April 18, 2014

Encounter of the Third Kind: The Virtual Guide

Posted by IN

They reassure us, annoy us. They guide us through our learning path or make us want to lose them along the way. Virtual guides, or virtual coaches, the avatars that follow users in a number of online courses leave no one indifferent. Judicious use of these learning aids will make all the difference between a helping presence or… an irritating one.

What are the Benefits for Training?
A recent study by the University of Stanford recalls the various advantages of including a virtual guide in learning paths, especially because of social ties and of the sense of closeness it creates. Alone in front of his computer, the learner finds it easier to assimilate and understand the concepts transmitted through the “socially intelligent” and familiar speech of the avatar rather than by reading a text. The human-like presence, which endeavours to reproduce the mechanisms of interaction by asking the user questions, responding to his actions, greeting him, or offering advice, increases the learner’s interest and engagement while ensuring continuity within his learning process. A virtual guide increases memory, confidence and satisfaction of the learner, which motivates him to continue the training.

What Role to Attribute?
Contrary to what one might think, the virtual guide does not necessarily need to be a teacher or a presenter. Why try to recreate the style of a traditional classroom while the nonlinear online format and the avatar’s proximity create the impression of a more personalized experience? The virtual guide becomes a facilitator appearing at key moments of the training to advise, question, reformulate and help navigate. It can also play the part of a professional role model to reinforce certain behaviours or practices (in customer service , for example), play the role of an expert who shares tips, of a peer who asks himself the same questions as the learner, or even of an alter ego which the learner can identify with. In language training, an articulated speaking avatar (Voki) is also used to improve pronunciation and simulate interaction.

Human Form, Yes or No?
The form a virtual guide can have is only limited by the imagination of its creators. If you are juggling with the idea of using a quirky talking plant or an avatar of human appearance, first ask yourself which would best serve the goals of the training and create a motivating social context. Keep in mind that the learner must be able to identify with his guide and find it credible. According to the University of Stanford, the link created between the avatar and the user is the key to maximizing learning.
Depending on requirements and budget, avatars can range from simple photos, basic silhouettes or stick figures, to realistic 3D or video models. These alternatives are all valid, provided that they serve an educational purpose, and not unduly detract from the essential.

References
Reeves, Byron. The Benefits of Interactive Online Characters. The Center for the Study of Language and Information. Stanford University. 2004.
Moore, Cathy. « Let’s save the world from boring training! ». Avatars in elearning: helpful or annoying? Août 2007.