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Sim Lab Emma
16 January, 2018

Avatars and actors prepare teachers for the classroom

Quality AARNet connectivity underpins an innovative teaching and learning experience that’s helping prepare pre-service teachers for the classroom far earlier in their training.

Immersive technologies, powered by high-bandwidth research and education networks, are augmenting the traditional classroom experience and disrupting the way we teach and learn.

Nowhere more so than at Murdoch University, where students training to be teachers are using a mixed reality learning environment to help prepare them for a real classroom setting before they ever set foot in one.

SimLab@Murdoch is a virtual classroom that blends live human performance with virtual reality technology to create an immersive learning simulation.

Pre-service teachers anywhere in the world can access the SimLab classroom remotely via videoconference and interact with classroom students — who are represented on screen by avatars — in real-time.

Lifelike classroom setting

The project is led by Dr Susan Ledger, Associate Dean of Engagement & School Partnerships at Murdoch, who says that teacher training is an ideal application for virtual reality.

“Virtual reality provides a lifelike classroom setting, with all of its unpredictable challenges and context specific interactions, but avoids the stress of a real classroom and the potential for disadvantaging real students.”

The student avatars can present an array of challenges, such as disrupting the class or English as a second language. Adult avatars, representing parents of the children, are also used to practice parent interviews.

Behind the scenes, actors who control the avatars are wired up in the Murdoch SimLab. These interactors can adapt the reaction of the pupils depending on the strategies used by the teacher to control or engage with the class.

Improving practice

Dr Ledger explains that, while it won’t replace real-world training experiences with real students, SimLab lets pre-service teachers try out strategies, make mistakes, rehearse and improve their practice.

“SimLab provides an opportunity for pre-service teachers for practice their behavior management and communication skills, with scenarios customisable for different techniques and situations.

“This helps prepare pre-service teachers for a real classroom setting far earlier in their training and means that academic staff can observe their students more rigorously, gaining a better understanding of how prepared they are before they send them into the classroom.”

Over 400 first-year pre-service teachers have used the SimLab to prepare for their placements. After less than ten minutes in the simulator, almost 80% said they felt confident or very confident in relation to teaching in the lab, compared to just 12% beforehand.

Adapted for Australia

SimLab@Murdoch is an Australian version of the Morison™ platform, Teachlive, from the University of Central Florida. After trialling Teachlive, Murdoch invested in a site license from the University’s commercial arm, Morison™.

In the US, over 65 universities are already using Teachlive [Morison ™]. Murdoch adapted the software for the Australian environment, including changing character names, accents and settings.

Powered by AARNet

In Australia, SimLab@Murdoch takes advantage of the AARNet network to connect to pre-service teachers around the country and beyond.

“SimLab totally relies on the AARNet network services to connect to all of our pre-service teachers scattered around the state, nation and globe,” Dr Ledger said.

“Pre-service teachers connect to SimLab using Skype or Zoom, and our 10G connection to AARNet provides us with the quality internet connection we need for reliable and immersive video conferencing.”

Access to SimLab

Murdoch University is the first organisation in Australia to offer the SimLab virtual learning environment.

The service is available to other universities and teacher training organisations, whose pre-service and practicing students can reliably access the SimLab remotely using the AARNet network.

More information on the SimLab is available on the Murdoch website.