Before teaching their first class, the best practise most pre-service teachers have had is the experience of microteaching, that is, teaching a short lesson to their peers at university.

But this experience gap could be set to dissolve, thanks to a clever simulation program called TeachLive.

Harnessing the power of virtual reality, TeachLive provides a simulated classroom environment, where would-be teachers can test their lesson planning, delivery and classroom management skills with virtual pupils who act like, well, kids!

The University of Newcastle (UON), together with Murdoch University and the University of Central Florida are piloting the program, and plan to track participants to find out how helpful the classroom simulator really is.

Head of the UON School of Education, Professor John Fischetti, has high hopes for the program.

“We need more practice in teaching before we get into schools,” he says.

“TeachLive creates these opportunities and provides wonderful learning about teaching inside the safety net of a simulator, just as pilots use these tools in flight school and health professionals undertake in simulation training.”

When preservice teachers log in to their classroom they find themselves in front of five student avatars.

Using Skype, a human interactor controls the actions and reactions of the avatars, which are designed to provide a cross-section of the personalities and ability levels you might meet in an average classroom.

“Perhaps [there’s] a child who already knows the lesson, and you just didn’t know that, someone who is going to get your attention and try to take you off task, someone who is going to pull out their mobile phone and text their mother right in the middle of your lesson,” Fischetti explains.

Classes range from level one being compliant and eager to learn, up to more difficult levels simulating a class of children who have just binged on birthday cake, or those who are counting down to the final bell before school holidays begin.

Fischetti says the beauty of putting preservice teachers through their paces in TeachLive, is they can always press restart.

“If the lesson doesn’t go well, our preservice teacher can re-enter the simulation classroom and try again to teach the same students the same concept or skill.

“We can get a ‘do-over’ and learn a lot from that experience without wasting real students’ learning time in schools.”

Declan Armitage, a first year primary education student, says he already feels better about entering the classroom having used the technology.

“It’s done so much for me, I had no idea what it’d be like teaching and I was petrified almost, of going into an actual classroom without having had any experience.

“But this has really allowed me to work on the areas I’m deficient in,” he says.

“It’s almost better than the real classroom for teaching purposes, because they really target certain aspects of your teaching, where kids might not hit all of those teaching points.”