Oct 31 2006

Classroom Simulations Offer A High-Tech, Low-Risk Way For Preservice Teachers To Improve Their Skills

A new generation of digitally literate teachers, equipped with emerging technologies, will transform classroom instruction.

Over- and underwhelmend, as well as overworked and undersupported, preservice and new teachers are an “at-risk” group. According to the National Education Association, “20 percent of new public school teachers leave the profession by the end of the first year, and almost half leave within five years.” Many emerge from teacher preparation programs and enter the education profession feeling unprepared for the realities of teaching the digital student with modern technologies.

“I’ve talked to a lot of student teachers who feel completely unprepared and panicked because they don’t know how to create lesson plans and don’t know where their information resources are,” says Carla Costello, a student teacher from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, N.M. “If they don’t know that, they don’t even have a place to start.”

Ascertaining the right recipe for data management, instructional design (including technology integration), instructional strategies, classroom management and assessment becomes a seemingly insurmountable task. What are required are upgraded skills and better tools to assist Teacher v2.0 in educating Student v2.0.


“As baby boomers retire from classrooms in record numbers, the changing of the guard will usher in new teachers who are not only comfortable with modern technologies, but who will demand it both in their teacher preparation programs and in their classrooms,” points out Matthew Wunder, principal of Dana Middle School in Hawthorne, Calif.

Within the next decade, the pool of new teachers will include digital natives who were raised on a steady diet of new technologies. Teachers born in the 1990s are part of an age of knowledge in which the acquisition and management of information is accomplished predominantly with advanced technologies.

Modern students are the products of a digital world and are shaped by the technologies they use on a daily basis. As the digital divide narrows and the majority of students have “e-dentities,” these students will require classrooms and curricula that speak in their native language — technology.

One possible solution for teachers and students is the use of computer simulations in teacher preparation programs and in the new teachers’ classrooms, in order to practice integrating technology into the management of information. A virtual or simulated classroom that provides a virtual grade book and data-driven decision-making tools and opportunities could address these issues.


SimSchool is a simulation of the classroom experience from the perspective of the instructor. It allows preservice and new teachers the opportunity to make low-risk decisions while exploring a variety of instructional strategies. With simSchool, teachers can measure the impact of their instruction — and even their manner — on individual student personalities and visualize through line graphs how students respond to specific tasks, directions and feedback. This graphic model is ideal for preservice teachers who are acquiring classroom management skills.

David Gibson, a co-director of the simSchool project, says, “The game environment offers an experimental setting to invent new teaching strategies, try them out and see how the class responds. … By playing simSchool, you learn to match tasks and talk to dynamic student needs — a key underlying skill for successful classroom invention of units, lessons and assessments.”

Gibson adds, “Teachers need to improve their ability to design instructional tasks; match task characteristics to student needs; use classroom information such as behavior and academic performance to trigger reflection about the choices made for task types and sequences; and become more metacognitive about when, why and how they talk to students to improve learning.”

In the future, our teacher preparation techniques, including educational simulations, must address the challenges ne w teachers face, such as Costello’s concern that “the hardest part is the planning. I’ve been using my cooperating teachers’ materials, but I’m dreading — and am least prepared for — the creation of my own curriculum and lesson plans.”

Offering one-to-one learning, drill and practice, exploration strategies, enhanced engagement and model behaviors, simulations have limitless possibilities. Terry Adams, an online instruction specialist at Citrus College in Glendora, Calif., says, “Simulations allow our students to practice in a safe setting. It wasn’t until I played with simSchool that I fully got a sense of the complexity of structuring curriculum to meet the greatest needs.

“Once I played it, I wanted to keep playing it to get it right, and that translates to the classroom experience. We want our students to want to get it right and to keep trying.”


Unfortunately, our teacher preparation programs are not exposing our future educators to cutting-edge technologies that will be commonplace once they hit the classroom. If we are to provide students with a relevant education and prepare them for a technology-rich future, the classroom experience will need to be altered.

“Schools must draw on a variety of technologies and use them as resources to deepen students’ learning,” simSchools’ Gibson says. “When we simply ensure that students have access to the latest, most powerful computers, we make technology an end unto itself instead of the powerful teaching and learning tool that it can be.”

It would be reasonable to expect that as teachers are trained through the use of simulations, they, in turn, will want to use simulations as important pedagogical tools with their students. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of this type of educational simulation currently available.

However, game design undergraduate and graduate programs are being developed and implemented at various universities. This is paving the way for future educational gaming.

Schools today face real competition for the attention of students. Organizations ranging from corporations to the military to social networks like MySpace.com are making major investments in developing technology-mediated experiences to entice the interest of young people. Schools must recognize this fact and take steps to effectively compete for student interest.


The next wave of teachers who have a more diverse arsenal of technology skills and tools will require a new level of technical support. If simulation gains strength as a teaching tool, IT departments must function as pioneers in the continual advancement of technology. This will require deeper relationships between technology departments and classroom teachers.

IT departments will also face the formidable challenge of hardware upgrades. Video cards, sound cards, memory and peripheral equipment such as headsets will need to be purchased, installed and maintained in order to promote simulation learning.

Though the hardware may be costly, the benefits should provide substantial return on investment. Students will become more engaged, which will lead to both better discipline and improved academic performance.

Tech-savvy educators, who strive to manage information, invent new teaching strategies and implement technology-rich instruction, will most likely not produce a utopian educational system. In reality, increased usage of technologies provides quality and flexibility to learning, but it also requires financial investment and adequate technical support.

IT Department v2.0 and Teacher v2.0 need to learn to understand each other’s needs. Keeping multigenerational systems both functioning and networking, with small budgets and smaller staffs, continues to be a challenge for IT departments. Teachers need to understand that challenge, just as the IT department needs to keep in mind that the ultimate business we are in is not making machines secure, but educating students.

IT departments need to allow for the flexibility of inventive and innovative instructors. As more teachers emerge who are digital natives, they’ll be more willing to embrace and educate with technology as a core component.

Like a symphony, there must always be some room for improvisation.


In addition to computers, the Internet and video cameras, today’s preservice teachers need access to and training on another set of technology tools that are quickly becoming basics in the technology-rich classroom. These include:

Handheld devices, including personal digital assistants and cell phones: Schools are turning to more cost-effective one-to-one devices to serve the needs of their students. These devices can be purchased with Internet capabilities, and the variety of software applications for these devices is increasing.

Student response systems: Having gained enthusiastic acceptance in higher education, the use of student response systems has trickled down to the K-12 environment.

Interactive whiteboards: Although the interactive whiteboard is an established technology, the majority of teachers have limited exposure to the benefits of this alternative to the analog whiteboard. Training on interactive whiteboards should be standard in all teacher preparation programs.

iPods: This is a fun technology that requires little training, and many teachers already have experience with this device. The iPod has educational uses ranging from teaching foreign languages to audio books. Coupled with podcasting, instructors can distribute audio and video lessons to their students’ devices.

Document cameras/projectors: Both these classroom tools have gained functionality features that make them great tools in the classroom, but do require additional training for teachers. Teachers should be trained to use the advanced capabilities of document cameras, such as their microscopes and document-capturing features.


There are a number of simulations available for classroom use. Some are newer than others. The trick to successful integration into the classroom experience is to ensure that the actual use of the software conveys the intent of the curriculum and that the computers are capable of effectively running the software.

The back of the box is not always a guarantee of truth in advertising. You need to sit down and sample the simulation and the experience. You might find it does not serve your purpose, or you might find that it teaches lessons beyond your expectations.

Make sure the software runs properly on the systems the students will be using. School labs are notorious for quirky behavior. Sometimes the compromises made regarding security and connectivity will affect the smooth operation of your software.

Design your curriculum around the experience. Simulations are meant to be experienced and immerse the student in a learning activity. Most are also designed to be fun. Do not lose the aspect of play as you design the learning objectives.

Julia Parra is a project coordinator and Web-based curriculum developer at New Mexico State University and a doctoral student in the Educational Technologies program at Pepperdine University.

James B. Rhoads is a doctoral student in the Educational Technologies program at Pepperdine University. His focus is on learning through play in online environments.

Tina M. Sartori is technology administrator for River’s Edge Charter Academy. Prior to that, she was a teacher and a principal, and ran an educational Web site design and technology consulting business.