As overcrowded classrooms, crunched school district budgets, and online, open learning become more prominent in lower and higher education — for better or worse — teachers and students are feeling stretched in many directions. While the hoped for result in democratic learning is that we’ll all be more connected, the truth is that we’re also losing valuable face time and struggling to find new ways to bring the world back to students.
Avatars are being used to help these challenges, by helping younger students contextualize history lessons, giving teachers more direct training before they even meet students, and more. Here are 10 amazing ways avatars are being used in education.
1. Training teachers One of the more popular ways that avatars are being used in education is for teacher training. As part of a new research program at the University of Central Florida, specially designed avatars realistically imitate different types of students to help teachers practice classroom management and relate to their students. The training teachers stand in front of a projection screen, on which they see avatars that are being controlled — or acted out — by actual university students trained to behave a certain way. Other noises or outbursts like laughing or obnoxious sound effects are thrown in, too, to keep the trainee on his or her toes. For more information: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/07/07/avatars
2. Vokis Vokis are speaking avatars, and teachers in all subjects, but especially language classes, are using them by recording their own voices to match their digital avatar. Using more animated avatars helps students who feel disconnected from class discussions or who are more audio learners rather than visual learners process material and relate to the lesson more personally. Language teachers have been using vokis to help students with pronunciation and conversation, too, letting them voice-over their avatars. For more information: http://teacherweb.com/MA/HopedalePublicSchools/PatGranchelli/uap13.aspx
3. Customized "tour" guides: Either with vokis or regular avatars, teachers can create virtual "tours," led by an avatar guide. The guide could be a digital representation of the teacher or of a completely different person. History teachers may take their students on a virtual tour of another country or The Oregon Trail, while art teachers can design their own tour of a virtual museum or gallery. For more information: http://techntuit.pbworks.com/Avatars-In-Education
4. Connecting via online learning: Professors of online courses or teachers who use online tools like blogs and forums to connect with students can use avatars to make the Internet experience more personal and direct. Instead of reading all of the course material, avatars create the opportunity for virtual lectures and more interaction. For more information: http://acohen843.wordpress.com/2007/11/11/avatars-and-education/
5. Second Life: The virtual reality environment SecondLife has been used in higher education and for younger students for years, but its potential for experiential learning, role playing and online education is still impressive. Those who promote SecondLife as an education tool applaud its ability to promote active discussion and participation and help students apply concepts in a concrete, realistic way. For more information: http://www.ibritt.com/resources/dc_secondlife.htm
6. Bringing historical figures to life: Some teachers are even designing avatars to look like historical figures like Mark Twain or Albert Einstein, bringing important lessons to life for students. By animating important figures that students traditionally only read about in heavy textbooks, teachers are able to personalize and contextualize the subject, too. For more information: http://techntuit.pbworks.com/Avatars-In-Education
7. Giving remote learners a campus feel: For several years now, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and Harvard Law School’s CyberOne program provide open access, online courses and learning materials for the public. Unlike conventional open courseware, however, these platforms use avatars and virtual reality to help learners feel like they are actually sitting in a classroom at Harvard. By mimicking the layout of campus and classrooms, students feel more engaged and enthusiastic, even if they’re learning independently at home. For more information: http://www.pbs.org/teachers/learning.now/2006/10/cyberone_the_future_of_educati.html
8. Personalized avatars for students: Avatars aren’t just substitute teachers or guest speakers. Students are also getting to create their own avatars which they can "take" with them as they explore websites and virtual reality games online. These avatars allow students to cross the portal into the online world so that they’re getting hands-on experience instead of just passively listening to a one-way lecture. For more information: http://philly-teacher.blogspot.com/2009/08/free-kid-friendly-avatar-creators.html
9. Solving problems and gaining real-world experience through virtual games:
This New York Times article reports on high school students acting as mayors, business professionals and engineers trying to clean up the oil spill, all by controlling their avatars. Through SecondLife and other labs, these students get to interact with each other and other students with different backgrounds, teaching them how to practically collaborate with all kinds of people in real-life situations, or even crises. In this way, students aren’t just learning about history or science, they’re gaining professional skills to help them in the business world, even before they enter college. For more information: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/07/nyregion/07avatar.html
10. Teacher assistants: In overcrowded classrooms, teachers need all the help they can get, but their schools don’t always have the budget for assistants. Avatars, though, are being introduced to help teachers praise students working independently and just provide general positive feedback to help students’ self-esteem as they learn. As students work on the computer, they can design an avatar — or the teacher can design one for them — to stick with them as they try to solve problems and look for positive reinforcement from a teacher figure. So far, these avatars are already being used in special needs and traditional classrooms. For more information: http://onlinetherapyinstitute.ning.com/profiles/blogs/avatars-elearning-selfesteem