My World Has Been Rocked By Student Avatars

Opinion | Professional Development

My World Has Been Rocked By Student Avatars

Educator reviews 'TeachLive,' a virtual teaching environment

By Brian Greenberg     Jun 24, 2013

My World Has Been Rocked By Student Avatars

This article is part of the guide: How Teachers Are Learning: Professional Development Remix.

The NewSchools Venture Fund summit in May brought together some of the most interesting educators in the country but I find myself thinking most about five students I met there--students that were not even real.

A team of researchers from Central Florida University unveiled a platform called TeachLive that is for teachers what a flight simulator is for pilots. Using just a TV and Microsoft Kinect, the “player” teaches a lesson in a virtual classroom to avatar students. The kids respond in real time, misbehave occasionally and generally act as kids do. To my surprise, it feels like a pretty authentic simulation.

Within ten seconds of talking to the students, I felt l like I was back in the classroom: increased stress, surge of adrenaline, and the joy of eventually hitting my stride. It was the closest approximation to the terror/thrill of teaching that I’ve experienced since leaving the classroom.

The magic behind the scenes of TeachLive is a combination of human and computer simulation. A live “actor” off-site plays the role of the five students, digitally controlling their actions, and when addressed, responding to the teacher in character. As a player, it was pretty convincing.

Of the many edtech tools I encounter, this one feels different because it solves such a real problem in a potentially game-changing way. The most obvious application for a tool like this is teacher preparation, with student teachers using the stimulator to get feedback as they learn to teach. But what about having job applicants take a spin on the simulator prior to presenting an actual sample lesson? Think about how hard it is to schedule live demo lessons and consider the wasted student learning time of the current system. I’d also be curious to see how schools could use the simulator with current teachers for professional development. Or with teacher avatars on the way, principals could practice giving evaluation feedback and running staff meetings. Just like for pilots, it is invaluable to get risk-free practice without any cost for crashing the airplane.

Like many of the current edtech offerings, the TeachLive tool may not yet be ready for the big leagues. I have a number of questions: Is it scalable? Will the initial novelty wear off? Can the team that developed it turn it into a "real" product that can go to market?

Those challenges aside, imagine the impact as more high quality tools like this become a reality. What would it mean to Teach for America to have their best instructional leaders training inductees on TeachLive? Beyond education, could Starbucks train their team members to provide truly good customer service? What if soldiers could practice interactions with Afghan civilians before being sent into the field?

Because many of the current edtech tools are such a mixed bag, jumping into "blended learning" still feels risky for schools. Yet rather than wait for the technology to fully develop, we need educators working on new school models right now so that we can figure out the structures and systems it will take to run schools differently. My organization, the Silicon Schools Fund, is looking for these new school models and the leaders who will create them.

TeachLive gave me a glimpse into the future, and I found it intriguing. But take a look for yourself. Use your imagination and think about this and other tools that are being created as we speak. And then tell me: Am I overly optimistic, or does this rock your world a little bit too?

Brian Greenberg is the CEO of the Silicon Schools Fund and the creator of

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