The use of virtual simulations in teacher education to develop pre-service teachers’ behaviour and classroom management skills: implications for reflective practice

April, 2020

Source: Journal of Education for Teaching, 46:2, 159-169

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The use of virtual simulations is growing in teacher education and is likely to develop further as aspects of the technology improve.
This paper aims to explore the increasing use of virtual simulations in pre-service teacher education and in particular their use in developing preservice teachers’ behaviour and classroom management skills and facilitating their reflections of it.

Having explored these examples, the paper then aims to question some of the assumptions underpinning the use of virtual simulations and aims to discuss their future development and use in teacher education.
The research in this area has shown mixed results with only moderate reviews by pre-service teachers in many cases. In general, despite these mixed results there remains a high level of positivity in relation to the benefits of this type of technology into the future – largely reflecting the broader positivity surrounding educational technology (Selwyn 2010).
However, the extent to which the effectiveness of the simulations developed to date is an issue of their level of graphical realism is open to debate.
There is evidence that preservice teachers more favourably report platforms that replicate social presence (Biocca, Harms, and Burgoon 2003) and more virtual realism (Stavroulia and Lanitis 2017).
However, this begs the question: are the modest reports of the simulations’ value related to their visual/aesthetic appearance or the extent to which they realistically capture the social, cultural and human dimensions of classroom life?
Dieker et al. (2014) outline three important aspects of virtual simulations, namely 1) a sense of presence, 2) Fidelity (the validity of the simulation model to reflect reality and 3) the importance of an action review cycle, where feedback and reflection are important.
As simulation technologies in teacher education advance there is a danger that future developments may focus primarily on the visual/aesthetic components of the experience, i.e. enhancing the sense of presence, rather than important issues related to their fidelity.
While the environments may develop in their complexity and feel, the extent to which they reflect validly the complexities of classroom life and characteristics of pupils is another matter. Feinstein and Cannon (2002) differentiate four aspects of validity: application validity, representational validity, internal validity and external validity.
Important to this discussion is representational validity (the extent to which the simulation is believable and represents what it aims to simulate).
This is supported by Herrington and Oliver's (2000) key elements of situated learning where authentic context and authentic activities are central for effective learning engagement and outcomes.
For that reason, particularly when dealing with behaviour and classroom management, simulated pupil behaviour needs to be authentic.
Deale and Pastore (2014) importantly note that simulations provide an interactive abstraction of a real-life event or scenario and that today’s simulations employ complex artificial intelligence algorithms involving variables that respond to the user’s actions.
To date, the pupils created within these virtual spaces and the behaviour they display have drawn on teachers’ experiences, general pupil profiles related to specific learning difficulties or personal backgrounds and psychological theories/models.
However, as Rayner and Fluck (2014) importantly point out, in addition to the need for further technological advancements, further development of the psychological models driving the behaviour of virtual students is needed to improve simulations.

The author concludes that notwithstanding the need for further developments in the technologies and in the theoretical models underpinning them, virtual simulations have many benefits in teacher education and their continued expansion into teacher education will likely continue.
Virtual simulations can be particularly helpful in bridging the theory-practice divide (McGarr, O’Grady, and Guilfoyle 2017) and facilitating pre-service teachers’ development in a controlled and perceived safer environment than a ‘real’ classroom.
They also add a level of authenticity to the on-campus experience of student teachers and address some of the deficiencies in the practicum experience.
Their introduction into teacher education also has opportunity to open conversations about what ‘realities’ should be simulated and whether it is possible for them to be simulated.
In saying this however, simulations by their very nature aim to replicate an event or create an experience not based on an objective account but on one’s interpretation of an event.
For that reason, simulations may simplify the nature of behaviour to ‘fit’ particular stereotypes.
For pre-service teachers, who are encouraged to challenge their interpretations of classroom events and unpack critically the assumptions underpinning their interpretation of experiences, virtual simulations of this type may do little to assist this process.
On the contrary, they may instead cement particular views of classroom behaviour by playing on the cultural stereotypes of particular pupils and their behaviour, thus potentially strengthening beliefs rather than challenging them.
Wang (2011) reminds us that not all interactivity in virtual worlds is educational and that, ‘guidelines need to be constructed for the productive use of virtual world technology in education’ (618).
Teacher education is no exception in this regard.

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Updated: Jan. 09, 2021