Classroom Simulator Training Gains Ground
> 12/18/2006 11:32:19 AM

The idea of new teachers honing their student management skills in front of a flat screen filled with virtual schoolkids seems like a stretch, but such technology is gaining credibility as a viable training tool in what seems to be another case of professional life mirroring the progress of video game technology.

A Maryland company called SIMmersion has developed computer simulations particularly designed to heighten the interpersonal skills of employees within the FBI, DEA and U.S. Customs agencies. Many of these, like the classroom programs, are run by a combination of off-screen actors and detailed programming. In the case of interrogation simulators, hired actors record responses to various questions and techniques. The programs then organize the given information to give out automatic answers that represent the behavior of an actual suspect as closely as possible. For those whose professions place them in high-pressure face-to-face situations, varied forms of training are absolutely essential, and these programs, though not without their respective flaws, provide the chance to practice negotiation skills before an animated subject.

How does one prepare new teachers to deal with classroom conflict without placing them directly into the situations in question? Teachers lacking in conflict resolution skills will most likely encounter serious problems establishing and maintaining acceptable levels of discipline in their classes. The turnover rate for teachers is depressingly high, reaching levels of up to fifty percent in urban areas across the country. One of the main reasons for this inconsistency is the fact that teachers are not properly trained, and they lack the communication skills required to contain such difficulties in the classroom. The resulting chaos can be overwhelming and lead to early burnout and career changes.

The simulation programs are not perfect. In the current version of the classroom simulator, an outside actor must provide the responses and gestures of the virtual students on screen. Still, the program allows for practice that does not involve traditional role-playing exercises. According to SIMmersion's president, these exercises are not as effective as many would assume because employees feel self-conscious around bosses and co-workers and, as a result, will not perform as honestly or effectively as they would in a more neutral setting.

Related programs have an established history of use within the military, law enforcement, and flight schools as training for positions that require considerable amounts of technical mastery and accuracy. Flight and battle simulators often closely resemble commercial video games, and SIMmersion estimates that the classrom simulator will soon be available to public and private institutions around the country. It will obviously carry a heavy price tag, and its technology has yet to reach an ideal level of effectiveness, but its potential as a training tool for future teachers is exciting.

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