I just returned from COSN (Consortium of School Networks) and I also have been reading several Instructional technology magazines recently. The new “Pet Rock” seems to be adding avatars to instructional software. Just so we have a common definition, an avatar is a digital representative of the user. It is usually designed by the user using tools provided in the software.
Avatars became popular with the movie “Avatar” and an increase in popularity of virtual worlds such as Second Life. Recently, numerous software developers have installed avatars into the user interface to claim cutting-edge status. In good, sound, educational software, avatars represent a user, and, thus, provide what the research community refers to as “immersive situated learning.” The user can then really connect with the screen environment. This has been found to be especially beneficial for students with aspergers syndrome or autism. It allows them to learn how to empathize and detect and express emotion in a safe environment.
The avatar learning experience can be an extremely successful learning tool for a variety of student populations. In our district, several curriculum units have been designed to support teaching and learning in virtual environments. Teachers who have used participated in this work have report an increase in student participation that goes beyond a superficial level when they are functioning as avatars; the use of avatars supports risk-taking and participation. Student feedback confirms this theory, as students have reported that they are more likely to share their ideas, ask and answer questions, when their identity is concealed.
Avatars that are used to support learning are effective; however, some software companies overuse or include avatars in a suspect way. Educators should be weary of companies that include avatars that do not contribute to student learning. For example, there are math games where students can make their own avatar; however, after students spend time building their avatar, it is parked alongside the interface, and, in no way supports the learning experience. The function of avatar needs to be a transformational one. In other words, it should extend the learning to levels of experience and identity that could not be done without the use of an avatar.
As educational leaders, purchasing the best program for our students can be an overwhelming task. The number of software companies selling like-products and promising similar learner results, increases yearly. When making the decision to purchase a program that includes the creation of an avatar as a selling point, ask yourself one question: Is this an extension of the self that promotes and assists in the learning experience? Avatars should be used to support learning and not as a distraction to learning. So if the answer to the question above is no, then you might as well save your money and give students a rock and some paint.
James Yap, Teresa Ivey and guest co-contributor Peggy Sheehy