New Reality for Teacher Training

KENNESAW, Ga. | Apr 21, 2020

KSU lab simulates classroom experiences amidst school shutdowns

The Bagwell College of Education’s mixed-reality avatar lab simulates a multitude of situations that teachers can experience, but Kennesaw State faculty probably didn’t envision that one of those scenarios would be providing field experience for teacher candidates during a real-life pandemic.

After universities and PK-12 school systems throughout Georgia transitioned from classroom courses to remote learning last month, the Bagwell College and the Department of Inclusive Education configured the avatar lab for remote access. Unable to be in their actual classrooms, student teachers and master’s candidates have been utilizing the avatar lab online to simulate teaching to a group of students.

“Our teacher candidates are able to take the lesson that they were supposed to teach in the real classroom and do it in our avatar lab, from the comfort of their home,” said Kate Zimmer, an associate professor of special education and the director of the avatar lab. “By no means are we saying that the lab should replace field experience, but, especially in times like these, it definitely makes a difference and helps prepare the best teacher candidates we can.”

Avatar lab

Since KSU went fully online last month due to the COVID-19 outbreak, 278 undergraduate students and 40 graduate students have utilized the avatar lab remotely, according to Zimmer, with some of them using it multiple times. The Georgia Professional Standards Commission, responsible for the certification and licensure process in Georgia, allows for experiences in the avatar lab to count as some field experience, Zimmer said.

Student teachers develop a lesson plan, log into the lab at a designated time and interact with the student avatars as they present their lessons. Faculty members can evaluate a student’s presentation live and in real time or they can watch a video recording later. Student avatars each possess their own unique personalities and the lab is equipped with low, medium and high settings, allowing for various scenarios and levels of problem-solving.

“The simulations are realistic and that’s what we needed for our students. They needed to be able to teach a real lesson to students that would provide real-time responses and feedback,” said Corrie Davis, chair of the Department of Inclusive Education. “Making the lab remote-accessible has been invaluable because it has kept students on track to graduate. Our students will be able to graduate and/or move on in their academic journeys without missing out on the opportunity to teach a class.”

The realism of the avatar lab struck KSU senior Andres Cortes, who is completing his history education degree this semester while student teaching high school students in Paulding County. As he was using the avatar lab to teach a lesson about the causes of World War I, Cortes was taken aback by one of the “students” disrespectfully responding, “That’s cool, man.”

“That’s when I realized, although this is an avatar, this is virtual, they act very much like people,” Cortes said. “Everything felt like a real class. I taught the lesson plan almost the same way that I would in my class, but it was a little different because I have a relationship with my students whereas I had no experience whatsoever with the avatars.”

Emily Draper, a high school special education teacher in Gwinnett County, called the avatar lab “a game-changer” in helping her complete her Master of Education in Special Education degree this semester. She has used the avatar lab three times as part of her master’s coursework in addition to continuing to teach her high school students remotely, all while staying home with her 3-month-old daughter.

Draper explained that the greatest benefit of the avatar lab is the feedback her instructors and peers provide about her sessions. After teaching a lesson one time and seeing the avatars’ reactions and receiving input from her professors and fellow master’s students, Draper can adjust the lesson and teach it a second time to the same student avatars.

“It gave me an opportunity to change things based on what I observed, which was really awesome,” Draper said. “I liked being able to teach the lesson and see how the ‘students’ reacted, and then re-teach the lesson and see how much more they were engaged. You can’t do that in a regular classroom.”

The mixed-reality nature of the avatar lab enables Kennesaw State faculty members and student teachers to adapt to real-life coronavirus response developments as they’re happening. For example, in one of her graduate-level courses, special education assistant professor Melissa Driver planned to have teachers talk to adult avatars in simulated parent-teacher conferences. After Governor Brian Kemp announced that Georgia PK-12 schools would not reopen this spring, Driver altered the scenario to a teacher talking to a parent about digital learning.

“It’s very timely,” Zimmer said. “The avatar lab can emulate what is happening in the real world with minimal prep time. So now we have provided teacher candidates the opportunity to practice these pressing and real-time issues that will better prepare them for this unique reality we now live in.”

– Paul Floeckher

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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 45,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit