In the past, I have postulated on this blog that the current model of online education is obsolete. The expression Web 2.0 has been in use for at least eight years to describe the interactive nature of the internet, but the world of academics has made scant effort to embrace it. While online education relies on dated, asynchronous tools such as email, discussion boards, and drop boxes, even our leisure pursuits have become vastly more interactive and vibrant…think Farmville, Second Life, and even beyond. When I say we need to think “outside the box,” I am not talking about a tired cliché. I am talking about that box under your desk that plugs into your monitor. In other words, online education does not have to be confined to your computer. Why not take advantage of the other box sitting next to the TV in virtually every household—the gaming system?
When evaluating any process, device, or system, I like to ask this: If there was nothing already in existence, no preconceived notion of how it is ‘supposed’ to work, and we invented it today, what would it look like? Sometimes you can hypothesize about such things and it avails you nothing because you are restricted by what is already in place. Take, for example, the highway system. You can’t just erase what’s already in place and start over if you want to redesign the traffic flow of a city, much less the whole country! But in online education, the same can’t be said. Nothing prevents us from starting over from scratch, and designing it based on the tools that are in existence today. We are not committed to the established pathways of the past in a physical sense. Starting over is scarcely more difficult than pressing the ‘delete’ key!
My next focus in reimagining online education will be to discuss the advantages of utilizing common elements of Web 2.0 and gaming systems simply to spark discussion. These elements include avatars, interactive environments, RFID interactivity, and the introduction of gaming systems as academic tools. Today I want to focus on avatars.
The current model of learning management systems is hallmarked by detachment of student, instructor, and peers. It is possible for students in many online learning platforms to pass a course and earn credit without ever having a real-time conversation with instructor or peers. Sometimes this gap is bridged by requiring at least one conference call or online session. Even so, students who prefer to ‘lurk’ can remain as disconnected as they choose. Teachers who choose not to share personal information or even a profile picture are easily perceived as an uncaring, non-present grading ‘robot’ by students. It can be difficult for instructors to have a real understanding of who students are, and to take their work in context when they cannot visualize the student as an individual. Consider teaching thirty or more students in an online course, and having no knowledge of their identity other than a name—and what if you have four Kimberlys in your class? Yet this matters to students…A distance educator at Boise State University explained that her research about online learning revealed that students frequently complained about having an unengaged or uninvolved instructor as a reason for their dissatisfaction (Magna Publications, “Distance Education Retention: The SIEME Model,” Retirement & Retention, December 2005). This is partly a byproduct of the flat nature of online instruction. So how can avatars promote a more personal connection in online coursework?
The avatar, in its most basic form, is a representative incarnation of a person. Before you participate in virtually any social media interactive game such as Farmville, you must first design your avatar. The importance of the avatar is not that it is an exact replica of the individual, but that it is a representation of what the individual wishes to present about himself or herself. This makes it a much less intimidating tool than using a webcam, for example. The self-conscious student (or instructor for that matter) can share only those elements of identity they are comfortable to share. Overweight? Bad acne? Gender confused? Afraid of age discrimination? Your avatar can represent you in a way that you are comfortable.
When using most LMS’s, students and instructors are unaware of the ‘presence’ of others engaged in the course concurrently. In an interactive room where an avatar represents the presence of participants, interaction between student, peers, and instructor becomes natural. A student is far more likely to ask the teacher questions if they can ‘see’ the teacher in the room, rather than having to send an email and wonder if it will be received and returned. By establishing a presence in the room at regular intervals, instructors can create an environment that promotes interactivity.
The web service Voki (http://www.voki.com) provides instructors with the ability to create an avatar and give it a voice. While this still lacks the interactivity of a robust, multi-participant environment such as Second Life, it may be a beginning point for instructors who are interested in providing a new ‘face’ for students to connect with in their course. If students were to interact the same way, discussion posts could actually become just that—discussion posts, not written papers gleaned and reproduced from a textbook or a website. This tool is still asynchronous, but it represents a step in the right direction—true interaction that fosters the development of personal connection and dialogue between students and instructors.
In my next article, I will elaborate on the potential of gaming systems as academic tools.