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Stephen P. Robinson Collaboration Grant Report: Swift School, Roswell, GA

Wednesday, April 18, 2018  
Posted by: Christina Mimms
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Using Immersive Technology for Improved Training of Professionals who Teach Students with Dyslexia


By Dr. Sandra Robbins, Department of Literacy and Special Education, and Dr. Jill Drake, Department of Early Childhood Through Secondary Education, University of West Georgia, and Harriet Litzky, Dean of Instruction, and Donna Cherry, Director of Technology and AssessmentSwift School, Roswell, GA


The Stephen P. Robinson Collaboration Grant enabled a growing partnership between Swift School in Roswell, GA, and the teacher education faculty at the University of West Georgia (UWG) to continue. Through the grant, the partners imagined and implemented an innovative collaborative project supporting the needs of both entities and their surrounding communities. The focus of the funded project was to develop, implement, and research virtual classroom simulations designed for educators who teach students with dyslexia. The collaboration united the University of West Georgia’s expertise in educating teachers with Swift School’s knowledge in the field of dyslexia. The work stemmed from a joint interest in training teachers to address the specialized needs of the dyslexic learner.


Dyslexia is characterized by impaired phonemic awareness and word decoding, poor reading comprehension and fluency, and difficulty with spelling and written expression (Berninger, Raskind, Richards, Abbott, & Stock, 2008). Despite being one of the most prevalent learning disabilities, students with dyslexia continue to be extremely under-served in K-12 schools and postsecondary settings (Cortiella & Horowitz, 2014 ); the professionals who teach this population are not adequately prepared to support students with dyslexia due to a clear lack of teacher preparation and a limited availability of specialized professional development (Moats, 2014). Swift and UWG have been exploring the use of immersive simulation as a teacher development tool to fulfill this need in the state of Georgia.


Immersive Simulation has been used for many years to train professionals in various fields, including medicine and aviation (e.g. Lane, Slavin, & Ziv, 2001). More recently, a growing body of evidence is indicating the efficacy of using immersive simulation to train preservice and in-service teachers as well as to conduct leadership training for administrators (Dheung & Slavin, 2013; Hayes, Hardin, & Hughes, 2013). For example, Kristen Gilbert, assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Leading at Augusta University, investigated the application of immersive simulation for training future principals. Gilbert (2017) identified the following key elements of effective immersive simulation: 1) active participation in a risk-free environment, 2) observation of fellow participants, 3) the ability to pause simulation allowing time for reflection and peer input, and 4) coaching. In light of this growing body of research, the administrators and teachers at Swift School teamed up with a group of professors from the College of Education at UWG, to investigate the use of immersive simulation as a teacher development tool, specifically for the purpose of specialized training in the area of dyslexia.


Swift School is an independent school that has served students with dyslexia and language-based learning differences for 20 years. At Swift, dyslexia is viewed through the lens of brain-based research and recognizes the great advantages of the dyslexic brain. The school’s approach enhances each student’s unique strengths while addressing the specific challenges of dyslexia and developing executive skills that allow students to adapt and thrive beyond Swift. The cause for the effective education of dyslexics is central to Swift School’s purpose. Partnerships are crucial, particularly when it comes to the education of preservice teachers. Swift School’s continued partnership with UWG has led to additional opportunities for the utilization of immersive simulation and an expanding network of professional support; however, it has also served to benefit the students at UWG: the second largest producer of teacher educators in the state of Georgia.


The College of Education at The University of West Georgia develops and prepares reflective educators who positively affect the learning of school-aged children. Faculty are committed to enriching education through focused teaching, critical reflection, and scholarship. A wide variety of instructional tools and approaches are employed by faculty in the delivery of courses and other forms of professional development. State-of-the-art technologies are utilized to ensure graduates from the University of West Georgia are well prepared to succeed in the 21st century. In particular, sequenced and systematic use of immersive simulation is integrated within and throughout the curriculum of each educator preparation program. In fact, the College of Education has now partnered with Mursion® and TeachLivETM to create the UWGLive Simulations Lab, where teacher candidates as well as educators from the surrounding community are using immersive simulations to prepare for the kinds of challenges they may face in the classroom.


The Swift and UWG collaborative project centered on the development and facilitation of simulated classroom scenarios using immersive technology to provide high-impact, time-efficient, and real-life professional development. The virtual classroom scenarios were designed for teachers to develop and hone their skills related to teaching individuals with dyslexia. The team included administrators, teachers, professors, and a simulations coordinator. Employing a unique, collaborative approach, the UWG team modeled the development process, and the teachers at Swift played a primary role in creating the virtual scenarios. This approach facilitated teacher buy-in and allowed all team members the opportunity to provide input and share their expertise. One scenario, for example, focused on supporting executive functioning in students with dyslexia. The teachers at Swift developed a personality profile for one of the avatars (i.e., the virtual student) based on their expert understanding of the characteristics and behaviors of students with dyslexia in the classroom. Then the team worked collaboratively to develop a scenario that included specific performance objectives aimed at teaching a lesson where organization, prioritization, and planning were deemed critical for student success.


Emerging research in the area of virtual/immersive simulations indicates it may offer many advantages over traditional methods of preparing teachers (Dawson & Lignugaris-Kraft, 2013). For example, education majors at UWG find simulations to be more realistic than role-playing with adult peers who might not always stay in character. Further, virtual simulations are more time-efficient than traditional approaches. Research has found that a lesson which might normally take 30-40 minutes can be accomplished in approximately 10 minutes using a virtual platform (Dieker, Rodriguez, Lignugaris/Kraft, Hynes, & Hughes, 2014). Finally, virtual simulations provide a risk-free environment where, without real students present, participants are free to make mistakes. Using immersive simulation technology within platforms such as UWGLive, teachers can pause the simulation at any time for reflection and feedback from peers or a facilitator. Coaching is an integral part of the training process; something that is challenging to integrate in traditional settings, particularly when real students are involved.


The virtual classroom scenarios developed by Swift and UWG were implemented and facilitated on-site, during school-wide professional development days. Using this approach, teachers were able to fine-tune their craft by interacting with the dyslexic avatar across the various scenarios, pausing occasionally for feedback and coaching from their colleagues. The UWG team observed the process and administered surveys before and after the simulations to measure changes in teacher efficacy related to supporting organization, prioritization, and planning skills. The results indicated statistically significant changes in teacher efficacy, specifically related to planning and prioritization (Robbins & Drake, 2017). Specifically, the teachers perceived themselves as being decidedly more prepared to support students with dyslexia who are struggling with prioritization and planning as a result of participating in the lesson simulation centered on strategies for solving mathematical word problems.


Moving forward, Swift plans to continue incorporating immersive simulation as an extension of dynamic professional learning. Immersive technologies offer opportunities for professional growth on multiple levels. The collaborative approach to scenario development allows teachers to think more deeply about the context in which they work. The facilitation and engagement in these virtual simulations provides them with opportunities to become more proficient with content delivery and specialized instruction. Swift expects virtual classroom simulations to be an integral part of new teacher orientation and ongoing teacher development. In addition to the classroom scenarios, adult avatars offer training opportunities in educational leadership and parent-teacher communication. Classroom teachers rarely have the opportunity to practice these advanced professional collaboration skills.


A final component of future directions will be to utilize immersive simulation experiences within the context of outreach, in an effort to educate and prepare teachers beyond Swift. There is much more to be learned in regard to using immersive simulation technology to support teachers who work with students with dyslexia. For example, this collaborative project has shown that future research is needed to determine the best ways to educate professionals how to teach executive functioning skills among students with disabilities. Expanding the reach of this professional development will not only increase awareness and education in the area of dyslexia, but it will also open the door for ongoing research. Future exploration of the true potential of immersive simulations as a professional development tool and the best ways to support the dyslexic learner in the classroom are warranted.


The Swift and UWG team members are grateful to SAIS for the Stephen P. Robinson Collaboration Grant. The continued partnership promises to have a lasting impact on future teachers and ultimately improve the education of students with dyslexia. This grant has played a significant role in furthering our efforts to increase awareness of the dyslexic learner and to promote the specialized teacher education needed to ensure these students receive the high-quality, individualized education that they deserve.



The authors would like to offer special thanks to Elaine Roberts, Kristen Gilbert, Terrie Ponder, Scott Greenwald, Kimberly Campbell, Caroline Grigsby, Miranda Forman and Taylor Ward for their contributions to this work.



 Berninger, V. W., Winn, W. D., Stock, P., Abbott, R. D., Eschen, K., Lin, S. J. C., ... & Trivedi, P. (2008). Tier 3 specialized writing instruction for students with dyslexia. Reading and writing, 21(1-2), 95-129. doi: 10.1007/s11145-007-9066-x

 Cortiella, C., & Horowitz, S. H. (2014). The state of learning disabilities: Facts, trends and emerging issues. New York: National Center for Learning Disabilities.

 Cheung, A. C., & Slavin, R. E. (2013). The effectiveness of educational technology applications for enhancing mathematics achievement in K-12 classrooms: A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, 9, 88-113.

 Dieker, L. A., Rodriguez, J. A., Lignugaris/Kraft, B., Hynes, M. C., & Hughes, C. E. (2014). The potential of simulated environments in teacher education: Current and future possibilities. Teacher Education and Special Education, 37(1), 21-33. doi: 10.1177/0888406413512683

 Dawson, M., & Lignugaris-Kraft, B. (2013). TeachLivE™ vs. role-play: Comparative effects on special educators’ acquisition of basic teaching skills. Presentation at the 1st National TeachLivE™ Conference, Orlando, FL.

 Gilbert, K. A. (2017). Investigating the use and design of immersive simulation to improve self-efficacy for aspiring principals. Journal of Information Technology Education: Innovations in Practice, 16, 127-169.

 Lane, J. L., Slavin, S., & Ziv, A. (2001). Simulation in medical education: A review. Simulation & Gaming, 32(3), 297-314.

 Moats, L. (2014). What teachers don't know and why they aren't learning it: addressing the need for content and pedagogy in teacher education. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 19(2), 75-91. doi: 10.1080/19404158.2014.941093

 Robbins, S.H., & Drake, J.L. (2017, June). The effects of immersive simulation on teacher efficacy when supporting executive functioning in students with dyslexia. In Proceedings of the 5th Annual TeachLivE: Virtual Human Interactive Performance (VHIP) International Conference. Paper presented at the International TeachLivE Conference, Orlando, Florida.

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