We know that e-learning can help solve critical business issues and alleviate the headaches in providing critical training to all employees across the business.
But sometimes thousands of dollars are poured into developing and purchasing e-learning without thinking about the relevance of whether that extra interactivity is suitable for the target audience or learning outcomes; or indeed, relevant to the job skills required. This waste of money has many executives cringing and hesitant to invest additional budget dollars towards these initiatives.
Avatars are just one of the many ways to increase interactivity and make online learning more realistic. But what exactly is an avatar and when should they be used?
An avatar or interactive animated pedagogical agent (APA) is a character that is able to mimic human characteristics, including voice, gesture, and body movement. Avatars help introduce an element of humanity and can be used to guide a learner through a learning module and create an emotional connection with the learning.
Doubling as a learning assistant, an avatar can therefore help to personalise a course, and add variety to learning, especially in long modules on complex subjects.
An avatar may or may not take on the likeness of an actual person in the organisation or an industry expert. An avatar can also simply be a character built specifically for a particular course. This is then brought to life using visual impact, language, animation, and voice.
Apart from creating interest and fun, when done properly and used correctly, avatars can demonstrate valuable soft skills otherwise sometimes not achievable through line drawings.
Avatars can also motivate the learner and drive higher learning. The effectiveness of e-learning engagement has often been compared to face-to-face training or scenario-based role playing. Avatars therefore provide a solution to this. Research has shown that learners connect with character-based simulations which essentially drive measurably higher rates of completion, learning, retention, behavioural change, and overall job impact.
So when should we use an avatar?
Like all e-learning, the level of interactivity is dependent on the nature of the content, technological limitations, budget limitations and your target audience. So how do we ensure we use the right level of avatar interactivity for the right learning purpose and to achieve a desired outcome?
Use an avatar when the training module requires an instructor or coach. In these types of training scenarios, an avatar acts as a peer and is ideal to help learners through situations.
Use an avatar also when the training requires an expert instructor. In this way, the avatar can take on the character of a manager, a professor or potentially a well-known industry expert.
An avatar is also helpful when the training module requires an authority figure to guide the learner through to the learning outcomes.
And what are the best practices when using avatars?
Depending on the relevance of the content, avatars provide superior interactivity to static pictures. Therefore, it is important to ensure that the avatar gestures (pointing, head or lip movements, etc.) match and direct learners’ attention to the critical elements of the pictorial display, as voice alone can fail to provide the correct attention cues.
For optimum engagement and a holistic learning experience, an avatar should support two-way interaction. It is not simply a video or a cartoon, but should respond to the learner’s needs and provide helpful guidance. A good example of this is when avatars are used in branching scenario tools.
Having said that, knowing when to use an avatar is critical. Not all training requires an avatar. Providing highlighted flashing parts of a pictorial presentation and a simultaneous narration can be as effective as a fully animated presentation. Most importantly, the avatar should always support the content, and should never be the content, or worse, overpower it. It is therefore only logical that the avatar is instructionally relevant. When faced with such a challenge, consider again, customising the avatar to specifically suit the content.
So if avatars make the learning experience more real, why don’t all online learning feature avatars?
Simple. The reasons against avatars are:
- Avatars can be distracting or even annoying if not used properly or when used excessively.
- They are not suitable for all types of learning and if not used wisely, can sometimes even detract the learner from retaining vital information.
- Avatars do not completely mimic subtle human-like natural expressions, movements or lip synchronisation, and cannot be considered a complete substitute for a video depicting human emotions, for example.
- Sometimes an avatar simply does not fit in the user experience.
- Avatars are often expensive to build and customise.
- Avatars are not suitable for slow or small download limits.
- While the use of avatars aims to increase the realism of e-learning, there is currently little evidence to suggest more realistic avatars have more benefit for learning outcomes than does the use of iconic images.
But to overcome these barriers, consider allowing learners to turn off avatars if they want to. Ensure that when using avatars, do so only for a specific purpose or at specific sections of a course and not the entire module. Remember that avatars can bring to life key learning sections, such as when explaining an online guide or process, or when answering FAQ, or during branching scenarios; so perhaps for increased retention and interactivity use them only for these particular moments.
So the benefits of avatars far outweigh the barriers. We just need to ensure we don’t go overboard and to always keep the desired learning outcomes in perspective. A good balance can ensure a highly interactive e-learning module that surpasses traditional two-dimensional presentations.
Here is a sample of avatars used in a few of the courses Learning Seat has produced.