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No Children Were Harmed in the Making of This Teacher

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

A recent report in EDUCAUSE Quarterly about the efficacy of simulated teaching experiences using the simSchool platform has left me in a bit of a quandary. As a game researcher and strong advocate of the power of the medium for learning, I want to believe that pre-service teachers can learn a great deal from realistic simulations that give them the opportunity to test drive their teaching skills before they ever enter a classroom. To paraphrase from the motion picture business: "no actual children were harmed in the making of this teacher."


(Image:simSchool.org)

I am, however, left scratching my head over this effort that seems to completely strip any content considerations, personality, or realism from the process of allowing students to test their “teaching skills.” For me this is more akin to playing with a virtual pet than a teaching simulation. You need to pet your students,feed them, and groom them when they give the appropriate signals in order to keep them happy and healthy. Teaching real children is never that simple, or clean. Students are never as easy to read or understand as the sim students in this program would lead one to believe.

 What is simSchool?
The simSchool platform was created in 2003 with funding from the preparing Teachers to Teach with Technology grant from the U.S. Department of Education (EDUCAUSE, 2011). The concept behind the program draws on sound research that indicates that learner’s interest and recall can be enhanced through gaming and simulation. The simSchool initiative looks to leverage the power of gaming by simulating classroom experiences for pre-service teachers. According to the researchers, the benefits of the plan are:

  • Learning to teach by practicing teaching
  • Allowing for safe risk taking, learning by failing, and trying multiple attempts to arrive at a solution
  • Promoting mastery of new skills  
  • Aiding in the development of problem solving skills in teachers
  • Facilitating the development of technological skills
  • Scalability to a large number of teacher candidates
    (Gibson & Kruse, 2011)

Theoretically the system accomplishes these goals through an adaptive artificial intelligence that allows for millions of learning scenarios which incorporate student avatars who change as the interaction continues. At the conclusion of any simulation, the user is presented with detailed reports about their progress.

The system works through a fairly rudimentary cartoon interface which shows a classroom with rows of chairs and several simulated students. In addition, the user has a virtual laptop which contains thumbnail profiles of each student. These sketches are, in some ways, more detailed than anything a teacher ever sees about a student – offering intimate details of their home lives, medical conditions, etc. – while simultaneously being eerily devoid of any realism, personality, or life.

Interactions with these caricatures  are controlled by pointing and clicking on desired students and then selecting actions based on a limited menu of choices (see image below). For example, clicking on the disinterested student gives you the option to assign a new task to that student or say something to them. If you choose to assign a new task you are given options such as: recall task, skill/concept task, strategic thinking task, or extended thinking task. When you select one of these, a word bubble appears on the screen indicating your choice with text that says something like, "Jirapha, develop a hypothesis."


(Image:simSchool.org)

As you work through selecting the correct options to appease the students, small meters at the bottom of the screen display their Power, Happiness, and Academic attributes, while a thermometer near their head indicates their engagement. Essentially, you read the students’ body language and attempt to guess which of the preprogrammed responses is the correct one given the student’s history and current game status.

Criticism
On a whole, I find the simSchool program to be flat and artificial. There is a remarkable lack of depth for something that claims to have adaptive AI and a database of more than two million simulates. The program is directed at allowing student teachers to play with the variables surrounding classroom behavior. However, separating behavior from other variables in the students’ lives such as the subject matter, their prior relationship with the teacher, and their relationships with their peers, leaves this effort  feeling very hollow.

The simulated students all seem to exhibit the same behavioral issues and the options available for interaction with them are extremely limited. There is nothing alive or unique about the students or the choices available for assignments or behavioral interventions. The menus do not seem to be context driven, but rather always display the same options regardless of the situation. Finally, the interface choice of clicking on (apparently) randomly colored word bubbles, then reading what they say is extremely non-intuitive. When was the last time that any teacher who was not a cyborg ran through a laundry list of options prior to choosing what to say to a misbehaving student?

With approximately 80 education programs worldwide using or considering adoption of the simSchool platform,there is cause for concern. If this program is merely a supplemental activity to introduce students to the basic concept of classroom behavior management, that is one thing. But if there are institutions that are relying on this as more than a fluffy intro for their teacher candidates, they need to do some serious reconsideration.

Simulations and games really do have the power to change the world of education. But they must actually be simulations which create a realistic analog of reality that allows the user to develop knowledge that will be meaningful and practical. The entirety of simSchool, from the low fidelity depictions, to the clunky interface, and constrained interactions, misses the mark of a realistic and meaningful simulation very badly. This effort is akin to reading a book that contains no characters, no plot, and no evolving story line. There is hope for the use of simulations in all educational endeavors, they must, however, be much more robust and convey a sense of urgency and reality that are a significant part of teacher preparation.