2019-11-03 by W.M.
Murdoch University SimLab virtual classrooms transform teacher training
Student teacher Jabe Stillitano was told by his supervisor to prepare for a meeting with an irate parent, but nothing could have prepared him for the onslaught to come.
The parent, Max Mullen, is in no mood for niceties — his son Ethan is facing suspension after being involved in a playground brawl.
“You’re a joke man, don’t give me excuses,” Mr Mullen spits out.
“It’s an absolute disgrace … my kid getting in trouble for something he didn’t do.”
The volley of abuse continues for about three minutes, leaving the student teacher flummoxed and unsure what to say.
Student teacher Jabe Stillitano, in his final year of a double bachelor of education and science at Murdoch University. (ABC News: Rebecca Carmody)
“What’s so funny? What’s so funny? This isn’t funny mate,” Mr Mullen continues. “My kid could be looking at suspension and you’re there sitting goofing off like an idiot.
“I’m going to the principal mate and your job is on the line.
“I swear to God you’re looking at the unemployment line OK, because this is not appropriate.”
And with that threat, the screen is turned off and the “virtual” meeting ends, giving Mr Stillitano the chance to draw breath and process what transpired.
Jabe Stillitano undergoes a debrief after his virtual teacher training session. (ABC News: Rebecca Carmody)
“It was overwhelming. There was a lot to take on board,” he says.
“Even though it’s just an avatar, you do feel the pressure of someone yelling at you.
“It’s full-on, but a good experience.”
A teaching baptism by fire
The virtual parent–teacher meeting is a recent addition to Murdoch University’s teacher education program for fourth-year students.
The Perth university is the first in the country to incorporate virtual classroom technology, known as SimLab, into its courses after buying the program licence from the University of Central Florida about two years ago.
Murdoch is the first Australian university to incorporate the virtual classroom technology. (ABC News: Rebecca Carmody)
Students use SimLab before their practicums, teaching virtual classes consisting of five avatars.
The digital figures are controlled by real-life actors, who work behind the scenes.
The role of the actors, or “interactors” as they are called, is to make the classes as real and lively as possible.
A bit of back chat is par for the course and, to test the trainee teachers, the avatar students can even pull out mobile phones in class.
SimLab Interactors Ellin Sears and Luke Jago play multiple characters. (ABC News: Rebecca Carmody)
Ellin Sears says being an interactor is fun, but is cognitively exhausting. (ABC News: Rebecca Carmody)
While the names and personalities of the avatars are a constant, their ages vary depending on the year level being taught.
Bridging the gap between university and classroom
Murdoch’s head of education, Susan Ledger, says SimLab is proving to be the perfect way to bridge the gap between studying education and starting a practical placement in a school.
She says the technology is also helping anxious student teachers overcome their nerves about walking into a real classroom for the first time.
“It’s fantastic,” she says.
Susan Ledger says the program is helping anxious students overcome their fears. (ABC News: Rebecca Carmody)
“Like any new toy or technology, just to be able to put that in front of our students and give them exposure to that, knowing that they’re going to be a better teacher when they get out there, it’s all we want. It’s great.
“The sky is the limit really. You can be as creative as you want.”
The introvert, the social butterfly and the class clown
She says it does not matter there are only five avatars, compared to a real classroom of about 30 students, because their personality traits can be found in most children.
- There is Suzannah, the introvert with excellent analytical ability;
- Dev is the rule follower who is self-driven with high standards;
- Ava is the social butterfly who likes to be challenged; and
- Jasmine is the intuitive learner with big ideas;
Then there’s Ethan, the class clown.
While he is an adventurous learner, his attention span is limited, which can be challenging for the student teachers.
He is also not afraid to speak up when he’s bored and dance when the teacher’s back is turned, or sometimes even in plain sight.
The university is also introducing avatars with special needs, starting with Nate, who has autism.
Nate’s interactor has had to the learn the characteristics of an autistic child. (ABC News: Rebecca Carmody)
The aim is to provide a safe environment for student teachers to experiment and hone their skills.
They don’t have to worry about failure because the sessions are not assessed and after each class they get a recording which allows them to self-critique.
Multi-tasking on steroids
The challenge is almost as great for the interactors.
Not only do they play the roles of five children, they manipulate their movements with an Xbox controller and a cap, all the while paying attention to the teacher, answering their questions and throwing in the odd curve-ball to keep the student teachers on their toes.
Luke Jago is one of four interactors employed by the university to work in SimLab.
In addition to the five main avatars, he also plays the role of the irate parent Max Mullen and Nate the autistic child.
“It’s a fantastic job. It’s a job I never thought existed three years ago,” he says.
“It allows me to tap into my inner child and behave very well or very badly depending on the situation.”
He says he doesn’t feel too bad about giving the student teachers a hard time because he can see them learning and improving with every go.
“They learn to keep calm and not take it personally because this might happen in the real world — hopefully not as bad as what I’ve done to them,” he says.
Another interactor, Ellin Sears, says while the job is rewarding, it sometimes feels like cognitive overload.
Ellin Sears says she found learning the various voices the easiest part of the job. (ABC News: Rebecca Carmody)
“It’s great fun, really fun, but there’s a lot going on,” she says.
“Cognitively my brain gets a bit tired by the end of the day, especially if we’re doing maths lessons because maths isn’t really my forte.
“The hardest part for me was learning to control the Xbox controller to puppet the characters. The voices I found quite easy.”
Exposure to the extremes of teaching
While his first session with Max the irate avatar parent didn’t exactly go to plan, Mr Stillitano feels a lot better after speaking with his supervisor and having another go.
“The first time you do it you go, ‘Wow, I must be doing something wrong’,” he says.
Jabe Stillitano says he felt the pressure of someone yelling at him, even though it was an avatar. (ABC News: Rebecca Carmody)
“And then you find out a few little strategies that you can use and apply it in the second round and, bang, it’s amazing at how quickly it works.
“I’ve dealt with the extremes. I’ve covered the harder stuff, now everything else is sort of a piece of cake.
“So yeah it does give you more confidence.”
Student Courtney Gildersleeve teaching a virtual high school class. (ABC News: Rebecca Carmody)
Murdoch University recently won the Australian Financial Review’s Education Technology Award for its virtual classroom technology, and it has already been adapted for its nursing and business students.
Regional and remote students can use video conferencing to experience SimLab as well.