by Julie Lineback

Meet Ethan. He’s in middle school and enjoyed watching the Winter Olympics.

“I saw Shaun White get the gold for the U.S. of A.,” he said when asked about the event. “I watched the finals, and he did two tricks in a row. It was sick!”

A participant interacting with an adult avatar in a mock parent-teacher conferenceEthan’s classmate, Dev, agreed and said it’s really cool how snowboarders like White are able defy gravity.

“The aerodynamics behind it are interesting to me,” he said.

Along with their friends Savannah, Ava and Jasmine, Ethan and Dev hold their classes in a simulation lab via UWGLive. They interact with budding educators at the University of West Georgia’s College of Education. But they are not your average middle schoolers.

They’re avatars.

UWGLive uses state-of-the-art technology to create immersive mixed-reality environments for participants to practice and master certain skills in their ever-changing workplaces. UWGLive is an innovative way of assisting educators, school leaders and counselors in challenges they may face in their professions.

“UWGLive is a unique experience that allows teacher candidates — and many other majors — to be put into highly controlled situations in which they can ‘practice’ their newly acquired skills,” said Dr. Mary Beth Slone, associate professor of educational psychology in the Department of Educational Technology and Foundations. “Our students spend time in the schools at several points in the program, so this gives them the added benefit of being more prepared.”

With 10 upper elementary and middle school students and three special needs students, each avatar has his or her own distinct personality as well as background. It is the participant’s responsibility to get to know and learn about the students because the avatars don’t remember past sessions and each meeting is personal.

“UWGLive is a great supplement to what our candidates are learning in the classroom,” Slone continued. “They can immediately put into practice what they are being taught, as well as receive immediate feedback on their performance—all without the worry of making mistakes in a very public domain.”

Slone said another important aspect that is often overlooked is that students can “observe” lessons being taught by Master Teachers.

“This allows for them to model behavior and to ask questions about lesson delivery in real time,” she said.

Adult environments are also available in which the participants can interact with parents or administrators. Terrie Ponder, director of UWGLive, described this as one scenario where the program branches outside of UWG and allows COE to partner with local schools.

“Last year we did a parent-teacher conference simulation with the new teachers of Carrollton City Schools,” Ponder described. “We were able to do some coaching and modeling with the parents acting a certain way.”

Ponder said there are more than 50 scenarios, and not all of them are limited to the classroom or school. Other adult environments include doctor offices and hospitality settings, and there are also various office spaces and conference rooms that allow for practice in interview and salary negotiation skills.

The program began in 2013 as part of the University of Central Florida’s TeachLivE project with Mursion, which provided the avatars and virtual training environments. In 2017, UWG purchased a site license from Mursion and became UWGLive. Ponder explained that while Mursion still provides the service, UWG now controls scheduling and scenarios and even employs its own simulation specialists.

UWG is the only independent authorized simulation service providers in the state of Georgia and one of 10 in the country.

School scenarios are currently the main avenue UWGLive takes, but Ponder said the new independence allows UWG to offer services to businesses along the east coast.

“It goes beyond teaching in the classroom,” she concluded. “The capabilities are endless.”

Posted on March 14, 2018