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Published April 5, 2009 | Multidisciplinary

Avatars: Helping Students Construct Identities as Learners

The term avatar comes from Sanscrit and denotes a "manifestation of the divine in human form". In computing they are computer-generated caricatures of the user used to communicate in 3-D simulated worlds. They are now being used at all levels of education where they encourage students to personally create identities which are then sent forward to act.

I first came across avatars when I heard Dr. Sasha Barab describe his internationally acclaimed synthetic world, Quest Atlantis. This is an educational virtual world where students create identities and engage in quests to solve important personal, social, ethical, and environmental problems. It was designed incorporating lessons both from educational research on motivation and cognition as well as from the entertainment and gaming industries.

When I got back from the conference, I began constructing web pages for my courses and using on-line collaboration with First Class. However, I wanted to add spontaneity and personality to the web page. That is, I wished to include a feature that would "talk" more directly to my students.  Since my typing skills are minimal, I opted to ignore "chat functions" and attempted creating an avatar with Site Pal. However, at the time, there was a cost to using their services; so I did not consider using avatars for two-way communications.

Well, technology advances at lightning speeds and so it has caught up with, and exceeded my imagination. Avatars are now, not only everywhere on the web, but they are easily created and shared. Speaking avatars are being used not only in distance education to provide a face to students and the teacher; but also in the on-line component of traditional courses to provide a natural human interface and to include the nuance of voice. They also introduce an element of fun and creativity to courses.

Avatars can be easily used both by the teacher and by students. Teachers can use avatars to introduce themselves and their courses, to describe an assignment, to provide feedback, etc., For example, Maria H. Andersen uses an avatar (Marivatar) in her on-line college calculus course. Click on the avatar in the blog to hear her. I created an avatar of myself in 10 minutes to introduce an assignment for my biology class.

Avatar created with voki

You can also have your students create their own avatars. One obvious use is in teaching a second language. At first, students can create a speaking avatar, using text and the text-to-speech option. This is less intimidating. As they gain confidence, they can record themselves speaking.

One of the ways in which I am exploring using avatars, is in encouraging my students to develop their identities as science learners. I ask each student to create an avatar expressing the way they wish to present themselves to their classmates.  For example, I can then incorporate the avatars on the class web page. They can change their avatars, as they develop. At some point, I will begin asking them to research an acclaimed biologist and incorporate the characteristics they admire into their avatar.

There are a number of web sites that offer the service of creating and hosting avatars. For example, Oddcast has produced Voki, which allows the user to create an avatar using many templates. You can record a one minute talk, using either the user's voice (via an audio file or cell phone message) or one of several provided voices (via typed text). Once done, the creator can either e-mail the link or embed the avatar in their web page. A number of one-minute recordings can be linked together to create a longer message. Voki is free; however, one issue that I have with Voki is that an advertisement is built into the viewer. Oddcast also produces Site Pal which provides many more features, including the custom design of the avatar from a photograph, for a fee.

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