EdTech 531: My Alt, My Avatar

Virtual Reality has made great improvements in the last decade.  As with any new development that has an impact upon our educational system, research has been conducted in order to evaluate the impact of avatar behaviors in virtual reality environments.  After viewing a lecture by Jeremy Bailenson given in 2011 at Stanford University, I have drawn several conclusions:

As a population, we spend a great amount of time absorbed in consuming digital media.  One of the most interesting facts presented by Dr. Bailenson was that “In 2005, outside of schools kids were using 7 hours of digital media per day outside of school.  In 2010 this goes up to 8 hours per day.”  Given this information, how do we as educators maximize students immersion in digital media to engage them in the learning process outside of school.  As a for the last 15 years, I can honestly say that the vast majority of educators are not having students access digital media outside of the school day.  Even with the movement of flipped classroom environments there is a large contingency of educators that are not leveraging the power of digital media with their students.  In part this is due to the digital divide in the state in which I teach where there are still portions of our state that are unable to get adequate connectivity to the digital world around us.  Dr. Bailenson states that of that time using digital media two hours of it are spent interacting with an avatar.

An avatar is a graphic representation of someone or something else.  For example, when you play Minecraft the user takes on the avatar on one of the miners.  As graphics have improved over time, the appearance of these graphic representations becomes more real and life like.  When exploring virtual reality spaces the user has the opportunity to interact with other users.  As with any interaction be it digital or real life, there are certain social cues that gain greater results.  Having the ability to control these social cues in a virtual interaction can create a greater impact upon the users we meet because we can apply the code or the rule to all other individuals we meet.  In the example given by Dr. Bailenson, he states that he can have the avatar representing himself in a virtual environment appear that it is always making eye contact with the other avatars he is meeting with in a virtual space.  The implications of this as derived from studies he conducted are as follows: the other user has a greater sense that they are being listened to and are more likely to pay attention because of the direct eye contact their avatar is receiving.  In a virtual educational environment, this sort of action can be created to replicate optimal “Transformed Social Interaction” increasing student attention which would therefore also impact student acquisition of new knowledge.   In a traditional brick and mortar classroom environment with only one human teacher, having 100% eye contact would be impossible to achieve unless you were working in a one to one situations with a student.  The avatar kinect uses cameras to create a more realistic representation of the user’s avatar movements.  With more realistic movements and graphics the users feel more immersed in the virtual environment making it look and feel more realistic and therefore more engaging to the end users.

Another aspect of avatar behavior that was analyzed was the action of mimicking behaviors of those you encounter in a virtual space.  The educational impact of having an instructional avatar mimic behaviors of its students creates a greater sense of connections.  As we all know as educators, the first step in being able to educate another individual is creating connections and trust.  The act of mimicking a nod when someone is talking in either face to face or virtual environments has the same effects.  It has the other individual human or avatar looking at you more because they feel a greater connection and trust.  When someone displaces similar actions to you and appears to agree with you, you are more likely to pay attention to what they have to say.

As with any technology there are pros and cons.  The “Persuasive Power of Symmetry” study although interesting also has some scary implications to it.  I imagine we are programmed to identify with people who resemble us.  After all, most individuals natural instincts is to identify with people in similar age groups, gender, and appearance whether this is a conscious decision or not.  Given the study conducted by Dr. Bailenson, on merging images of study participants with the image of a political candidate to create a similarity between the voter and the candidate, in order to influence voter results I find unsettling from the point of view that this could impact the democratic process in our country.  From an educational standpoint, it makes sense that a participant would identify with someone that shares similar characteristics as themselves.  Given this information, if your class in a virtual environment in predominately male you may want to take on a male persona in order to aid students in feeling a greater connections.  This power of “Persuasive Symmetry” is not a new concept by any means applying it to a virtual environment to maximize impact to the masses under the right circumstances can create an optimal educational environment where all students feel that they can identify with their instructor creating a greater sense of trust, attention, and likeliness to help out in cooperative learning experiences.  This would lead to greater immersion in the virtual learning experience which would translate to an improved understanding by students in such learning environments.

Implications of this research upon my own teaching practices in virtual environments at this point are challenging to identify.  As the schools in which I have worked are not at the point of moving towards the utilization of virtual environments in the learning process.  However, I have used virtual environments to create machinima videos to introduce a topic.  These videos are much more engaging when the camera angles are pointed to give the appearance that the avatar is speaking to you rather than following the avatar around a looking at its back.  Creating an avatar that resembles someone the students already know makes them feel more connected to the video presentation.  When possible, having the avatar’s mannerisms resemble that of a real person adds the element of reality to the learning experience.

Bailenson, Jeremy. “Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life and New Worlds.” YouTube. YouTube, 29 Aug. 2011. Web. 24 Aug. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=3627&v=lvGyK6vKIPE&gt;.

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