By Talie Meza
In the upcoming fall 2022 semester, School of Education students will have more opportunities to use virtual reality and simulation tools to further their own education. While simulations have been used at the College since 2018, the Online Practice Suite (OPS) allows preservice teachers to use a set of three different practice-based simulations to assist them in learning classroom methodologies in math and science. The OPS refers to the three different technologies that are part of a broader project that Drs. Cathy Liebars and Rachel Snider of the Mathematics and Statistics department are participating in.
“I was first approached by the Educational Testing Service, or ETS, in 2018 about this project, where they wanted to use student avatars to help preservice teachers get practice in leading mathematical discussions,” said Liebars, co-chair of the Mathematics and Statistics Department, said. “So, I said sure, why not!”
As part of a four-year National Science Foundation Discovery Research PreK-12 project, Educational Testing Service, based in Princeton, and other partnered institutions are working to develop and research performance-based tasks to be done in a simulated classroom environment. These tasks will provide opportunities for preservice teachers in science and mathematics to hold competent discussions with middle school grade level student avatars.
“My students would each get a chance to interact with a simulated classroom of five students and have a chance to focus on having argumentative, mathematical discussions,” Liebars said.
The three different components of the program cover different formats and present different scenarios that could occur in the classroom setting.
Eliciting Learner Knowledge, or ELK, is a program where two preservice teachers will engage in an online chat, one as the teacher and the other as the student. The goal is for the teacher to elicit the results of a specific math or science problem from the student and find their reasoning.
The avatar-based simulation uses an online simulated classroom where preservice teachers can practice holding class discussions with a small group of five student avatars in real-time. This provides the opportunity to practice different discussion skills in a group setting.
The virtual teaching simulator is the last component of the OPS and functions as a full virtual classroom. It works as a tool for preservice teachers to immerse themselves in a classroom and move from smaller groups to the room as a whole.
“There's a few other parts to this project. The goal is to give students experience with things they’re going to do in classrooms. It allows them to get closer to doing things they would do in a real classroom, more so then they would get just in a college classroom,” Snider said.
Alyssa Kramarz, a mathematics secondary education student, used the Avatars and online classroom simulation twice at the College in previous fall semesters.
“I thought that utilizing this program was really beneficial for me as a student teacher, especially during an era in which actual student-teacher interactions were few and far between due to Covid-19,” Kramarz said. “I feel as though this program provided me with a very low-stakes way of practicing my pedagogical and mathematical skills with students and it provided me with beneficial feedback.”
In tandem with bringing these new programs into the classroom, professors at the College are focused on providing and integrating new technology into methodology courses for future educators.
“I think another goal of the project is looking at how teacher educators, like Dr. Liebars and I, use these materials in teaching classes for preservice teachers,” Snider said. “Like, what sorts of activities do teacher educators do to prepare preservice teachers for the OPS activities and what do they do to debrief and reflect from the experience.”
“The goal is not just to help them get more comfortable in the classroom setting but to get better at leading discussions,” Liebars added. “Both science and math teachers would be able to lead better discussions based on argumentation in their class.”