Getting Hands-On Experience in a Virtual World

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), ETS research scientists are collaborating with Mursion to investigate how technology can better prepare pre-service teachers to enter the classroom, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prior research indicates that incorporating classroom discussion into lessons can bolster student learning, especially in critical science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) disciplines. However, these practices can be difficult to orchestrate, especially for novice teachers who have little experience managing classroom discussions. Providing this experience in a controlled, productive way is a challenge in any circumstance, let alone with in-person student teaching opportunities upended by the pandemic.

ETS researchers believe technology can be part of the answer. Through an NSF grant, they are working with virtual reality company Mursion on “Developing Pre-service Elementary Teachers’ Ability to Facilitate Goal-Oriented Discussions in Science and Mathematics via the Use of Simulated Classroom Interactions,” a study to help prospective teachers develop their skills in leading classroom discussions.

The research team, led by ETS research scientists Jamie Mikeska and Heather Howell, used Mursion’s proprietary simulation platform to develop a formative assessment environment where future teachers can practice discussions with a group of upper elementary student avatars. Unlike discussions in a real classroom, the simulations provide an opportunity for pre-service teachers to practice leading a discussion focused on the same student learning goal and scenario. This gives teacher educators a chance to identify strengths and areas needing improvement at individual and class levels. It also gives these future teachers a significant opportunity to learn from each other.

“While nothing can replace experiences with real students, the integration of simulation technology with student avatars can enhance a pre-service teacher’s learning process. Pre-service teachers can practice higher-level skills in a format that is consistent, replicable and accessible to their teacher educator in a way that traditional student teaching is not,” said Mikeska.

She added, “What the pandemic has made very clear is that simulations also could be key to building more flexible, sustainable teacher educator programs that are able to stay on track even in changing or remote environments.”

This was certainly the case for Dr. Pamela Lottero-Perdue, Professor of Science and Engineering Education at Towson University in Maryland. In her third year participating in the study, the simulations made it possible for the pre-service teachers in her course to gain the teaching experience they need to continue their journey to becoming elementary educators.

In a typical semester, Lottero-Perdue’s pre-service teachers teach science lessons as interns in a partner elementary school and the simulations supplement their hands-on experience. Amid COVID-19, her pre-service teachers had completed just three in-person teaching sessions before her university and the elementary school ended face-to-face instruction. Lottero-Perdue was able to quickly adapt to rely on the simulations in her internship course to enable her pre-service teachers to continue building their own teaching practice through these simulated classrooms.

“The simulation technology made it possible for us to bridge what could have been a significant gap in my students’ opportunities to practice teaching science,” Lottero-Perdue said. “They were able to foster discourse in a classroom environment — something you cannot learn from a book — in a time when that just wasn’t an option in the real world.”

Lottero-Perdue sees long-term value in incorporating simulated teaching environments into a broader portfolio of educator preparation programming. While she stresses that hands-on time with real students is invaluable, she has been impressed with the improvement her pre-service elementary teachers were able to achieve in such an unusual and challenging time as well as with the visibility the simulations provided into their progress.

She said, “The simulations give us a new window into how our pre-service teachers can grow in their teaching practice. Having actual data connected to discussion skills that we can compare in a semi-standardized way has the potential to advance the preparation we provide in a profound way over time.”

It may take time for the impact of COVID-19 on the education landscape to become clear. However, the unique challenges it has presented have also provided a rare opportunity to test cutting-edge technology and research already underway.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant 1621344. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent views of the National Science Foundation.