Opinion | Learning Strategies

My World Has Been Rocked By Student Avatars

By Brian Greenberg     Jun 24, 2013

My World Has Been Rocked By Student Avatars

The NewSchools Venture Fund summit in May brought together some ofthe most interesting educators in the country but I find myself thinking mostabout 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 forpilots. Using just a TV and Microsoft Kinect, the “player” teaches a lesson ina virtual classroom to avatar students. The kids respond in real time, misbehave occasionally and generally actas kids do. To my surprise, it feels like a prettyauthentic simulation. 

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

The magic behind the scenes of TeachLive is a combination ofhuman and computer simulation. Alive “actor” off-site plays the role of the five students, digitallycontrolling their actions, and when addressed, responding to the teacher incharacter. As a player, it waspretty convincing.

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

Like many of the current edtech offerings, the TeachLivetool 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, imaginethe impact as more high quality tools like this become a reality. What would it mean to Teach for Americato have their best instructional leaders training inductees on TeachLive? Beyond education, could Starbucks traintheir team members to provide truly good customer service? What if soldiers could practiceinteractions with Afghan civilians before being sent into the field?

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

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

Brian Greenberg is theCEO of the Silicon Schools Fund andthe creator of BlendMyLearning.com.

Opinion | Learning Strategies

My World Has Been Rocked By Student Avatars

By Brian Greenberg     Jun 24, 2013

My World Has Been Rocked By Student Avatars

The NewSchools Venture Fund summit in May brought together some ofthe most interesting educators in the country but I find myself thinking mostabout 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 forpilots. Using just a TV and Microsoft Kinect, the “player” teaches a lesson ina virtual classroom to avatar students. The kids respond in real time, misbehave occasionally and generally actas kids do. To my surprise, it feels like a prettyauthentic simulation. 

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

The magic behind the scenes of TeachLive is a combination ofhuman and computer simulation. Alive “actor” off-site plays the role of the five students, digitallycontrolling their actions, and when addressed, responding to the teacher incharacter. As a player, it waspretty convincing.

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

Like many of the current edtech offerings, the TeachLivetool 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, imaginethe impact as more high quality tools like this become a reality. What would it mean to Teach for Americato have their best instructional leaders training inductees on TeachLive? Beyond education, could Starbucks traintheir team members to provide truly good customer service? What if soldiers could practiceinteractions with Afghan civilians before being sent into the field?

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

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

Brian Greenberg is theCEO of the Silicon Schools Fund andthe creator of BlendMyLearning.com.

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