Researchers use advanced technologies in the preparation of future mathematics and science teachers

A screenshot from the virtual reality classroom

While the COVID-19 pandemic has had a major effect on PK-12 classrooms, it has also affected opportunities for preservice teachers to gain practical teaching experience. Responding to this problem, School of Education faculty Meredith Park Rogers and Adam Maltese, along with Dionne Cross Francis of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an affiliate faculty member of IU, have begun work on a project with collaborators from ETS, Towson University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where they will design and study an online suite of practice-based teaching activities intended to support mathematics and science preservice teachers in honing their skills for facilitating argumentation-focused discussions.

This project, funded by a grant for over $3 million from the National Science Foundation (Grant 2037983), will run from 2020-2023. ETS serves as the lead organization for the project, titled Online Practice Suite (OPS): Practice Spaces, Simulations and Virtual Reality Environments for Preservice Teachers to Learn to Facilitate Argumentation Discussions in Mathematics and Science.

We must find a way to continue to prepare high-quality math and science teachers through this pandemic and beyond.

Associate Professor Meredith Park Rogers

The OPS consists of a coordinated set of online practice-based teaching activities that include game-based practice spaces, small-group avatar-based simulations, and a virtual reality classroom. The activities are designed to be complemented with targeted feedback and support from teacher educators.

The project aims to address two critical issues:

  • With the COVID-19 pandemic increasingly pushing K-12 schools and universities across the nation to adopt online approaches, there is an immediate need for finding effective methods for preservice teachers to practice teaching even if traditional school-based teaching experiences are less available.
  • Even without pandemic-related restrictions, learning how to teach effectively demands that preservice teachers have robust, authentic and consistent opportunities to engage in the work of teaching—ideally across different contexts with diverse student populations and for varied purposes. 
A screenshot from the virtual reality classroom

Over the next three years, the OPS research team will work with mathematics and science teacher educators to design, test, and refine the full suite of online practice-based teaching activities. Findings will be used to understand the mechanisms that support preservice teachers’ learning within and across the OPS activities and to document an emergent set of best practices for supporting preservice teachers’ improvement in this ambitious teaching practice over time. The OPS will be accompanied by support materials to help teacher educators use and integrate the activities into teacher education courses, including online and face-to-face learning contexts. Both elementary and middle/secondary school mathematics and science scenarios will be developed for the OPS. 

The IU faculty will work with the Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts (IDIA Lab) at Ball State University to develop an immersive virtual reality environment that will situate teachers in learning to navigate a whole-class discussion with students. This aspect of the OPS is referred to as the Virtual Teacher Simulator (VTS). In these simulations, preservice teachers will move beyond the one-on-one and small-group interactions of the other two OPS activities and begin to put their skills together to teach a full classroom of virtual student avatars. Eachpreservice teacher will have the opportunity to move around the classroom and engage with the virtual student avatars just as though they were in a real classroom. Additionally, they will receive feedback from a mathematics or science teacher educator (i.e., coach) in order to continue to improve their practice.

As Park Rogers explains, “The VTS context especially affords preservice teachers multiple opportunities to rehearse their teaching within a short time span, without disrupting learning in a real classroom, all while receiving immediate and expert feedback from specialized mathematics and science teacher educators. Furthermore, incorporating real-time feedback and opportunities for multiple rehearsals, all within an immersive whole class context, will allow preservice teachers to take risks in their practice and try out novel pedagogical moves that they may not feel secure enough, or have opportunities, to try in an actual classroom.”

“We must find a way to continue to prepare high-quality math and science teachers through this pandemic and beyond,” says Park Rogers. “Through this collaboration, we hope to offer teacher educators and their preservice student teachers a solution to the current dilemma the global pandemic of COVID-19 has created, and also alternative or supplementary methods for targeting core teaching practices even when we are able to safely return to classrooms to work with real children.”

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant 2037983. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent views of the National Science Foundation.