Student teachers face their first day of teaching with little or no experience leading a classroom. At UVA, we’re developing a tool an online tool called LIZA for practicing discourse between a live instructor and a simulated student that provides a risk-free environment to hone specific pedagogical and behavioral practices.
The student instructor talks to the virtual student by voice and engages in a discourse aimed towards particular pedagogical or behavioral goals. The virtual student responds to the instructor in the manner an actual student might, which helps the instructor practice techniques in an immersive manner. The course of the conversation is controlled by AI technology that matches the instructor’s words and overall strategy, with previously trained exemplary practices in similar situations.
The idea of a minimalist application for exploring complex human interactions is not new. In 1966, MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum created the ELIZA program, which used the simple technology of the time to simulate the discourse between a Rogerian-style psychotherapist and their patient. The “patient” would type to the program and the program would respond by simple word matching with vague responses such as “How did that make you feel?” and “Tell me more about that.” Weizenbaum was horrified how much people found comfort in talking with ELIZA, but it highlights how little realism people need to suspend their disbelief and become affectively engaged with the simplest of interactions.
Simple 3D student rendering
LIA presents a minimalist rendering of the virtual student allows the instructor to concentrate on what the goals are without getting swept up in the personification of a specific student and potentially making the process more generalizable in the real world. Scott McCloud deftly described the process as amplification through simplification and is a long-recognized principle in the use of images in instruction where extraneous elements are eliminated in order to focus attention on the primary goal.
Google Sheets based
LIZA is a modern HTML5 web application that requires no plug-ins. Authors create a simple spreadsheet for their scenarios on Google Docs, offering an easy way to author and disseminate complex simulations with no web-experience needed
You can try out a LIZA simulation at https://viseyes.org/liza. You need to use the Chrome browser for now. Clicking on the help icon in the web-app has more directions
We’re looking for partners
We are currently running pilot trials with pre-service teachers, but are actively seeking partners to work with, in the pedagogical and technical areas. It’s a fun, open-source project with a lot of potential to impact the quality of classroom teaching.
About Bill Ferster
Bill Ferster is a research professor at the University of Virginia and a technology consultant for organizations using web-applications for ed-tech, data visualization, and digital media. He is the author of Sage on the Screen (2016, Johns Hopkins), Teaching Machines (2014, Johns Hopkins), and Interactive Visualization (2012, MIT Press), and has founded a number of high-technology startups in past lives. For more information, see www.stagetools.com/bill.
 McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding comics: The invisible art. Northampton, MA, 28-31
 Tversky, B., Morrison, J., & Betrancourt, M. (2002). Animation: can it facilitate? International journal of human-computer studies, 57(4), 247-262.