5 reasons that e‑learning avatars are great for all audiences

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E‑learning avatars are one of the most useful tools in the tool belt of any e‑learning developer. If you don’t know what they are, let’s start off first by saying that, no, they have nothing to do with the James Cameron movie. Avatars – sometimes called companions, guides or presenters – are usually anthropomorphic characters that guide learners through e‑learning (they are also present in gaming and smartphone apps etc.). They are part of the programme, but they break the “fourth wall” in their awareness and engagement with the learner.

Over the years, avatars have really received a certain kind of stigma as being juvenile, tacky or a sign of ‘dumbing down’. And not without cause, there are some less-than-desirable examples of avatars out there. Everything from Microsoft’s Clippy to the terrible clipart characters available in some authoring tools demonstrates that there’s a lot of eye-pain out there, and they’re giving avatars a bad reputation.

Think about it, whether you’re an actuary or a janitor, a manager or post-graduate student, everyone can relate to illustrations and everyone has their favourite characters, whether it’s Bugs Bunny or Hello Kitty (who we were surprised to find out is not a cat, Ninja Princess (written by our very own Marc Dey) or Doc McStuffins.

Like many things in the creation of visuals, the quality of an avatar depends on its context and relatability. Which neatly brings us to our first main reason for why e‑learning avatars are great for all audiences:

1. Relatability

It is incredibly important that the learner audience is able to relate to an avatar. It needs to fit with the context of their learning space and the reason why they have embarked on an e‑learning course in the first place.

Too many times irrelevant avatars are used, reflecting too little of the learner’s context, or quite the opposite, bringing in too much of something completely irrelevant (Microsoft comes to mind again, with its puzzlingly out-of-place Rover, the Search Companion. But once a learner audience can relate to an avatar – like a lead character in a movie – the audience will be invested in following the avatar through the course.

2. Relaxation

When I say ‘relaxation’, I’m not talking about sipping a cocktail on a reclining chair, I’m talking about the reduction of anxieties that are usually present in a learning environment.

This might be the point where people get confused about avatars the most. Those that believe avatars are too loaded with connotations of cartoons and comics are conflating relaxation with inattentiveness. A relaxed brain will retain knowledge easily and be able to recall information quickly. Avatars help to reduce these anxieties in their visual appearance. Whether ‘cute’ or ‘cool’, they all help to attract the learner to the content. It’s not about ‘dumbing down’, it’s about removing obstructive anxiety.

3. Entertainment

An entertained brain – similar to a relaxed brain – is a knowledge sponge. If you’re excited by something, you will find it easier to remember more about it.

Think about it conversely, the reason why people avoid retaining knowledge about things that bore them is because – quite simply – they find those things boring. If you find accounting or pottery boring, chances are, you probably won’t end up being very good at them, no matter how hard you try.

Enjoying something is the key to knowledge retention, there’s even a study that proves humour enhances our learning abilities.

If you could add an element to e‑learning that entertains people (even just a little) then you can help learners excel at information recollection in problem areas they might have, and improve areas that they already have an affinity for.  E‑learning avatars are one of these elements.

4. Memory tool

I can already hear you say, “Being relaxed and entertained is all good and well, but what about after the learning experience has ended?” This is where e‑learning avatars are a useful referential tool. If a learner can recall a certain part of the e‑learning because of what the avatar did or said – a light-hearted pun, a change in facial expression, it could be anything – it can allow for large and intricate concepts to be condensed and parcelled into scenarios or activities.

This is amazingly useful. It allows fellow learners to refer back to a concept quickly, like a mental file divider. This is where it is important that the content of the e‑learning is married with the advantages that an avatar brings with it; a strong narrative and plot combined with a good avatar can produce a very comprehensive learning experience.

5. Emotional response

Lastly, but not definitely not least, is the positive emotional response that avatars can create. As human beings, we instinctually have empathy for anything that reflects our context back to us. This aspect goes hand-in-hand with our first point, relatability. If the avatar reflects the learners’ world in a positive way, the learners will find it easy to relate empathically, making their learning experience smoother and more significant.

This facilitates the growth of a very constructive environment; a cascade of positive attributes will then hopefully follow. This is especially true in a class or group, as individuals can begin to relate to each other, building trust and morale.

As you can see, avatars are a really useful tool for e‑learning but, obviously, it’s not the only one out there. Their success depends greatly on the equal quality of the rest of the elements that make up a course too, like the storyboard, voiceover, navigation etc.

If you can think of more reasons why avatars are great for all audiences, share it with us in the comments section. This list is by no means exhaustive, and we’d love to hear from you.

Author: Simon Pienaar

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