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Penn State to Pilot Home-Grown Virtual Reality Tool

This fall, Penn State will give future teachers practice in a music education classroom — virtually.

by Tanya Roscorla / August 11, 2016
A screenshot of the virtual reality tool that music pre-service teachers at Penn State will be using this fall. Penn State

This fall, Penn State is piloting a new project that combines artificial intelligence and virtual reality to help future music education teachers experiment in a classroom.

Because of long state testing windows and difficulty getting classroom clearance, pre-service music education teachers aren't always able to apply what they're learning in a real classroom as much as they need to, said Ann Clements, associate professor and the graduate program chair for music education in Penn State’s School of Music. On top of that, they need opportunities to practice and experiment without the pressure of working with real students.

So Clements came up with an idea to create a virtual reality teaching lab to supplement live teaching experiences. The idea won Penn State's first annual Open Innovation Challenge, which allowed her to work with the university's Teaching and Learning with Technology group to make that idea a reality. Their collaborative effort resulted in First Class, a virtual reality classroom that uses artificial intelligence to control the actions of cartoon-like students and Microsoft Kinect to respond to teachers' movements.

"This is just the first series of projects that are focused on that idea of what kinds of opportunities can we give students to get the most from their education," said Kyle Bowen, director of Teaching and Learning with Technology at Penn State.

Moving closer to or farther away from a student would change a teacher's viewpoint, just like it would in real life. Algorithms behind the scenes control what students actually do, including looking bored, raising their hands and staring off into the distance. And an attention meter allows teachers to see when students aren't engaged so they can do something about it. 

Initially, students will learn basic teaching skills including proximity to students, line of sight and direct communication with students. Later on, Clements said she would like to incorporate more advanced teaching skills and change the configuration of the classroom, which currently reflects the older model of a teacher at the front of the room and students in rows of desks. That's more of a prototyping issue than anything else.

While music teachers get the first crack at this new tool, the technology has broader applications for different interpersonal interaction, said Bowen. The virtual students can represent other types of people in diverse scenarios with their own sets of behaviors.

Ultimately, Clements said she would like First Class to be available to teachers internationally.

"The end goal of this in my mind," Clements said, "is to provide a tool that is either free or at limited cost to educators anywhere in the world who want to practice their teaching."

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