Developing Teachers in a Virtual Classroom

November 12, 2020

Developing teachers in a virtual classroom

What if you could teach in a classroom that allowed you to take risks and make mistakes without negative consequences for students’ learning? What if that classroom also provided you with immediate feedback and gave you the opportunity to try again for better results? And, what if it were possible to slow things down to the point at which you could actually think rather than simply react? Would the result be improved teaching? And, would that lead to better learning for students? 

Led by Rhonda Bondie, HGSE Lecturer on Education, Reach Every Reader is creating this very type of classroom environment with the aid of virtual reality (VR) technology. In the Mursion Classroom, student avatars are played by live actors who guide simulations developed by Bondie’s team with the goal of supporting educators in improving their practice in order to optimize learning for all of their students.

The most effective educators know and use evidence-based teaching practices in classrooms. While the practices are not necessarily difficult for educators to learn, applying the practices in a classroom requires a great deal of skill and practice. According to Chris Dede, HGSE’s Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies, this problem of transfer can be reduced “if your training environment looks and acts like the real world.” The Mursion classroom has been designed to do just that — “it mimics a real classroom environment with an evocative interface and different behaviors that can be elicited from the avatar students”, says Dede.  

While the Mursion Classroom attempts to replicate the dynamics that can be found in a real classroom, it also allows for a simpler experience in which teachers can slow down their thinking and practice one skill at a time. According to Bondie, even though “we know fast thinking is prone to error and bias, we are using it for the bulk of our teaching decisions in the classroom. In a simulation, we can extend decision-making, slowing it down in a way that is impossible to do in the classroom. This affords teachers with the opportunity to make a decision, see the consequences of that decision, and then adjust the decision for better results.” 

Bondie’s Mursion Classroom simulations are designed to help teachers become more aware of their perceptions of student learning, and with practice, help them to make decisions that lead to more effective learning and equitable opportunities for all students. And she predicts that engaging with these simulations will ultimately result in decision-making skills to better meet the needs of the diverse learners in a real classroom. According to Bondie:

  • Decisions often are the result of unconscious responses that are rooted in one’s childhood learning and lived experiences. Establishing deliberate instructional decision-making habits can help to counter this tendency.
  • Developing inclusive teaching behaviors requires an intentional focus on individual difference and will become more habitual over time with repeated practice.
  • Practice can increase self-efficacy and comfort-level in risk-taking to better meet individual student needs.
  • Simulations can help analyze the learning needs of an educator quickly allowing for personalized practice that will meet those needs in a limited amount of professional learning time.

Using simulations for training is not a new practice. Pilots, surgeons, and athletes regularly engage in simulations to analyze performance and practice technique in a low-stakes, but realistic environment. The NFL uses VR training to help players learn game strategies, and practice without the risk of injury. Virtual reality is an integral part of an astronaut’s training as simulations mimic experiences that may be encountered during a mission. Countless other professions are also already incorporating VR simulations into training plans. 

In Reach Every Reader, while we do not think VR simulations can replace real classroom experience, we wonder if perhaps there are skills that can actually be learned easier and far more efficiently in simulated classrooms. The opportunities are certainly worth pursuing as part of a larger vision for teacher preparation and professional development. Bondie’s team has already designed and begun to test several different simulations in the Mursion Classroom. This year, we are working with pre-service educators, early career teachers and highly experienced teachers to learn about the potential for this technology to provide a positive and sustained impact on practice that will in turn lead to better outcomes for children.

Amanda Taylor is Associate Director of Reach Every Reader