New Mursion software takes teaching instruction to virtual level

Assistant Professor of Education Maria Peterson-Ahmad has been working for months to bring an innovative new education tool to Western Oregon University, and she will unveil the program tomorrow to a group of students, teacher-education partners and anyone who is curious about virtual classrooms.

“I’m so excited to show Mursion to everyone,” Peterson-Ahmad said, her smile alight with anticipation. “The people I’ve shown it to all say afterward ‘Oh, my gosh! It’s so real!’”

That’s exactly the point. The Mursion teacher-training program provides a virtual classroom, complete with middle school-age avatars who demonstrate a wide range of personalities, learning styles and educational needs. As the real-life student teacher leads the class, the children respond accordingly, and the scene progresses. Each scenario is set up in advance according to the goals of the lesson.

Peterson-Ahmad estimates she spent about 10 hours working with programmers and human “interactors,” who dictate the actions of the avatars. She tells Mursion directors how she wants the 10-minute virtual classroom interaction to go, and they program the scenario and possible variations. The inherent flexibility of the system is one of its top selling features.

“You can make it whatever you want,” said Peterson-Ahmad. “All you have to do is just put in a lesson plan. You tell them ‘This is what I want this to do and be,’ and the human interactors do whatever you ask.”

The virtual classroom lends itself well to the teacher-training environment. Once students access the space and stand in front of the room as the teacher, they can test different approaches in a much more varied way than they could in the real world.

“This is an example of what’s called ‘sandbox technology,’” Peterson-Ahmad said. “Students can try various approaches. I can pause the session and we can discuss what is happening and what might be a better tactic. Student teaching in real life is very valuable, but you can’t experiment on real kids. Mursion allows us to do that.”

Graduate Assistant Amanda Allen, who is getting her master’s in special education, has been involved in setting up the Mursion program and is enthusiastic about its potential as an education resource.

“I think it is priceless to get real teaching experiences in an environment where you can reflect on your mistakes, get feedback and work on those specific skills again,” Allen said. “I would have loved to have worked with this before I started in the schools as a paraprofessional years ago.”

Western Oregon University is the only university in the state using Mursion, and getting it was no simple task. Peterson-Ahmad had worked with a related product called “TeachLivE” while getting her doctorate at Texas Women’s University in Denton. The mixed-reality program, developed at the University of Central Florida, eventually became the topic of her doctoral dissertation.

When Peterson-Ahmad, a Minnesota native, started at WOU last fall, she knew she wanted to bring similar technological tools to campus. She applied for a subgrant from the Oregon Department of Education and an organization called the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability and Reform (CEEDAR) and received funding for Mursion in December. Mursion holds the exclusive license to sell the technology that was developed as TeachLivE.

Peterson-Ahmad’s goal for the program is to improve collaboration between general education teachers and special education teachers, who work with the same students but use different methods.

“I keep hearing from general ed teachers that they struggle with knowing how to best serve students with special needs,” she said. “And special ed teachers want to be sure their work is supporting what the general ed teachers are trying to accomplish. Mursion can help both.”

The first scenario that Peterson-Ahmad has crafted focuses on two students, Ed and Sean. One has a learning disability and the other has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). They are two children among a group of five, and the live student teacher is teaching a reading lesson.

One of the versatility features of Mursion is the ability to adjust levels of behavior for each session. On the lowest setting, the virtual children are compliant, following directions and correcting their behavior according to the teacher’s instructions. On the middle setting, the children do not immediately self-correct and the student teacher must repeatedly give direction. Peterson-Ahmad describes the third level as “utter chaos,” where the children will not get back on track no matter which tactic the student teacher tries.

“I’ve been a teacher for years, and that level even makes me uncomfortable,” she said. “But the third level allows students to explore different techniques. It teaches them what to do when they reach their personal level of frustration. They can build up their own tolerance levels for frustration.”

As with just about any educational grant, the ODE/CEEDAR funding requires measurable results, which revolve around the concept of “high-leverage practices.” But Peterson-Ahmad ultimately expects the program to achieve three goals: to produce well-prepared teachers, to allow WOU education students to recognize child characteristics and increase their cultural competencies, and to increase student teachers’ self-esteem and efficacy.

“When you really take a close look at your strengths as a teacher, whether you are new or experienced, it allows you to see patterns of teaching and patterns in yourself,” she said. “Teaching is new every day. You have to be willing to change – yourself and your techniques – in order to evolve. That’s why Mursion is such a great tool. It allows you to mess up without any consequences.”

The grant that bought Mursion to Western Oregon University expires in December 2017. Peterson-Ahmad is hopeful the College of Education will be able to continue with Mursion for the long term. She believes there are many potential applications for the program, including virtual parent-teacher conferences – adult avatars are available in Mursion – and virtual classrooms with adult students.

Although the virtual avatars are extremely lifelike, Peterson-Ahmad said users generally don’t take long to suspend their disbelief and start viewing the participants as real people. That’s one of the reasons it is so effective. Studies on the similar TeachLivE program show that after four 10-minute sessions in the simulator, teachers significantly outperformed non-user colleagues in targeted teaching behaviors.

Grad student Allen admits the avatars seemed a little off-putting at first, especially since she’d done some behind-the-scenes work while getting the program calibrated. But she quickly adjusted during her time in the virtual lab.

“I have been out of the schools for a few years to continue my education, but once I started a session, it was as if I was right back in school teaching again,” Allen said. “It holds the same exhilaration and growth potential as being in the classroom.”

Peterson-Ahmad plans to offer Mursion sessions in a workshop format rather than as part of a class. She wants education students to complete five labs themselves before she pairs general ed and special ed students together.

“This experience, even though it’s not a real-life classroom, is so valuable,” Peterson-Ahmad said. “I want everyone to be able to use it.”

Allen is confident that College of Education students will embrace the technology, not just for its teaching ability but also for its innovation factor.

“This tool is on the cutting edge of research and technology for the education profession,” she said. “Every reaction I have heard so far has been curiosity and excitement related to the possibilities this could hold for teachers in training.”

Associated Professor Maria Peterson-Ahmad will present a live demo of Mursion at 2 p.m. March 16 in RWEC 112. Visitors are welcome to try out the first-in-Oregon virtual teaching lab using questions that Peterson-Ahmad has pre-programmed. Representatives from the Oregon Department of Education and CEEDAR will also attend.

By Marion Barnes