Erin Finnell stands up in front of the class and calls on a student.
“What are you doing this weekend, CJ?” Finnell asks.
“I’m just going with my boyfriend to the movies and we’re just going to movie hop,” CJ says. CJ talks a lot about her boyfriend in class, which isn't unusual for a high schooler. Except CJ isn’t a a typical student. She isn’t even real.
CJ is virtual - part of a simulation called TeachLive, designed by the software company Mursion.
For Finnell, a University of Northern Colorado senior studying special education, CJ is a training tool. Although TeachLive looks and feels like a video game, each virtual student has a distinct personality. Take Sean, who loves to spend time playing with his dog Chewie. There's Kevin, a budding music producer who mixes beats with his cousin Santos.
The students are able to “see” and react to Finnell and her classmates during a lesson.
Finnell says this is valuable preparation for next semester, when she begins student teaching with real kids.
“I think being able to figure out what works and what doesn’t without the stress of impacting a real student is what’s going to benefit me,” she says. “I can take away different strategies that I tried out in Mursion that maybe didn’t work or did work and then bring them into the classroom so that I kind of know a little bit better what I’m doing. Before I actually do it. To a real live child."
Robin Brewer and Tracy Mueller Gershwin use TeachLive in their classrooms.
“Behavior is one of the number one challenging things that teachers leave the field about,” says Meuller, who specializes in educating children with behavioral disabilities. “Because it’s difficult when a student calls you a name, tells you they’re not going to do something, hits themselves, hits another kid, spits on themselves, urinates in the classroom - I mean, you name it, I’ve seen it.”
Mueller says the advantage of TeachLive is that her students are less likely to go into the field and react badly to such situations - reactions that can reinforce negative behaviors in kids. She calls the TeachLive classroom a safe place to fail. The sentiment echoes Finnell, who says she’s relieved she can pause the simulation and check in with her professor.
Still - Mueller says the software can’t simulate everything.
“It would be kind of nice to see a kid throw himself on the floor,” she says. “Because that’s something teachers deal with pretty often. So what are you going to do when a kid’s on the floor, how are you going to handle that? And get him back up, without physically using your hands.”
Professors can control the level of behavioral difficulty that the kids express. In session, the kids were clicking their pens, yawning, playing with their phones. One girl in the back row even fell asleep. That’s what it looks like when the difficulty is set to medium.
Brewer, a special education professor using the software, encourages students to "suspend their disbelief." "We don't want them to be consumed by 'I wanna figure out how this works,'" she says.
Bewer and Mueller saw TeachLive in action at a teaching conference a year ago. This is the second semester her students are training on the software. Textbook teaching has been cut to make room for TeachLive in their curriculum. While it’s still too early to measure the impact of the software at UNC, data collection is underway to measure that in the future.
For soon-to-be special education teachers like Finnell, it’s a leg up: “It’s a really rich experience, just in and of itself,” she says. “I just wish we could have more so I could get into the flow of it.”