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Bringing a classroom to life: FSU receives Mixed Reality Simulation

By Bailey Morrison

The classroom is small with brightly-painted turquoise walls. A blackboard plastered on the back wall reads, in neat script writing, “Welcome Class.”

Sophomore Patty Cooney stands in front of her new classroom on the first day of fifth grade. Each student chats quietly with their neighbor until she pleasantly says, “Good morning class!”

All eyes are on her.

She asks her students to break off in pairs to discuss their summer vacation. Cooney pairs up with the quietest student – Maria.

Maria said she spent her summer reading books and enjoying the warm weather.

After a Eve-minute discussion with the class, Cooney gives a thumbs-up to Julie Zoino-Jeanetti, FSU’s education department chair, and Zoino-Jeanetti clearly says, “Pause session.”

The classroom disappears and block letters appear on the screen that read, “Resume session.”

Cooney wasn’t standing in a real classroom and Maria isn’t a real student. Cooney, along with the other students in the Field 1 education class, have been given the opportunity to work with FSU’s Mixed Reality Simulation – a virtual classroom.

FSU received a grant that funded the implementation of new technology that allows students to work with a computer-generated classroom. The simulator is connected to a large computer monitor and the technology can “see” the person interacting with the software through a camera.

This simulation mimics a typical fiffth-grade classroom. Education coordinates interact with the class of Eve simulated students who have distinct personalities – Maria, Sean, Kevin, CJ and Ed. These simulated students are designed to assist FSU education students in preparing for their careers as educators.

Mary Grassetti, the education professor who spearheaded the project, said after the University received the Elevate Preparation Impact Children (EPIC) grant, the Mixed Reality Simulation was instituted as part of the grant’s pilot project to assist with teacher development.

The grant came from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the University will receive $10,000 over two years to buy simulation hours, said Grassetti.

“If we decide to not use the simulator in the future, we will give the equipment back,” she added.

The simulated students can hear, see and interact with the people speaking to them. At one point, as sophomore Patricia Bianco chatted with students about books they read over the summer, she gestured excitedly about a book and one student said, “Wow, you really like to read, don’t you?”

They also respond to background distractions, too. An FSU professor dressed in a pea coat quietly slipped into the back of the classroom, which prompted Maria to ask, “Why did a Elm-noir detective just come into the class?”

Each simulated student also responded to different stimuli, too. The eager-to-help student, Sean, became dejected when he raised his hand and sophomore Patrick Keane didn’t call on him. A laugh from the education students drew attention and the virtual students react to body language.

Later, when CJ, an uninterested female student who talked primarily about her boyfriend, was texting on her cellphone and Keane asked her to put her phone away, she sighed and said, “Whatever.”

The simulation has its limitations, which were addressed by the students in the class. Bianco asked one student, Maria, to come to the front of the class and explain the plot of a book she read over the summer. Sean waved his hand wildly and said to Bianco, “The principal said we’re not allowed to leave our seats during class.”

The students tested the limitations of the software by introducing Zoino-Jeanetti as Bianco’s teaching aide in the classroom. The students reacted as if both women belonged in the simulation.

The distinct personalities remained consistent through the three simulations in which the Field 1 class took part. Each time a new student stepped up to the monitor, Zoino-Jeanetti would reset the software and the simulation would begin again.

Keane spent several minutes discussing what the students like to do during their free time. Kevin expressed an interest in music and said he had spent the summer working on his YouTube channel. When Keane asked Kevin what the name of his channel is, Kevin replied, “Man, I can’t tell you that. ... I gotta keep my integrity.”

When asked what she did over the summer, CJ told Keane she was working on increasing her Instagram follower count and snipped at Keane, “And no, you can’t know my Instagram handle.”

The simulator has three levels of “intensity,” said Grassetti. The students become harder to manage and challenge the students interacting with the software.

Each level of intensity works to help students maneuvering through the simulation learn different ways of approaching problem-solving in a classroom while maintaining a community spirit as well, said Grassetti.

Stacy Cohen, instructional technologist at FSU, said, “My colleague and I have been part of multiple training sessions with the Mixed Reality Simulation tool and have seen it in action first-hand learning is often an iterative process and being able to practice soft skills in a safe space before entering a real classroom is an invaluable and potentially transformative tool in teacher preparation.”

Cohen said although participants are seeing the simulation through a TV screen and it may seem “visually unrealistic,” it feels “pretty real” once the simulation has begun.

She said, “A little bit of imagination helps. ... Technology evolves all the time. We will have to see how this concept takes off.”

She added, “You can’t reset a real kid. Nor can you take your teachers and your classmates to your field study site to watch you in real life to give you feedback. So, this type of technology creates interesting opportunities for learning to teach well.”

Grassetti has shared the technology with her Elementary Curriculum Mathematics class.

The simulator is currently open to all classes in the education department and has been used by the first three field study classes. The technology will also be used to prepare students for job interviews.

Junior Brian Leonard said, “I normally would not get feedback from a professor when teaching in a real classroom.”

Leonard added the simulation is helpful because if you mess up, there are no consequences, but teaching in a real classroom is where he learns the most.

Leonard said, “It is a learning experience and helped to prepare me for the various things that the students may throw at me, because you never know what they will say or do, both in the simulation and a real classroom.”

This technology has been introduced into other fields as well – medicine and law, said Grassetti. She said she hopes this simulation can help students learn how to interact with different personality types within the classroom.

Senior Amelia Foley said, “It helps with classroom management, and also helps you practice being quick on your feet with a response to the students, because you never know what a child is going to say and you have to be able to respond appropriately to them.”

Cooney said, “With the program being able to adjust the tolerance of the kids, it helps us as education students learn how to address all problems in the classroom, before we have to face them in practice.”

She said the software has its limitations, though it has been primarily helpful. “The kids were not able to get out of their seats. This means lessons cannot depend on group work. It is all individual. As an elementary teacher, you do a lot of pairing and grouping with the kids, and that is not something we can practice with the software.”

Keane said the Mixed Reality Simulation has endless possibilities “because it’s a good tool for beginners to test out lessons without having an impact on anyone’s lives. And it’s a good tool to help teachers learn how to deal with certain situations in the classroom.”

FSU has been working with the Mixed Reality Simulation since January.

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