Avatar Pedagogy

Go to previous version with critical reviews

When the Internet was known only to an information technology elite, science fiction writer William Gibson (Neuromancer 1984) depicted a computer network whose users projected their digital representatives (avatars) into a simulated world so lifelike that it was indistinguishable from the real thing. Although fully realizing this technovision may take 25 years (the guesstimate of networking savant James Crowe), developers have made enough progress to warrant a status report on the technology’s emergence and its implications for the virtual university. In what follows I represent the current state of online avatar worlds, describe how I have used them to support instruction, and speculate about their potential for education.

As the written word presents only a limited representation of a pictorial cyberspace, the best way to grasp the possibilities of avatar technology is to see either The Matrix or The Thirteenth Floor. These movies depict fully realized avatar worlds inhabited by computer users whose neural interfaces connect them to networks with terabit/second processing speeds. While the users’ bodies are plugged in and at rest, their digital representatives (i.e., avatars) roam through wholly realistic, multi-sensorial cyberspaces. They encounter other avatars as well as software agents ("bots") programmed to make decisions and interact with humans. Though science fiction, these films extrapolate current practices and trends and provide a vision that serious people (e.g., the MIT Media Lab, Cornell University’s Theory Center, the Digital Human Group) are working to realize.

The best WWW approximations of the vision are 2D and 3D avatar Web sites. Hundreds of these exist and may be visited by anyone able to download and install the requisite software. The 3D sites, thanks to VRML, are the more sophisticated. Being "immersible," they create the illusion of movement into an infinite space that seems to open behind the computer screen. For example, in Benjamin Britton’s Moon Museum, a complex that includes an exhibit hall and various moon vehicles, visitors are embodied as space suited avatars that navigate around, above, and into the complex for a close-up view of the artifacts on display.

Consider the educational value of such an experience. Based in a 3D pictorial space, a VRML fly-in is visually stimulating, is self-paced to suit the speed and learning inclinations of the visitor, and can be enhanced with embedded media (from text to video). Add avatars, and the 3D experience becomes an expansive adventure in social computing. Witness Avatars98, the first virtual conference of the Contact Consortium. Produced by Bruce Damer (the leading authority on avatar worlds), the conference connected global locations, provided an exhibit hall, featured "speakers," and was attended by 4000 people—and all of this took place (so to speak) on the computer screens of the thousands of geo-distributed individuals whose avatars came together in the virtual conference hall.

Though the conference employed streaming audio and video, the principle medium of communication among the attendees was textual "chat." Avatar worlds still require online users to use the written word to socialize and to exchange knowledge. With this limitation in mind, a 3D world’s immediate promise for pedagogy resides in the ability of user directed avatars to navigate a multi-dimensional pictorial screenspace and to manipulate objects therein.

My introduction to blaxxun interactive’s Cybertown illustrates some of the possibilities for this technology. Looking for something unusual to do in this world, I solicited the advice of an avatar (whose real self was a 16-year old in Chicago) and was taken in hand to the Fun Park. In the apparent distance, I saw a revolving ferris wheel that (consistent with the principles of visual reality) got larger as I approached. When I arrived at its base, I watched the suspended cars zipping by until my guide directed me to click on one. I did so and suddenly found myself watching from a visual viewpoint "inside" one of the cars as the landscape rose and fell before me.

The experience illustrates two of the critical powers of the avatar world: (1) the sophisticated programmability of simulated objects and (2) the simultaneous telepresence and collaboration of geo-distributed partners. If two in-world participants can approach and mount a moving ferris wheel, they could just as easily achieve designated learning benefits, say, by excavating and then assembling the simulated bones of a pteradactyl.

My first efforts at tapping this educational potential took the form of virtual team exercises in graduate courses on virtual organization. My goal was for students to learn about virtual organization by forming and managing a virtual work team. They first had to develop the basic skills required of workers who were geo-distributed but electronically connected. In order to do this, they needed a virtual team building experience, a correlative to those offered in wilderness contexts by companies like Outward Bound: (e.g., a group traverses a ravine or builds a raft as a way to develop team spirit).

The 2D avatar world of Worldsaway provided a solution. In two different versions of the exercise, distributed teams either decorated a virtual apartment or orchestrated an online acrobatic performance. The tasks were trivial (and thus useful as a stress free initial team mission), but they challenged the teams’ technical and social skills. Guided by time and performance specifications, the students had to manage the Worldsaway software, figure out how to maneuver their avatars, navigate the novel environment of the "Silicon City" simworld, coordinate online meetings, and perform a division of responsibility. Moreover, they had to manage their efforts without the benefit of in person meetings, and could only communicate with chat.

For the students, the exercises enabled a reflective analysis of the problems encountered by virtual work teams, not least of which was the difficulty of cross-cultural communication. For me, the exercises clarified three features of an avatar pedagogy. First, avatar worlds are suited to develop actionable knowledge as opposed to knowledge for knowledge's sake. (Here I betray my bias for learning by doing.) That is, an avatar pedagogy helps students to learn activities differently from the conventional read and write learning technology. I can imagine, for example, an online virtual factory and supply chain that a team of students would reengineer in accordance with just-in-time practices.

Second, avatar environments are leveraged effectively when they support learner centered team work. (Think about a team of students who set out to teach themselves to manage the game preserves in a simulated African veldt.) An individual learner can certainly benefit from an immersion in an appropriately programmed simulated world. But the greatest benefits accrue through experiences that serve triple duty by exercising team skills even as the students are mastering a content area and developing general learning skills.

Third, an avatar world endowed with diverse learning resources supports a discovery approach to education. These resources may include audio and video on demand, archives of images and schematics, conventional texts, search tools, facsimile objects that may be manipulated and queried, and even programmed bots from which students can elicit guidance or information. Students on a learning mission in such an environment will find all the optionality needed to support their own pacing and their own learning styles.

A number of university programs and museums are even now developing the pedagogical powers of avatar worlds. To bring these experiments into the mainstream of thinking about the virtual university will require

Some or all of these conditions will be in place by 2010.  Perhaps as important, virtual universities will be populated by professors whose ideas about education have been shaped by their multiplayer online gaming experiences.  For those accustomed to the aggressive interactivity and dynamic pictorialism of these games, a text based education will be slow and boring. For this reason, many anticipate a convergence of gaming technology and education. Should such a convergence be supported by commercial resources and university alliances, expect numerous 3D avatar worlds to animate the 21st century virtual university. Expect rich, complex, and immersive simulations that surmount the limits of collocation and the written word.  Who, after all, will want to sit in a classroom or read a book, say, about Elizabethan London when it is possible to explore an avatar version of that long ago city?

Critical Reviews