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Online Avatars: An Introduction

What is an avatar? While there are many interpretations, the American Society for Training and Development's definition of avatar helps us understand the use of the word in online learning environments. An avatar is “a virtual digital image representing a person. In e-learning avatars usually represent the learners. The term comes from a Sanskrit word meaning an incarnation in human form.” 

We can create digital avatars for many uses and you may already be familiar with the concept through your experiences with social media and networking sites, video games, and virtual worlds. They can be static or animated, include audio, consist of talking heads or full-figure models, and be 2D or 3D. And the technologies used to design and create avatars result in a range of output from cartoon-like images to photo-realistic graphics.


Learning with Avatars

In online learning, avatars are used to assist learners in a variety of ways. As narrators, role models, coaches, and demonstrators these graphic representations can be valuable guides for students in online learning environments. Let's explore a few examples of the roles they can play and some of the benefits of their use.

  • Narrators: Serving as hosts, avatars can guide learners through content presentations, provide course introductions, and include both text and audio.  
  • Experts and Mentors: Avatars can serve as mentors, demonstrating correct procedures, and guiding student decision-making through problem-solving exercises.
  • Coaches: As motivators, avatars can provide positive feedback and encouragement to students as they progress in a course or with a particular interaction.
  • Models: The use of groups of avatars in recorded role-play and simulated scenarios can be quicker and potentially less expensive to develop than video production of actors playing a scene. Live interaction is also a possibility using avatars in virtual worlds with multiple users.
  • Learner Profiles: Simple images can be created with photo editing software and avatar creation tools for use in online profiles, course rosters, and on student web-based assignments, such as blogs.

Social Learning. ELearning expert Karl Kapp explains how avatars can have a positive impact in the application of social learning theory. According to Kapp, avatars can model specific behaviors for students, and when paired with a virtual environment, demonstrate these behaviors in specific situations, locations, and real-world contexts. As an example, a professor at the University of California, San Diego uses Second Life to immerse nurses in disaster situations. Nursing is just one field that is using avatars and virtual worlds to simulate workplace environments and rehearse real-world decisions. The digital nature of recorded avatars also means that they have "replayabilty" and can be reviewed by learners repeatedly for support and information required during their own practice.

Community-building. Aimee Boucher teaches a course on differentiating instruction with technology and recently documented her exploration of avatars to build community in the classroom. She recommends the use of avatar applications to help students introduce themselves to one another and to express their interests and personalities. Boucher's post also includes links to multiple avatar creation resources for younger students. 

Create Your Own Avatars

There are many, many tools out there designed for a wide range of users, from novice to professional developer. Here are a few options (some free and others with a free trial version) for the beginning user.  

  • AlterEgos allows the creation of "talking" heads that sync to your recorded narration.
  • CodeBaby includes a suite of products and services to engage learners that can be integrated with learning management systems and other applications.
  • Crazy Talk adds a multi-actor feature that allows up to 4 "characters" to interact.
  • Noah advertizes attention-getting avatars that "point out and explain critical information on screen."
  • Voki is a free service that includes a lesson plan database and a user community on Facebook.

Take a look at the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies' list of 12 3D Tools for Education, Training, and Collaboration for more options. The features and functions of all of these products and services vary, as do the costs associated with their use. Some of the programs require you to download software while others are web-based. If you are interested in creating an avatar for your course or other learning environment, be sure to explore your options and compare.

Considerations for Avatar Use and Development

It is often hard to resist the temptation to integrate a new technology into your course. This is especially true of one that also provides an element of fun and entertainment. Avatar use should be carefully considered and implemented when and where it can create a positive effect on learning. Overuse, and inappropriate use, of any one tool can be distracting and actually diminish learning. Think about how avatars may enhance your presentations and help you get to know the participants in your course.

What makes avatars so helpful and intriguing is the ability to assign them human characteristics and behaviors in a way that makes learners comfortable. In the pursuit of realistic avatars, we can tip the scale to being too lifelike, which results in the learners being more uncomfortable with their presence. The “uncanny valley,” a term created by a Japanese roboticist, describes the difficult balance of adding human characteristics, but not to the point of becoming creepy. In an eLearning Guild webinar titled Avatars in eLearning: How Human is TOO Human? [video], the concept of the uncanny valley is further explored. Take a look at one example of an interactive avatar that reacts to your cursor's movement. What do you think? This one is called the "creepy girl" although the reactions of the webinar participants were mixed.

Other considerations are more technical in nature. How can the avatar be used with any existing presentations, other course content, or your course site? Many of the applications are easy to adapt or to integrate, but it's worth investigating before you begin. What are the file sizes that result from the different programs? Check your system for limitations, since storage and uploading can be an issue with larger multimedia files.

Remember that avatars don't equal innovation or improvement on their own. They are tools that can be used to deliver and augment instruction and content. Try a few of the basic applications and test them in your courses to see how students interact and respond. And of course follow the research that is starting to take place in both the higher education and workforce training worlds. This research seeks to describe the potential for use of avatars in online learning environments.

Have you created avatars for use in your classes? If so, please consider sharing your experiences and recommendations here!