Interaction principles for digital puppeteering to promote teacher learning

January, 2021

Source: Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 53:1, 107-123

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

Although simulations have been used in teacher education for more than 150 years (Cruickshank, 1988), little is known about learning design models and how digital puppeteers, termed “interactors” by Dieker et al. (2014), are prepared.
Given urgent interest in digital environments for teacher education and licensure, this literature review sought to understand how researchers have used interactions between avatars and teachers to further teacher learning during the last decade when mixed-reality technologies became more practical and affordable.
The following questions guided the authors’ analysis:
1. What were the design models of mixed reality simulations used for teacher learning?
2. How were interactors trained?
3. How was attention given to language and race in simulations?

This review followed comprehensive procedures (Onwuegbuzie, Collins, Leech, Dellinger, & Jiao, 2010).
Search terms were identified through database thesauruses and keywords used in sample papers.
Extant research literature was found through a computer-based search across ERIC.
When searching titles, abstracts, subject terms, and descriptors, the search yielded 36 results.
The lead author independently evaluated all studies.
Of the 36 articles, 10 studies met the inclusion criteria.
An additional eight studies were identified through the references cited in the selected 10 papers.
This review included 18 studies.
Given the number of studies found through citations, the key words and descriptors assigned to the 18 papers were examined.

Findings and discussion

Five design principles for learning
Taken together, the findings from this review begin to articulate design principles that may guide future studies in better leveraging the potential of virtual humans to promote teacher learning. The five principles include: learning design, avatar and interactor learning, interactor training, time and distance, and complex practices in a sociocultural context.

Learning design
Explicitly describing all elements in the simulation design would enable researchers to replicate and build on previous studies.
More information is needed regarding orientation to the virtual classroom, avatar introductions, and preparation materials that supported the interactor and teacher participant.
Explicit description of the theory of change and descriptions of each element, including the training of the interactor, may lead to a greater understanding of how to measure fidelity and design experiences for participants with different learning needs.

Avatar and interactor learning
In addition to measuring teacher learning, future studies may interrogate the learning that avatars demonstrated through their responses and how interactors learned through their experiences with simulations.
Examining changes in the quality of avatar responses as a result of interactions with the teacher participant and the interactor’s language choices, behaviors, perceptions, and understanding over the course of study implementation may provide a context for observed changes in teacher practices.
In addition to reporting the planned and improvised responses and behaviors of avatars, post-simulation reflections may be collected from the interactors.

Interactor training
Researchers should provide detailed descriptions of interactor training and planned use of communication strategies such as gestures, language, and vocal expression.
Interactor training in the content knowledge used in simulated lessons is necessary to inform improvizations.
The possible conceptions, misconceptions, vocabulary, and language patterns consistent with the age level of avatars, as well as relevant background knowledge of each student avatar, should be considered, rehearsed, and made available in research studies because these decisions are not neutral.
Greater attention to language, race, and culture brings greater visibility to a sociocultural curriculum embedded in teacher learning and advanced through simulations.
Measurement tools could be developed to illuminate the language and communication strategies interactors employed to promote teacher learning.
Descriptions of the research design might include data collection of the strategies employed by the interactors, including both planned and improvised responses.
Detailed descriptions of both interactor and teacher learning expectations for the simulation design model components–including preparation, goal setting, debriefs, coaching, and reflections–would enable researchers to replicate studies and increase the validity and reliability of future studies.

Time and distance
The design of mixed reality simulations should leverage opportunities to suspend, compress, and extend time.
Time can be extended by measuring learning that happens before (setting goals, recognizing the need for learning, learning a new skill), during (through the interactions with the avatars) and after the simulation (reflection tools and applications into real classrooms).
Finally, both proximal learning happening within the simulation and immediate post-simulation activities could be replicated across more than one study.
More studies could include distal outcomes such as transfer to the classroom, maintenance of strategy over time, and possible impacts on student learning and teacher outcomes, such as retention and evaluation.
Taken together, identifying and replicating time and distance variables would increase our knowledge of the impact of teacher learning through virtual classroom practice.

Complex practices in a sociocultural context
The fifth principle is to explicitly address the many dimensions represented in simulation design considering language, race, culture, and power.
Simulations aim to limit the complexity of teaching by controlling factors in a classroom environment.
Philip et al. (2019) described dangers of the “presumed neutrality projected onto these practices risks reproducing systems of inequity and injustice.”
Simulations can focus teacher attention on the development of discrete teaching skills, such as providing praise or open-ended questions.
However, practicing limited teaching behaviors without attention to cultural relevance and recognition of the many abilities that avatar students bring to a task may have harmful impacts on the development of teacher perception and limit a teacher’s value and use of their own strengths in their teaching.
In addition, measuring teacher and avatar learning should be done in sophisticated ways deliberately examining complexities of practices.
The filmed problem-solving simulations of the 1960- 1970s focused on developing teacher critical thinking skills.
Similarly, mixed-reality simulations have the potential to provide a vehicle for the development of teacher complex decision-making skills required for rapidly culturally affirming decisions made in the classroom.

A key benefit of simulations is that they are risk-free for avatar students; indeed, it may be more ethical for educators to practice initially within simulated environments before stepping into the classroom.
Previous research in simulated learning has demonstrated that immersion (a feeling that what is simulated feels authentic and has real-world stakes) facilitated the development of sophisticated problem-finding and problem-solving skills (Dede, 2009).
Taken together, the outcomes of teacher learning reported in these research studies seem promising.
Indeed, following the completion of this review, new publications (such as Cohen et al., 2020) have demonstrated causal relationship between simulations and teaching learning.
However, to understand the qualities of simulations that impact teacher learning researchers must examine how virtual humans learned during the simulations and how avatar interactions led to teacher learning.
The pandemic has positioned practice teaching in virtual classrooms as a necessary reality in teacher education creating an opportunity for future research to answer the question posed by Cruickshank (1988) examining how interactions with avatars given the sociocultural context presented within the simulation may improve teacher learning.

Cohen, J., Wong, V., Krishnamachari, A., & Berlin, R. (2020). Teacher coaching in a simulated environment. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 42(2), 208–231
Cruickshank, D. R. (1988). The uses of simulations in teacher preparation: Past, present, and future. Simulation & Games, 19(2), 133–156.
Dede, C. (2009). Immersive interfaces for engagement and learning. Science (New York, N.Y.), 323(5910), 66–69
Dieker, L. A., Rodriguez, J. A., Lignugaris/Kraft, B., Hynes, M. C., & Hughes, C. E. (2014). The potential of simulated environments in teacher education: Current and future possibilities. Teacher Education and Special 122 R. BONDIE ET AL.Education: The Journal of the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children, 37(1), 21–33
Onwuegbuzie, A. J., Collins, K. M. T., Leech, N. L., Dellinger, A. B., Jiao, Q. G., (2010). A meta framework for conducting and writing rigorous comprehensive literature reviews for stress and coping research and beyond. In G. S. Gates, W. H. Gmelch, M. Wolverton, (Series Eds). K. M. T. Collins, A. J. Onwuegbuzie, Q. G. Jiao, (Eds.). Toward a broader understanding of stress and coping: Mixed methods approaches. (Vol. 5, pp.169–211). The Research on Stress and Coping in Education Series. Information Age Publishing.
Philip, T. M., Souto-Manning, M., Anderson, L., Horn, I., J. Carter Andrews, D., Stillman, J., & Varghese, M. (2019). Making Justice Peripheral by Constructing Practice as “Core”: How the Increasing Prominence of Core Practices Challenges Teacher Education. Journal of Teacher Education, 70(3), 251–264

Updated: Aug. 20, 2021