A $1.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will triple the reach of an innovative teacher preparation program developed at the University of Central Florida that uses avatars in virtual classrooms to train future educators.

TLE TeachLive™ improves teacher practice and student learning by giving aspiring educators the opportunity to instruct a virtual classroom full of avatar students. The grant is to develop the lab’s current model at universities across the country, with a focus in the areas of sustainability, technology and research.

TLE TeachLivE™ started as a pilot project at UCF in 2005. It has grown into a network of universities that use labs across the country to give education majors the opportunity to practice in a computer-generated classroom.

A trained “interactive actor” at UCF controls the avatar students, whose personalities reflect those of typical or atypical pre-teens, depending on the objectives of the experience. The actor watches the participating teachers in action. If a teacher fails to use best practices in content or instruction, the avatars act up, creating a scenario that could happen in the average classroom environment.

The experience allows teachers-in-training to perfect their skills without working with any real students. For veteran teachers, practice in a virtual classroom allows them to hone and refine their expertise or try out new techniques.

College of Education Professors Lisa Dieker and Michael Hynes along with College of Engineering & Computer Science Professor Charles Hughes developed TLE TeachLivE™ with an interdisciplinary team that included members of the Synthetic Reality Lab at UCF’s Institute for Simulation & Training.

Since 2009, TLE TeachLivE™ has expanded to partner universities across the country. The partnerships are considered beta sites that provide UCF with feedback and support.

TLE TeachLivE™ labs can be created at partner sites with relatively little initial investment. The equipment necessary to create a virtual classroom costs about $6,000 and makes use of some readily available technology, including Skype. Regardless of where the teachers are based, the avatars are controlled at UCF.

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, 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 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant will support TLE TeachLivE™ as the program grows to 30 U.S. sites over the next three years.

The technology will also be expanded, allowing for an increase in the number of interactors and added diversity of the avatars and their interactive behaviors.

Research findings from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching, a study about teaching effectiveness, will be incorporated as TLE TeachLivE™ grows. The Foundation’s best practices in the areas of math and literacy will be utilized in the virtual classrooms.

The grant will also allow UCF to continue to provide technology assistance in setting up, maintaining and improving the software, as well as honing in on how to most effectively impact teacher and student learning gains.