and Sears investigated a tool called TLE TeachLive used by the University of Central Florida as well as UWGLive used by the University of West Georgia. The immersive mixed-reality environment uses avatars to simulate scenarios new teachers encounter in a classroom. An avatar is an electronic image that represents a computer user or image.

Peters proposed a pilot program for UNG pre-service teachers to use UWGLive to practice situations related to students with disabilities. Thanks to a 2020 UNG Presidential Incentive Award and College of Education funds, Peters and Sears collaborated to implement the tool in fall 2020 for a course on instructional strategies for students with disabilities.

"It was exciting," Sears said, explaining a handful of avatars present different characteristics. "All avatars have different personalities and mannerisms. They also represent the area's diverse population. For example, we have one student with Down syndrome and another with autism. We also have students who are Caucasian, Asian American and Black."

The avatars simulate several scenarios to allow UNG's pre-service teachers to try out their problem-solving skills. For example, one scenario involves a general education teacher not interested in collaborating with a special education teacher.

"Our UNG pre-service teacher had to convince this avatar-created teacher that a middle school student needed help," Peters said, adding the scenarios run between 5 and 10 minutes. "Once we were finished with the scenario, we gave our students immediate feedback. We discussed what worked, what didn't, and what to try next."

Peters and Sears said the UNG students actively engaged with the innovative program and desired more opportunities to use it. The two faculty members obliged them and incorporated it in their course on applied behavioral analysis in spring 2021.

This time, pre-service teachers observed scenarios to collect data. For example, they tracked if a student interrupted a fellow student or teacher, ignored instructions or didn't complete the assignment.

"We watched a scenario for 4 to 5 minutes and then we talked about it," Peters said. "The engagement with our UNG students was fabulous because they applied what they learned immediately."

Kylie Thompson, a junior pursuing a degree in elementary and special education, agreed.

"Many people wanted to run through the scenarios a few times, because there are so many ways the simulation can turn based on the response," said the 21-year-old from Cumming, Georgia.

Thompson said the resource is an ideal tool for herself and other students, especially in the simulations.

"The scenarios are better when we use the avatars instead of Dr. Peters," she said. "Instead of us trying to give her the correct textbook answer and meeting those expectations, we have a more natural conversation with the avatar."

Based on two semesters of use, Sears said UWGLive is an effective tool and hopes to use it in more College of Education courses.

"Our student engagement in the courses is night and day compared to last academic year," Sears said.

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