Flight simulators have long been lauded for their ability to develop pilots’ skills without risking lives or damage to aircraft. The same idea is at work in Illinois State’s Virtual Nest, where avatars serve as students, parents, or educators in a simulated classroom or conference environment. Each avatar possesses an extensive back story and is controlled in real-time by an actor behind the scenes.

“Practicing communication skills and anything that involves communication is really at the heart of this technology, and it takes place in a low-stakes environment,” said Assistant Professor and Virtual Nest Coordinator Tara Kaczorowski.

As a doctoral student, Kaczorowski had the opportunity to be one of the first to interact with the simulated classroom environment in 2012. Illinois State’s Department of Special Education had already adopted the technology when she joined its faculty three years later, and she became an avid user and expert. For the past three semesters, she has served as its coordinator. Once a potential collaboration has been identified, she and the Virtual Nest actor meet with the faculty member to design and execute simulations.

While Redbirds know it as Virtual Nest, the technology was created and operates through Mursion, an organization based out of California. To increase awareness and brand its use on Illinois State’s campus, students participated in a naming contest, with Virtual Nest winning out.

Kaczorowski has collaborated with faculty across the University to develop scenarios for disciplines outside of teacher education, including nursing, health information management, and graphic design. It is primarily implemented in undergraduate course work. However, it is also used with general education teachers pursuing their master’s to practice communication and collaboration skills in mock Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings.

Math Methods in Special Education was one of the first courses to incorporate a Virtual Nest project. The classes are made up of first-semester juniors in the learning and behavior specialist major.

Kaczorowski and Assistant Professor Allison Kroesch’s design for the simulation involves a lesson on two-step equations, which is taught to a diverse group of five middle-level student avatars. While the entire lesson would take about 40 minutes from start-to-finish, the preservice teachers are instructed to pluck out 10 minutes from the instruction.

“They collaborate in groups of four. Over the course of 80 minutes, each of them teaches once while the other three observe,” Kroesch said.

Following each lesson, the pre-service teachers are given 10 minutes of planning time to improve instruction for the next round.

“The fourth person to go was supposed to demonstrate the best instruction,” said student Samantha Wyrzykowski. “But the entire process was great because we each had something important to contribute that helped the next person.”

Kroesch tells the pre-service teachers to emphasize differentiated instruction. They are given a mock IEP for one of the students, Savannah, with the goal of keeping her engaged throughout the lesson.

Wyrzykowski said that Savannah became despondent early on in their lesson; she would put her head in her hand or look at her phone. However, the group was able to reengage her in a subsequent lesson by designing a word problem about volleyball, one of the interests listed in her IEP.

“You have to think on your feet because kids can be very unpredictable in the classroom,” Wyrzykowski said. “You never know what they’re going to do, and that’s what the simulation was like.”

The pre-service teachers and avatars were also videoed and uploaded into Vosaic Connect, a video analysis tool. This enables them to watch, reflect, and label their strengths and weaknesses.

Kaczorowski and Kroesch use the videos as examples for future students, but they intentionally added the reflection piece to prepare the future teachers for the EdTPA during student teaching. They’re most encouraged when students make the connection for themselves.

“I realized that a huge benefit of this simulation was how it can ready us for the EdTPA,” said Paige Mcintyre, another student in Kroesch’s class. “The EdTPA involves us getting videotaped, with real kids. Then we have to reflect on what we did well, what we can improve on, and what we could do to make things go differently.”

Real-world heckling

Wyrzykowski and Mcintyre admit they had a lot of trepidation before stepping in front of the avatars. Kaczorowski recalls feeling a similar type of nervousness the first time she interacted with the avatars in the simulation.

“But research, and my own observations and surveys, have shown that it takes one minute or less for pre-service teachers to feel comfortable with the avatars,” Kaczorowski said.

Part of the reason may be the ability for the pre-service teachers to suspend disbelief. Wyrzykowski said the simulation immediately took on a new life when one of the avatars called a pre-service teacher Cruella de Vil because she was wearing a fur coat. A member of another group wearing a red polo and khakis was tabbed “Jake, from State Farm” by an avatar.

“The avatars looked and sounded like middle schoolers, so the scenario allowed me to be a little more natural in terms of how I would talk to those students,” Wyrzykowski said. “That’s just so hard to do when you are teaching to your classmates and pretending they are your future students. You cannot be as animated.”

All-season avatars

Kroesch said Virtual Nest serves as an early clinical experience for future teachers, however, she finds it valuable at multiple levels of teacher preparation. She plans to incorporate the experience into her practicum course.

“This would allow students to practice a lesson in front of the avatars almost immediately before teaching it to actual students,” she said.

In the future, Kaczorowski intends to use Virtual Nest in an online course. Students will be able to log in to the program, wait in a virtual queue (that actually looks like a school) with their own avatar, and wait for the actor’s avatar to come and greet them. This all-online interaction is currently limited to one-on-one scenarios, such as parent-teacher conferences. She is lobbying Mursion for program upgrades to facilitate more robust options.

Kaczorowski said there is high demand across campus to grow Virtual Nest. The most encouraging news is that faculty and student feedback is overwhelmingly positive.

“If you’re about to use Virtual Nest, just have an open mind and be ready to collaborate,” Mcintyre said. “Don’t be overly nervous. It’s for practice, and it’s actually a fun and rewarding experience.”