THE ROLE OF PHOTO-REALISTIC AND CARTOON AVATARS IN A BLENDED-LEARNING ENVIRONMENT
Studies show that avatar assisted learning improves the student experience and student performance in an e-learning environment. This paper investigates the use of avatars for Blended learning and specifically the use of photorealistic avatars to maintain a degree of teacher consistency between the physical and electronic classrooms toward developing a more natural relationship between the professor and student and encourage student involvement in the classroom.
While video tutorials are a more natural and direct form of e-learning presentation that provide a bridge between e-learning and the classroom, videos can be difficult to prepare and a teacher using video tutorials might find it difficult to react promptly to the changing needs of their students. On the other hand, avatar presentations can be prepared quickly, but without much of the personal touch or personality of the teacher. They also create the perception of a division between the classroom and e-learning environments as the students are effectively being taught by two separate personas; the teacher in the classroom and the avatar at home. Photorealistic avatars should not suffer from this limitation as they aim to provide a representation of the teacher that is a lot more consistent with their appearance in class. We feel this should help the student develop a more natural and engaging relationship with the teacher.
Our case of study involved undergraduate students between eighteen to twenty three years of age learning English as a foreign language in a blended classroom and e-learning environment. The students used either a video tutorial, cartoon avatar or photorealistic avatar for the e-learning component of classes. Results showed that students using a photorealistic avatar felt that the learning environment was more consistent. They were also more encouraged to engage with the teacher in class and would prefer to use the photorealistic avatar for e-learning classes in the future. A minor disadvantage of using photorealistic avatars is the uncanny valley effect where the near-realism of the avatar is found to be slightly unsettling at times. This effect should become negligible as photorealistic avatar technology improves. We expect that photorealistic avatar technology will become a useful component of blended learning software in the near future once these minor problems are overcome.