Friday, April 15, 2011

Avatars in eLearning: Best Practices

Avatars are interactive animated pedagogical agents. Avatars personalize a course, add  variety to learning, especially in long modules on complex subjects. A life-like ‘human’ interface makes the learning experience more ‘real’. An avatar doubles as a learning assistant (learning aid) that guides the learning by either answering questions, or guiding the learners, linking to external content and so forth. Research has shown improvement in learning outcomes when avatars are used.

Avatar by Melissa Clark

Clearly, the benefits of using avatars in e-learning seem to be overwhelming. One should expect to find them everywhere. Why, then, do several course designers avoid using avatars?

Here are the top 4 reasons, according to Janhavi Padture, Director - Learning Solutions at Harbinger Knowledge Products.
  1. Avatars be distracting or even annoying if not used properly or when used excessively
  2. They do not mimic human-like natural expressions, movements or lip synchronization
  3. Sometimes an avatar simply does not fit in the user experience
  4. Avatars are Often expensive to build and difficult to customize!
Hmmm. Those are the pros and cons. Is there a list of best practices for using avatars in e-learning? Sure enough, here is what Janhavi recommends.
  1. Give course authors (and possibly learners) the ability to customize the avatar.
  2. Make the avatar instructionally relevant – it should fulfill the interactivity needs of a learner.
  3. It should augment content, not be the content.
  4. Avatar should support 2-way interaction. It is not just a video or a cartoon. It responds to the learner's needs and provides helpful guidance.
  5. Wherever it makes sense, allow learners to turn off avatars if they want to. For example, if a learner is revisiting a 'How to’ instructions page, this will help.
  6. Last but not the least, avatar should be used for a specific purpose, such as online guide, answering FAQ, explaining a process, guiding learners during branching scenarios, etc.
In addition, the ability to build some level of intelligence into the avatar is a nice to have.
Do you use avatars in e-learning? What tools do you use? Why don't we see enough of them? Do you agree with the adoption problems we have cited? Should an avatar act as a presenter - a talking head, or animated narrator? Do students develop a relationship with avatar? Or is it just a gimmick?


  1. I understand why some people use avatars and really like them. However, I shy away from them because I prefer my content to be "authentic". The learner won't see a cartoon character in real life.

  2. Using an avatar could be a way to reach out to children who want to interact with a face when they learn. The animation could be appealing to them. Innovative elearning solutions are definitely the wave of the future including on demand learning portals for future job training and more.