Assessing “Risk” in Augmented and Virtual Reality in Pre-service Teacher Education
by Joanna Weidler-Lewis - July 06, 2020
This commentary considers the rise of augmented and virtual reality simulators (AR and VR) as a proxy for teacher education preparation in classrooms through the example of Mursion. AR and VR Simulators are a promising technology to meet the educational and clinical training needs of student teachers in the face of the current global pandemic that has canceled in-person options. Simulators allow pre-service teachers the opportunity to practice interactions with student avatars by either walking through pre-recorded scenarios or engaging in real-time sessions with a simulation specialist. The discourse surrounding this technology and simulators is one of reducing “mistakes” and “risks” and maximizing “authenticity” and “safety.” In some cases, these concepts have taken on new meaning post COVID-19, particularly with respect to keeping students, both pre-service teachers and PreK-12 students, healthy and safe. However, we must interrogate what these concepts entail and ask for whom is the learning environment made authentic and who is taking what risks. In this commentary, I call on teacher educators and professionals to examine the broader consequences of implementing AR and VR simulations, the underlying theories of learning and behavior that influence their design, and the costs incurred by this technology.
THE CASE FOR AUGMENTED VIRTUAL REALITY
In May of 2020, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) announced a collaboration with Mursion, a proprietary simulation software, as a response to the current challenges of providing in-person teacher preparation courses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mursions company discourse of providing a safe environment to practice teaching skills took on a new meaning in light of the health concerns raised by the pandemic (Mursion, 2020). The pandemic also created a new category of risk for pre-service teachers that Mursion might help alleviate: the risk of pre-service teachers not receiving the timely and sequenced training necessary for their licensure.
The use of simulations has a long history in different education and training contexts, and while the addition of augmented and virtual reality are more recent additions to this history, they are showing promise in the field of teacher education (Peterson-Ahmad, Pemberton, & Hovey, 2018). Mursion provides simulations using student-avatars for pre-service students to practice leading classroom discussion, interact with a provided lesson plan, or elicit student thinking, among other practices. The virtual environment provides both 2D (interacting with a screen) and 3D (requiring a headset) environments. Teacher education students can engage in simulations, coaching circles, and videos that allow for scenarios to be paused for discussion, or work directly with a sim specialist, a trained Mursion employee who can provide real-time interactions with pre-service teachers. The sim specialist is coupled with an artificial intelligence system that combines the movements of the specialist, such as head and body movement, voice and lip-synching technology, and facial expressions to give the user an experience that appears close to an authentic classroom.
The logic behind why a simulation is an appropriate method of interaction for pre-service teachers with student-avatars includes references to making mistakes in front of avatars instead of making mistakes in front of classroom students, gaining speaking experience, particularly for introverts, and practicing difficult and challenging conversations with less risk and anonymity. From the perspective of educators and faculty, these simulations allow for corrective feedback and a means to assess and redirect pre-service teachers behavior with evidence suggesting that four ten-minute sessions can result in a shift in interpersonal skills (Dieker, et al., 2017). Case studies are providing evidence that pre-service teachers perceptions of classroom management skills and confidence trend positively over time with simulation use (e.g., Dalinger et al., 2020; Hudson et al., 2018). Despite these positive results, the paucity of research and absence of large-scale usage and effectiveness data indicates that now is a time to reflect on what questions should be asked looking ahead.
ASSESSING THE RISKS MOVING FORWARD
COVID-19 caught most of the field of education off guard and forced many P-20 classrooms to quickly recreate in-person learning in remote and virtual ways in the spring of 2020. Currently, with the future of the pandemic uncertain, educators are taking time to reflect on best practices for remote and virtual learning moving forward, hence the partnership between AACTE and Mursion. The research mentioned above suggest that Mursion and other simulations have their place in a comprehensive teacher education program and provide a stopgap measure in the face of in-person education and practice being canceled. Although the need to reinvent and address teacher education in this unprecedented time is great, educators should be mindful of the associated risks not readily apparent with adopting AR and VR for their teacher education programs. I have identified three areas of concern as a starting point for broader reflection and pose provocations and questions for readers to consider as the evaluate this tool in their practice.
ADDRESSING ISSUES OF RACE, GENDER, CLASS, AND CULTURE BIAS
One of the first things I noticed when previewing Mursion was that the classroom avatars (and other support characters) have varied racial and gender representation and are all sitting waiting for instruction in a seemingly well-resourced room. Representation matters, but in what ways, for whom, and by whom? Although I commend the developers for creating a classroom of difference, we must remain mindful and vigilant that our representations adequately convey the complexity of our intersectional lives and do not reduce our differences to a change in skin tone and hair texture while still recreating a dominant version of reality. Rich discussions of intersectionality in the design of technology are scarce (Schlesinger, Edwards, & Grinter, 2017). We must ask: What assumptions about both people and place are present in this virtual classroom? Whose ideals are represented and whose are missing? Have cultural norms been whitewashed and gendered? And what are the dangers of these assumptions for the communities we serve?
WHOSE CONCEPTION OF LEARNING IS PRIVILEGED?
The domains of research undergirding Mursion include cognitive psychology, learning sciences, and behaviorism. The simulations rely on the avatars representing particular behavior and personality types with reference to adolescents degree of passivity and aggression as well as motivation. Undoubtedly, classroom management is a desirable skill for teachers and supporting pre-service teachers acquisition of this skill is necessary. Much of what happens in the school day relies on principles of behaviorism from the bell schedule to raising your hand to be called upon. That behaviorism works often masks who determines what are valuable and correct behaviors. We must ask ourselves what personality traits, behaviors, and learning outcomes have been assigned value over others in these scenarios? More importantly, psychological perspectives of learning strip away the situated, relational experience of learning. Those of us who embrace a socio-cultural view of learning understand learning to encompass much more than knowledge, behavior, and skills acquisition. The relationships we build both with and among our students are paramount to learning and development. What is lost when learning is seen as a transactional exchange between one avatar student and teacher? How are these simulations reproducing instructionist approaches to teaching and how might we reframe these approaches? Those of us in teacher education who think current models of practicum, where pre-service teachers visit classrooms a few hours a week, are missing the benefits of a robust apprenticeship model that embraces the mistakes and messiness of real life. Attempts to strip context and nuance from learning environments result in classrooms being far-removed from the practices we hope students engage; for example, science classrooms do not replicate what scientists do. Thus, we ought to ask that in their attempt to represent the classroom, has Mursion simply created a simulation of what was already a simulacrum of practice? What are we sacrificing by moving teacher preparation further away from the physical and material world, and from the real communities we serve?
THE COSTS OF PROPRIETARY AND MARKET-DRIVEN SOLUTIONS TO EDUCATIONAL CHALLENGES
The partnership between AACTE and Mursion includes a reduced rate for AACTE institutions on the per learner fee with learners in this case referring to pre-service teachers. The published fee ranges from $134 to $152. Each institution that adopts Mursion must decide whether these fees are incurred by the institution or the pre-service teacher. Although student fees are a routine part of higher education and as such may seem beyond the scope of concern for adopting one form of software, when ought we reflect on the equity of our fee structures? The incurring of more fees during a time of economic uncertainty, when we know that both flat fees and the economic impacts of COVID-19 disproportionately affect lower-income people, merits discussion. Who profits from new technological adoption? Several technology patents secure Mursion as a proprietary software. When is it the time to question and reflect on for-profit companies influencing practices in public education? Which stakeholders are they beholden to? What communities do the stakeholders represent? How do their profit-driven motivations relate to the economic concerns of our pre-service student populations?
The concerns listed in this commentary raise philosophical, empirical, and practical questions with the adoption of AR and VR in teacher education. My hope is that teacher educators who routinely ask similar questions with respect to intersectionality and social-cultural approaches to learning continue to do so whenever new technology is introduced. As we work to increase representation regarding who is designing new technology and for whom technology is designed, may we also create new lines of empirical inquiry to support our designs and practices. Lastly, let us not strive to virtually replicate currently flawed systems; rather, let us imagine and create new possibilities for learning and harness technological innovation in service of all and not some.
Dalinger, T., Thomas, K. B., Stansberry, S., & Xiu, Y. (2020). A mixed reality simulation offers strategic practice for pre-service teachers. Computers & Education, 144, 103696.
Dieker, L. A., Hughes, C. E., Hynes, M. C., & Straub, C. (2017). Using simulated virtual environments to improve teacher performance. School-University Partnerships, 10(3), 6281.
Hudson, M. E., Voytecki, K. S., & Zhang, G. (2018). Mixed-reality teaching experiences improve preservice special education students perceptions of their ability to manage a classroom. Journal for Virtual Worlds Research, 11(2).
Mursion. (2020). Best in Class Leadership Development: How Virtual Reality and Avatars are Changing the Learning Landscape. White Paper.
Peterson-Ahmad, M. B., Pemberton, J., & Hovey, K. A. (2018). Virtual Learning Environments for Teacher Preparation. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 54(4), 165169.
Schlesinger, A., Edwards, W. K., & Grinter, R. E. (2017, May). Intersectional HCI: Engaging identity through gender, race, and class. In Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 54125427).
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