In First Class, a teacher in training can lead a class of virtual children.
A teacher with a wearable headset can enter a virtual reality classroom and complete tasks multiple times, with the ability to fail in a space that doesn’t have an impact on real students. He or she can practice an extreme situation, like a complex moral dilemma or severe behavioral issue, safely.
And it allows a teacher in training to explore the realm of accessibility. With adjustments to the lighting or audio, he or she can experience the classroom the way a student with a visual impairment or auditory difficulty might experience it.
First Class is the brainchild of Ann Clements, an associate professor and the graduate program chairwoman for Music Education at Penn State.
It aims to help address the problem of access for pre-service teachers to the right classrooms with strong teachers who are willing to work with them, she said. Often access is an issue because of high-stakes testing, different school districts having their own requirements for clearances for student teachers and trying to line up times with the course offerings at Penn State.
It’s meant as an additional training opportunity, not as a replacement to being in a classroom with real students, Clements said.
She was able to pursue and create that idea with the help of designers and creators from Teaching and Learning with Technology at Penn State after winning the Open Innovation Challenge at Penn State in 2015.
The challenge occurs annually at the TLT symposium. Selected innovators get to pitch their innovative ideas about anything that enhances teaching and learning in higher ed for an audience of more than 500.
“I’m a music teacher, and I would say I’m not a technologist,” she said. “But I believe that technology is a wonderful tool in the bag of all modern teachers. It can provoke students, it can interest them, it can personalize and it can push students’ learning and motivation in new ways.”
That’s an example of the kind of technology and innovation that Penn State President Eric Barron wants to see in a lot of classrooms.
“The eagerness of the institution in this space is extremely high. People are sensing that this really can be transformative in very positive ways,” Barron said.
Scott McDonald, associate professor of science education and director of the Krause Innovation Studio, won the Open Innovation Challenge in 2016, and Scott Yabiku, professor of sociology, won it in 2017.
McDonald said in an email that his idea focused on making general purpose classrooms at the university more supportive of students collaborating with each other and thinking together. What if the classrooms could remember — a “digital learning residue” — the work the class had been doing so that as students re-entered the space their work from the previous class was projected onto the walls?
Yabiku wanted to help instructors improve their teaching by giving them automated feedback. Yabiku said his idea was to use machine learning and facial recognition to sense when students become disengaged or distracted in class. By measuring student engagement and matching it with an automated transcript of the lecture, teachers would be able to see where in the lecture students weren’t paying attention.
Both McDonald and Yabiku and their teams have run into challenges trying to figure out the best way to breathe life into their ideas. But that’s not a bad thing.
“Part of the nature of the Open Innovation Challenge is that they are entrepreneurial and innovative, so there is an expectation that some of these ideas are just not ready or possible today. It is the thinking about ideas that are beyond what we can do now that gets us to reimagine education in ways that we can make happen,” McDonald said.
Beyond the Open Innovation Challenge, the university is expanding technology and digital innovation in all sorts of ways in the teaching and learning process.
The digital revolution is happening faster than ever, Barron said.
“This is not your father’s education anymore; we’ve got smartphones, self-driving cars, all sorts of sensors, educational technology,” he said. “So the question is: Does Penn State lead or do we follow? The simple fact of the matter is a very large number of the universities and colleges in this country can only follow.
“They just simply do not have the money to invest in artificial intelligence and these other areas. They don’t. But we can still ask the question: OK, is Penn State in that category and do we want to be in that category?”
In 2017, the university invested more than $9.1 million in the realm of digital innovation, according to Penn State.
And it stretches across the university, with innovation in various disciplines, from agricultural sciences to business to education.
Barron said World Campus and hybrid classrooms have given the university a “big head start.”
The university is transforming teaching and learning through flexible and adaptable spaces; technology classrooms and online and blended learning options; virtual and augmented reality’ accommodations for multiple learning styles; and support for faculty innovation.
Among these are the Bluebox Studio, where faculty can go to experiment with tech; the Immersive Experience Lab that supports consumption and creation of immersive tech; Maker Commons in Pattee-Paterno Library, where 3-D printing and rapid prototyping are part of the teaching and learning process; and an initiative called b.book that has a human-assisted computer use open source material to create free textbooks.
Penn State-pioneered software from One Button Studio and Media Commons — where students can put together a whole presentation using advanced tools — is not only on every campus, but also used in more than 100 places around the world.
And Penn State plans to keep investing in digital innovation.
“We have the thought leaders,” Barron said.
But the question, he said, is whether the university can help them deliver.