When a new teacher enters a classroom full of students for the first time, he or she is faced with many new challenges. Some of these situations are expected while others crop up with little warning.

The good news is that the undergraduate education programs at Saint Leo University are designed to prepare future teachers for nearly every potential scenario and how to best tackle them in the most efficient manner. One unique educational technology platform that students get to use in these education programs involves simulated experiences with Mursion technology. This cutting-edge technology incorporates both virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

We recently caught up with Dr. Holly Atkins, chair of the undergraduate education department and an associate professor of education at Saint Leo University, to discuss this innovative educational technology, known as Simulated Experiences at Saint Leo.

Q: When was this educational technology first made available?

A: The University of Central Florida in Orlando originally developed the software behind this Mursion technology. They created the classroom environments and student avatars and then handed it off to Mursion, a tech company in Silicon Valley that put all of this together into a working platform. It was first called Teach Live, and this name is still used strictly for the training of educators. Mursion in general can also be used for other fields of study.

Q: When was this technology first introduced in Saint Leo University's education programs?

A: We first started offering it in our education programs around 2015. Our faculty got to see a demo of it and experience it, and we were totally sold on how beneficial it would be to our education majors. We purchased our own annual software license through Mursion and have two simulation specialists who work for us in house. In fact, we are the only higher learning institution in Florida with a license that allows us to partner with other schools and organizations to provide them with access to this technology. Greg Kunzweiler, the assistant director of our Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence, runs our Simulated Experiences at Saint Leo program.

Q: Where are the sessions conducted with this technology?

A: At University Campus, our students can schedule these sessions to be held in Kirk Hall. The good news is that they can also be done via Zoom. This gives students at our Education Centers or online the ability to participate in these sessions wherever they are.

Q: In which Saint Leo education programs is this technology used?

A: We incorporate this technology into all of our undergraduate education programs. Learn about which bachelor's in education programs here.

Q: How do the simulations actually work?

A: The education student interacts with a screen on which a variety of scenarios can play out. In the background, a simulation specialist has full control over the avatars on the screen. This person uses a control board to simulate the avatars speaking and making other movements, and they do all of the voices, even if a female simulation specialist is doing a male voice or vice versa. The education student can then verbally interact with the avatars on the screen. These simulation specialists can be in charge of voicing eight avatars at one time. People are floored when they find out that it's only one person doing all of the voices of the avatars.

With the classroom scenarios, there are up to five students sitting in a classroom. However, the students cannot actually interact with each other, only with their 'teacher.' They can initiate conversations, respond to questions, raise their hands, make facial expressions, and make other movements.

Students will typically spend between five and seven minutes on a session working with the avatars. Each session is designed to target a specific skill as a teacher.

Q: What are some examples of scenarios that are set up with this technology?

A: In many cases, one of our students will interact with avatars that look like students in a classroom. They could be early childhood, elementary, middle, or high school students. But they could also be teachers, parents, or even a principal with whom our student is having a meeting for a variety of reasons. We want to offer as many different types of scenarios with which a future teacher could be faced when working at a school so that our graduates are confident in handling any potential situation.

Q: Who are the simulation specialists?

A: We have two simulation specialists at Saint Leo – Emily Kochanski and Samantha Parisi. They both work in our Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence. Emily is a Saint Leo alumna and has a background in theater. Samantha Marti-Parisi, whose two children are Saint Leo alumni, is a professional actor and social media manager. We basically give them a set of broad guidelines for responses to live questions. However, a lot of what they do is on the fly, and they have to be good on their feet at answering questions and getting into the mind of the avatar. This means they could be playing the part of a five-year-old student, a high school student, a parent, a fellow teacher, or an administrator like a principal. This certainly requires lots of versatility and a keen attention to detail.

Q: How is diversity incorporated into these simulated experiences?

A: Many states require education students to gain practical experience teaching a variety of populations, including students from urban and rural communities. This can be a challenge for students attending our rural Education Centers to find field placement opportunities in urban areas. With this technology, we can make this happen by diversifying the types of students represented in these avatars.

Q: Does this technology allow students to learn about teaching students with special needs?

A: Absolutely. There was a student at UCF who had an intellectual disability, and that student helped create an avatar for a student with such challenges.

Q: What kind of feedback do the education students get from their instructors and peers when using this technology?

A: Students get feedback from the avatars themselves, from their peers in the class, and from their instructors. This is because fellow students and instructors are usually present – either in person or virtually – to observe these sessions.

Q: What kind of feedback has Saint Leo received on this educational technology?

A: We've received so much positive feedback. We recently did a training at a local charter school with some of the teachers there. Some of the first-year teachers said they wished they had had access to this technology in their degree programs because of how practical it truly is.

We've had numerous alumni tell us that having used this technology has made them so much more comfortable in the classroom in terms of handling any situation presented to them.

We've also presented to the Florida Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, and the responses from other colleges have been wonderful.

Q: How has this educational technology come in handy during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic?

A: Many school districts won't take students for field placement opportunities in the actual classroom. Because our students are required to get classroom experience in our programs, this platform has made it so convenient for them to get some practical experience with the avatars.

Q: What is the goal of incorporating this technology into the curriculum?

A: It is just one piece of the puzzle, not the whole thing. Technology can obviously never replace those real, face-to-face interactions between a teacher and student, but this is designed to be an alternative option that is very powerful. It's simply one more tool in a future teacher's toolbox.

Q: How can prospective students learn more about this technology?

A: Check out this page to learn more about this technology. Feel free to contact Dr. Holly Atkins at holly.atkins@saintleo.edu with any additional questions about how this technology is incorporated into Saint Leo University's undergraduate education programs.

Check out the below video to see some examples of how this educational technology is used in Saint Leo's education programs.