Executive Skills & Strategy

How Virtual Reality Is Helping Train New Teachers

By Liana Loewus — September 05, 2017 7 min read
Researchers, working with a Buffalo public charter school and a digital media company, use a 360-degree virtual reality camera to shoot classroom scenarios with real students. The scenarios are meant to help preservice teachers practice classroom management.
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Coming out of preservice training, many soon-to-be teachers register the same complaint: They didn’t get enough practice managing a classroom.

Researchers at New York’s University at Buffalo, in conjunction with a local public charter school and a digital-media company, are working to help ease that transition using virtual reality.

The technology offers a middle ground “between what can happen in the university context and the real classroom,” said Lynn Shanahan, an associate professor at the university who is currently working as an administrator at Enterprise Charter School, which serves K-8 students. “It’s a safe space because they’re practicing not on real kids.”

Although several companies are already building virtual environments to simulate the classroom experience, those scenarios have tended to use avatars, which look a bit like cartoon characters, in place of real students. As part of the new effort, teachers watch videos of actual students, shot with 360-degree cameras in the classroom.

The idea is that incoming teachers can feel what it’s like to be confronted with challenging behaviors—for instance, students yelling, pulling out their cellphones, jumping on desks—without having to step into a physical classroom. And they can do so at any time on their own by using a smartphone and VR headset, which can cost as little as $10.

But the use of real video for VR does pose some financial and ethical concerns: It’s quite expensive to shoot; a single 360-degree camera costs about $5,000. And it can reinforce racial, ethnic, or gender stereotypes—especially when there’s limited footage featuring a small pool of students.

The project, underwritten by a $20,000 innovation grant from New York’s state university system, is still in its early stages, but preservice teachers at the University at Buffalo, as well as some practicing teachers at Enterprise, located in the city’s downtown area, will use a pilot of the basic technology this fall.

“We’re not saying to replace those [student-teaching] field experiences, but the VR is another tool that can enhance the clinical preparation of the preservice teacher,” said Elisabeth Etopio, the director of the Teacher Education Institute and the interim assistant dean for teacher education at the university. “You can rack up the hours of experience and actually master skills prior to when you go to interact with students.

Amber Grzechowiak, a K-2 teacher at Enterprise Charter School, had never used VR before putting on a headset during a demonstration of the technology last month.

“This is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” she said, turning her head from left to right, up and down, to see the virtual classroom in its entirety.

Amber Grzechowiak, a special education teacher at Enterprise Charter School in Buffalo, tries out a virtual reality session.

In one of the scenarios, which were created by Crosswater Digital Media, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based audio- and video-production studio, and filmed at Enterprise Charter, a middle school boy is irritating a classmate—balling up paper and throwing it at her, pulling her hair, teasing her. Eventually, she stands up and slaps him on the back. (The students were acting.) In another, students enter a classroom shouting, and one girl hops up on a desk to challenge another girl.

The technology is still in proof-of-concept stage and far from fully interactive right now. VR users can turn their heads and see the classroom all around them, but they cannot walk closer to students or talk to them and get a response. An assessment appears on the screen asking the teachers how they would respond, but as of now, the VR doesn’t capture their answers.

A ‘Visceral Feeling’

As some will point out, the current technology is not so different from watching a regular video—except that it surrounds the user.

“When you’re watching it on [a flat] screen, it’s a window and it’s somebody else, it’s not me,” said Grzechowiak. “You don’t get the same connection as you do when you’re actually standing and you look down and can see the floor right in front of you.”

The VR gave the university’s Shanahan a “visceral feeling.”

“I teach with video, and it’s different. I just think it’s the encompassed-body piece,” she said.

Richard Lamb, an associate professor of education at Buffalo and the director of the Neurocognition Science Laboratory there, who is leading the cross-organizational project with Etopio, has some data.

Through brain-imaging and physiological tests, such as measures of heart rate, blood pressure, and galvanized skin response, Lamb has shown that the body and mind respond similarly to virtual reality and real life.

For instance, he said, whether teachers are doing a lesson in front of a real group of students at his laboratory or in front of a VR class, the test results follow the same general trend. “It’s looking like the brain doesn’t care,” he said.

Authenticity is important, though, which is why he thinks it’s best to use video.

Teach Live, a program created by the University of Central Florida that is now in use at dozens of teacher education institutions across the country, including Buffalo, has a similar concept—but instead of using video, it’s a simulated environment. The students are computer-generated characters, or avatars, whose movements and speech are controlled on the other end by a professional actor.

Within that kind of animated simulation, the students and teacher can engage in a natural back-and-forth, which isn’t yet possible with the video VR project. But the sessions have to be scheduled to accommodate parties on both ends, unlike the VR, which teachers can pick up and practice with at any time using even a cheap cardboard headset.

David Cantaffa, an assistant provost for educator preparation for the State University of New York, the project funder, was surprised by the extent to which the VR made him feel transported to the classroom.

But to be most powerful for classroom-management training, “I think it would need to be interactive so that you could step forward, step back, interact with kids, kneel down, and have a conversation of some sort,” he said.

The producers and programmers at Crosswater Digital say they’re getting there. Companies like IBM are making advances in natural-language processing to allow computers to better understand human speech, which Crosswater is exploring incorporating into its VR scenarios.

Forward movement in virtual reality is also possible, but quite complicated. “When you take a 360-degree camera shot, the camera is in one position, and you’re taking data from that position,” said Lauren Innes, a video editor at Crosswater. “If you wanted to move, you would literally have to take camera shots of [every position].”

Armin St. George, the senior vice president at Crosswater, which is creating the pilot VR for the university-charter collaboration at a much-reduced rate, estimated there would be some minimal interaction capabilities within the next four to six months. The ability to speak to the system, though, is likely more than a year away.

Julie Schwab, the school superintendent for Enterprise, is eyeing using the VR scenarios both for in-service teacher training this school year and during the teacher-hiring process.

Most of the teachers who come in to her school are white, middle-class women, she said, and many have never worked in an urban setting.

“They don’t have the background knowledge to understand where these kids are coming from,” Schwab said.

‘Stereotyping Threat Is Real’

With the VR, teachers could practice responding to challenging behaviors without the risk of causing emotional harm to real students, she said.

Ideally, they’d be more measured in their reactions to tough situations when they got to the classroom, she said. “From a cognition side, I’ve already processed this before, so I have some experiences I can draw on,” explained Lamb, the researcher.

But a problem with this work is that it can also potentially reinforce stereotypes about students.

The majority of students at Enterprise are black—and the half-dozen students featured misbehaving in the videos are all black. Research has consistently shown that black and Latino students are disciplined at disproportionately higher rates than their white peers.

“I do get nervous about putting my kids out there and the stereotypes that could come,” said Schwab.

The training programs that use avatars have a leg up here, said Christopher Dede, a professor of learning technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Within those simulations, it’s easy to change students’ races and genders—so the programs can even be used to help teachers recognize their own biases, he said.

With video, in particular, because it’s so expensive to shoot, “I think the stereotyping threat is real because it’s just harder to show so many alternatives that you’re not stereotyping,” said Dede.

Cantaffa of SUNY sees a lot of promise in the video-based VR technology beyond the fraught area of classroom management. Perhaps education schools can use it for practice administering literacy tests, running special education meetings, or delivering lessons.

“Having been a teacher, there are many moments in which it’s quite anxiety-ridden to be in front of a class,” he said. “But if the VR experience can help create those anxieties, it might help me in terms of muscle memory when I encounter that pedagogical moment in which I’m also anxious.”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 2017 edition of Education Week as Learning to Teach Via Virtual Reality

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