A national organization honored the University of Central Florida for going beyond state and national standards in using technology effectively to improve teacher training and student learning.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education selected the College of Education’s TLE TechLivE™ Lab  for its 2012 Best Practices Award, which recognizes the innovative use of technology. The project’s creators will be honored at the association’s 64th annual meeting in Chicago this month.

The lab is unique because student teachers can use it to learn a range of skills or veteran teachers can try out innovative techniques with a group of avatar students in a mixed-reality classroom. Teachers can perfect their skills without working with any real students.

A trained “interactive actor” at UCF controls the avatars whose personalities include shy, defiant and attention seeking. The actor watches the teachers in action. If a teacher fails to use best practices the avatars act up and create a very realistic classroom environment.

The Lab started as a pilot study at UCF in 2003 and has blossomed into a network of universities using labs to give education majors the opportunity to practice what they are learning on virtual students before they face real kids in a classroom.

Partner universities include Florida State University, University of Kansas, West Virginia University, Old Dominion University, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Miami University of Ohio, Pace University in New York City, Western Michigan University and University Center of Greenville’s SimHub (which serves all South Carolina schools). Educational institutions in Africa and the United Arab Emirates are considering setting up labs this year.

The innovative “mixed reality” experience augments — not replaces — the classwork and intense internships that are required before student teachers can earn their degrees, so all teachers still have prolonged experiences with actual students as part of their preparation program, said Professor Lisa Dieker, one of the creators of the program.

“We’re often told that, once in the environment, it feels real and then the teachers at all levels want to go back in to practice, to work on something until they get it right,” Dieker added.

Dieker and College of Education Professor Michael Hynes developed TeachLivE™ with an interdisciplinary team that included UCF’s Institute for Simulation and Training, Synthetic Reality Lab and Computer Science. Professor Charles Hughes of Computer Science works with student actors from IST’s Interactive Realities Lab.

The AACTE selection committee reviewed the Lab’s integration of technology, and also recognized that the lab supports the development of transition skills for students with disabilities and the preparation of teachers in the use of instructional technologies in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“I am pleased to acknowledge this special recognition of the outstanding work of Drs. Dieker and Hynes of the College of Education, Dr. Hughes of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, and the entire UCF team that helped champion the TLE TeachLivE™ project,” said UCF President John C. Hitt, President. “Their innovative and collaborative application of research and technology to the profession of education will reverberate with students and educators for generations to come.”

The equipment necessary to create a virtual classroom in which the student-teacher interacts with virtual students costs about $6,000 and makes use of some innovative, inexpensive technology, including Skype. Regardless of where the student-teachers are based, the avatars are always controlled at UCF.

Each of the 10 partner universities has signed on to establish a lab on its campus and to track its effectiveness.