Second Life | Feature

Tapping Virtuality To Attract and Train 21st Century Teachers

When Pamela Whitehouse heard about Teach WV, West Virginia's plan to attract new K-12 teachers and update professional development approaches, the WVU instructional technologist wanted to get involved. She and her team are building spaces in virtual worlds where teachers can experiment with new ways of engaging students.

While many states are facing K-12 teacher shortages, West Virginia Department of Education administrators had even more reasons to be alarmed: West Virginia is home to one of the nation's oldest teaching work forces, and the number of teachers retiring was predicted to rise from 5,404 in 2008 to 9,515 by 2012. Administrators needed to find ways to attract new teachers to their state, so, at the end of 2009, they launched the Teach West Virginia campaign.

Attracting new teachers was not the only challenge presented by the teacher shortage; an influx of new teachers would mean an increased demand for training, and administrators thought it was time to treat the next generation of teachers to new 21st century teaching methodologies.

"A large percentage of our teachers are National Board Certified, and we have many strong educators working hard. However, our teachers need to develop digital literacies in order to model and teach 21st century skills and concepts in the classroom," said Pamela Whitehouse, West Virginia University assistant professor of instructional design and technology. Whitehouse said when she learned the state department of education was in the process of rolling out its new Teach WV program, she offered to partner with them to explore new approaches to education. "These days you can't teach as you were taught, and you can't teach what you don't know or understand. The old 'sit and get' model just does not work."

Adding to West Virginia's challenges were numbers that weren't adding up. "West Virginia spends about the same amount of money per child for education as the top-ranked states in the nation, [but] testing results do not reflect that investment," said Whitehouse. "Although standardized tests are not the only indicator of academic achievement, it is an important benchmark. We know that this problem is a many-headed hydra, and we wanted to address it from the teaching perspective."

Whitehouse's portion of Teach WV is in the beginning stages, and part of her approach to updating teacher training is to incorporate virtual worlds. Working with consultant and builder Nick Hardison, Whitehouse set up WV Education Island, a dedicated space in Second Life (SL). She said they chose Second Life for its immersive nature, and for the way one interacts with both the 3D environment and with other people. Interacting with the environment allows for fresh and flexible ways to learn.

"We want to take our classroom teaching to a whole new level, where teachers have an array of digital media tools such as virtual worlds to support the learning goals and teaching strategies that will help our students become global citizens."

The real-time, one-on-one or group interaction tools within Second Life make it easier to roleplay--experiment, even--with new approaches to teaching.

"We think that enacting novel ideas and risk-taking are less 'scary' when one's avatar does it," said Whitehouse. "We wanted the teachers to have inworld experiences that would prime the pump and develop ideas about how they would use this type of learning environment to teach their students creatively."

Whitehouse emphasized that teacher development programs need to not only teach innovative, new teaching strategies, but model them.

Roleplay can be used for increasing student participation during lessons, too. "New research is showing that teachers and students really benefit from creating and designing their own learning experiences in an environment that allows them to make the abstract visible," she said, pointing to math and physics manipulations as examples. "Virtual environments also allow for roleplay for subjects such as theater, drama, and historical reenactments. So, SL offers real-time interaction, [the] use of pre-made environments, [the] ability to design and create one's own space, and the ability to take risks and try out new ideas with an avatar rather than putting one's 'real' self out there."

Still in the beginning stages, the first of Teach WV's Second Life professional development programs will be offered to one West Virginia county's K-12 math teachers at the beginning of the coming school year. The program will be voluntary, but Whitehouse said she expects a number of volunteers. Feedback during the pilot has been enthusiastic, she said, and stakeholders have high expectations. "We plan to live up to it and have this become a natural part of teacher professional development," she said.

Whitehouse said that at first she'll likely be busy helping people figure out what it means to be an avatar. "Then we'll have some fun, and then we'll get down to business: learning to teach in new ways."

Whitehouse's team already has activities available at the Second Life venue. Presentations about teaching in digital environments, continuing education, and today's technologies and a promotional film about West Virginia can be viewed in the WV Education movie theater, which replicates a traditional movie theater with a large screen, tiered seating, and even a popcorn vendor in the lobby.

The movie theater on WV Education Island in Second Life introduces teachers to new digital technologies.

Primers about new, interactive ways of teaching are attained by advancing through a five-classroom scavenger hunt. In each classroom, the participating teachers hunt for clues by clicking on objects. The clues are actually questions, or mini-lessons, that help the participating teacher evaluate different teaching standards based on how each particular room is arranged and equipped. In a model build of a traditional lecturer-audience-style classroom, for example, one of the scavenger hunt clues asks: Does the method of direct teaching used in this classroom support the use of creativity and innovation in the classroom?

Once the teacher finds enough clues to solve the word puzzle in one room, he or she is granted access to the next classroom.

Second Life is not without its drawbacks. "It is not the right platform to meet all our needs," said Whitehouse. The graphical user interface is not intuitive for people who are new, and the team is already running out of available building items allowed on the amount of space they have. In addition, even within the protected WV Education environment, Second Life is not considered by some to be suitable for students.

"We like it a lot, but it is not a 'safe' place for children, and eventually we need to bring our students in-world with their teachers. So, SL is our beginning, and will remain [in] our virtual world for the Teach WV program, but we are searching for open-source resources that will allow us to build safe and protected virtual learning environments for students of all ages. We believe even young students can benefit from this type of learning environment, but we have to make sure they are safe."

Whitehouse said demonstrating efficacy will be another challenge. "We are just beginning to meet some resistance from teaching methods faculty who like the idea but are not convinced this experience is necessary," she said. So a continuous effort will be spending time with teachers and education faculty to give them understanding of what a virtual world can and cannot do.

The WV Education scavenger hunt allows teachers to make direct comparisons among traditional
room setups and those built for new digital technologies.

She will continue to champion this project, though, and said the team will remain persistent, patient, and determined. "I believe that it will help teachers energize, create, design, and become immersed in the things that brought them to teaching in the first place--love of the students, love of learning, and passion for being the best teacher they can be."

When asked for indicators of success, Whitehouse laid out the plans. "The bottom line is the attraction, retention, and retraining of teachers, particularly math teachers. Our metrics will be aligned with these goals." She said they will examine how and to what extent teachers engage and change their teaching practices as a result of their training experience in Second Life. "We'll then watch the numbers to see how many stay in teaching and for how long in comparison to those who do not have this type of innovative professional development," she said. Whitehouse said plans include watching for increases in job applications. They will measure student achievement as well. "You'll notice that none of these things are quick fixes, and we expect to see changes over time, not overnight."

Whitehouse said she hopes that, as efforts progress, she'll witness increasing student achievement as a result of helping teachers develop new habits of mind around what it means to teach and what it means to be a lifelong learner.

"I am also fascinated with the potential. I visited the Vassar Island and enjoyed standing inside their 3D photographs. Now I want to figure out how to make the 3D experience complete, by interacting with the photograph. How could we bring the photograph to life? Think of the immersive experience that would be! "

THE Journal will revisit Whitehouse and the virtual worlds professional development program in the fall, after teachers begin to use it to see how expectations compared with actual results.