The Face in the Mirror – Online Avatars Affect Outcomes

According to a study at North Carolina State University, the effectiveness of online training might be enhanced if online educational helpers, or avatars, closely match the student. Researchers Tara S. Behrend and Lori F. Thompson designed instructional avatars using a program called People Putty to match or contradict gender, race and teaching styles of 257 test subjects involved in an online training course. For example, subjects were asked “If you were teaching this course would you give specific directions on what to do or offer general suggestions?” Similarly, “Would you rate an individual’s performance based on how far a participant improved compared to where he or she started or relative to the performance of the entire class?” The avatars where then set in motion on the course, advising, guiding and assisting the learners according to their collected attributes. What the researchers found was a mixed bag of somewhat counter intuitive results.

“We know from existing research on human interaction that we like people who are like us. We wanted to see whether that held true for these training agents.” – Dr. Lori Foster Thompson

Measurements of enjoyment, engagement and effectiveness of the training suggest that each element has a different cause. Subjects reported being more engaged in the program when the avatar matched their race and gender. Learning, on the other hand, was enhanced when the online helper employed feedback and teaching styles more akin to that of the student. Whether this predisposition is strong enough to constitute an outright learning style remains to be seen. According the researcher Thompson:

“We found that people liked the helper more, were more engaged and viewed the program more favorably when they perceived the helper agent as having a feedback style similar to their own – regardless of whether that was actually true.”

Interestingly researchers found no link between enjoyment or overall success of educational outcome based on gender or race. Matching teaching style did, however, have a pronounced effect on performance on quizzes. What might come as the greatest surprise concerns the dominant factor affecting participants’ ratings of overall effectiveness and enjoyment. As it turns out the “perceived” similarity of the avatar is more important than the reality underlying its design.

“We found that people liked the helper more, were more engaged and viewed the program more favorably when they perceived the helper agent as having a feedback style similar to their own – regardless of whether that was actually true.” – Lori F. Thompson

What the study suggests is that perception might be more important than reality where avatar design and success of online training are concerned. In essence, if a learner believes that a particular online helper has been designed “specifically for people like you,” its effects will likely be beneficial to the outcome of the training. Regrettably from the point of view of the instructional designer and developer of the training, one-size-fits-all might be out the window:

“It is important that the people who design online training programs understand that one size does not fit all. Efforts to program helper agents that may be tailored to individuals can yield very positive results for the people taking the training.” – Lori F. Thompson

References.

Tara S. Behrend, Lori Foster Thompson, Similarity effects in online training: Effects with computerized trainer agents, Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 27, Issue 3, Group Awareness in CSCL Environments, May 2011, Pages 1201-1206, ISSN 0747-5632, DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2010.12.016. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6VDC-5230FHR-1/2/0510a5a803281cf536a0b381dcd2052d)

Participation in Pedagogical Agent Design: Effects on Training Outcomes, Tara S. Behrend, A dissertation submitted to the Graduate Faculty of North Carolina State University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Psychology, Raleigh, North Carolina, 2009.

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