Okay, I’m not just trying to capitalize on James Cameron’s blockbuster being released in theatres once again with 9 minutes of earlier-unseen-footage! One question regarding the “use of Avatars in eLearning” that has reared its head often during discussions within the instructional design team at Harbinger is: How exactly do we define Avatars? So, what I’m trying to do is put forth our own conclusions here.
As instructional designers, we’ve often come across clients who’ve heard the latest buzz word, “Avatars”, in eLearning and obviously want courses developed using this concept. Avatars make learning fun and enable learners to get more out of their learning by really immersing themselves in the content. Our clients’ understanding of Avatars, however, seems to differ! Some would take the cute looking sales girl who pops up onscreen at regular intervals in a course and talks a learner through the content to be an Avatar. Others think she’s just an animated graphic whose main purpose in the course is to be a mentor! Confused?
In James Cameron’s film, Sam Worthington plays a former Marine who infiltrates the Na’vi population by controlling a genetically modified Avatar via mental link. In other words, he finds himself–quite enviably, in my opinion–immersed in the body of another being, able to control its actions, see things and react the way the other being would! Similarly, games that are truly immersive enjoy this distinction because they allow the player to ‘be someone else’ through the Avatar they control in the game. In my opinion, that’s what differentiates an Avatar from an animated character in an eLearning course as well.
In an eLearning context, Avatars should represent you, the learner, in an online learning environment. Now if you found yourself a new body in an online learning environment, you wouldn’t want content just fed to you, would you? No, you’d want to move around, explore, interact, get to the content that you want, make decisions and face consequences and, in the process, achieve your learning objectives! So, the extent to which you can immerse yourself in the role you are playing in the course is what defines the effective use of an Avatar. If you’re not doing that, chances are you’re just looking at an animated graphic of a character with moving lips and eyes, thanks to clever programming, talking you through content while you listen passively!