Virtual Avatars for Online Students, Too

An award-winning initiative lets students in online courses practice teaching on simulated students with distinct behaviors before heading to actual classrooms.

April 11, 2018
Courtesy of Walden University and Mursion

Students in many teacher training programs for the last few years have, as a precursor to actual classroom experience, engaged with virtual avatars to simulate the experience of interacting with real-life students. Now online students can get the same opportunity.

Beginning last spring, master's students in Walden University’s behavior management courses scheduled sessions with the virtual avatar program, operated behind the scenes by professional simulators from the virtual reality company Mursion. Before they met real students, they could work on improving their behavior-management skills in a safe environment that mimics the real one -- from the comfort of their own homes or work spaces.

“We have always had assignments where they go back to their own classrooms with their own real students and incorporate some type of learning activity that focuses on a particular learning outcome in the course. We have always had field experiences and demonstration teaching,” said Fran Reed, program director for the special education programs at for-profit Walden’s college of education and leadership. “But the element that I really felt that we wanted to achieve here was we wanted to allow our candidate to practice in a safe environment before they went into their classrooms.”

The Walden program was one of nine recipients of this year’s Effective Practice Award from the Online Learning Consortium, which honors programs that succeed in five categories: access, learning effectiveness, faculty satisfaction, student satisfaction and scalability.

Crafting a simulation exercise that served online students as effectively as face-to-face students was a daunting but ultimately fruitful assignment, according to Reed and Kathy Strang, director of learning solutions in digital teaching and learning at Laureate Education, a network of for-profit institutions including Walden. In the face-to-face class, all the students engage with the avatars in the classroom. In the online version, each student schedules a time to connect to an online meeting with the avatars. Scheduling and technical glitches ended up being far less significant than expected, Strang said.

Determining the proper balance for assessing students’ performance in the simulation also required some finagling. Reed didn’t want students to be judged purely by their interaction with the avatars, which could have been affected by their comfort level with the technology. “It was kind of high stakes for them the first time they did this,” Reed said.

Instead, the simulation serves as one part of a larger discussion assignment -- students taught their lesson to the avatars, recorded their performance, uploaded it for students to observe and then launched an online discussion board thread about the strengths and weaknesses of their approach.

“The depth and the breadth of the analysis and the reflection really improved with these simulations,” Reed said. “They were learning from each other, seeing what others could do. It really upped the interactions -- ‘I read this article, have you thought about this?’ ‘I noticed you were doing this type of technique.’”

The pilot program began with a more controlled simulation led by a simulation specialist. Students in the pilot said they would have wanted more preparation for the avatars, so the team added a video of an example simulation and an introductory section of the avatar meeting in which the virtual students introduce themselves. The percentage of students who said the program enhanced their learning experience jumped from 80 percent in the first pilot to 95 percent the second time around, according to the team. More than 60 online students have completed the program so far.

Now that the simulations have been successful in online classes, Walden hopes to expand the partnership with Mursion to courses in health, business, counseling and other disciplines. Reed and Strang also hope other institutions will make use of the avatar program for online students.

"One of the things we realized [was] that avatars are so realistic that they present the same challenges that regular class does -- they have a series of behaviors, diverse backgrounds," Reed said. "I’m very much a believer in using tech, but in the best-fit place to maximize learning for students."


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