Screen shot of virtual elementary classroom and students from Mursion software

An innovative use of technology that impacts student learning? Check. Encouragement to think outside the box? Check. When Anne Estapa, assistant professor in the College of Education, read the Innovations in Teaching with Technology (ITTA) call for proposals, she knew the funding opportunity was the right fit for her project.

ITTA, sponsored by the Academic Technology Advisory Council, supports the enhancement of teaching and learning at the UI by funding innovative instructional technology projects that have the potential to directly impact student success and retention.

Anne Estapa
Estapa’s proposal centered on providing students in Elementary Math Methods with a virtual practicum experience using Mursion, an evidence-based virtual reality platform. Mursion offers “avatar-based simulations that blend real-time human conversation with artificial intelligence to replicate authentic classroom experiences.”

"Transitioning learning across university courses and elementary classrooms can be a significant jump,” says Estapa. “I wanted to approximate the classroom experience so students could practice classroom management and enact effective pedagogy and receive immediate feedback.”

Estapa was awarded ITTA funding in fall 2019 and intended to launch the Mursion platform in spring 2020 to complement students’ in-person practicums. The timing would result in unexpected benefits when schools across Iowa paused in-person operations due to COVID-19.

“Because I had access to this technology, my students continued to practice teaching strategies, reflect on their teaching, and engage in course content until the end of the semester,” says Estapa.

With the click of a Zoom link, Mursion transported Estapa’s students into an upper elementary classroom, where they were greeted by five avatar students, each with a unique personality. The avatars instantly recognized and addressed the student-teacher, noticing details specific to them such as a Zoom background or clothing item. The topic of the day: long division—a scenario selected by Estapa to align with course content.

In Mursion, which operates using a marionette model, a trained simulation specialist assists the artificial intelligence in responding to the student-teacher and provides real-time feedback.

“I witnessed many ‘ah ha’ moments in the virtual classrooms, such as when a student realized that a specific strategy to encourage content-based discourse worked,” says Estapa. “These moments are critical because they help future teachers build their confidence and encourage them to take bigger risks in their pedagogical decisions, which will be necessary to push learning in their future classrooms.”

The project also allowed Estapa to move her own research forward and pilot work focused on better understanding how students interact with and react to virtual simulations and the most appropriate use cases for the technology in education courses.

“ITTA as a funding opportunity—and it really is an opportunity—that can help you change your teaching, engage in pioneering research, and support student learning in new ways,” says Estapa.

ITTA proposals are due by 11:59 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 15. If you have a question, you can review the proposal guidelines or email the Office of Teaching, Learning & Technology to request a consultation.