STEM, Technology

What’s the Game? Avatars in the Classroom

What’s the Game? : Avatars in the Classroom

By Lisa Tran

Everyone likes to learn. Not everyone enjoys the classroom experience, however, even the likes of Sir Winston Churchill who once said, “I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.” Across the pond, Ernest Dinment, a French priest, writer, and lecturer, who called North America home, shared the same sentiment. In his book, The Art of Thinking, Dimnet wrote, “children have to be educated, but they also have to be left to educate themselves.” If Dimnet and Churchill were around today, would they recommend computer games, virtual simulators, or avatars for self-directed learning?

The type of knowledge one gains from reading a textbook cover to cover is not the same as the knowledge acquired through experience. “Once you figure out something on your own, it’s empowering. You own that knowledge,” says Dr. Jeremy Friedberg, a former University Professor who is extensively involved in scientific education outreach programs through the use of interactive computer games.

The success in computer games and simulation worlds, whether educational or entertainment, lies in the player’s level of engagement. It’s easier to learn when you’re engaged. A game environment captures the mind with true multimedia: different types of audio and visual media while presenting users with challenges. Friedberg reminds us that video games are the most successful form of entertainment for that reason.

A recent study by the PEW Internet and American Life Project, a project of the PEW Research Center, found that 97% of teens aged 12-17 played video games whether computer, web, portable, or console games. If only we could harness the power of the thinking, doing, and solving engaging teens and children while playing video games and channel them toward learning, cognitive skills would skyrocket.

Many multimedia learning environments enter Canadian schools daily. A quick Google search for “avatars in education” produces a long list of fun platforms easily adaptable for the classroom. One popular platform is Crazy Talk. It allows teachers and students to bring famous, historical people to life as funny, talking and animated characters, for example, Mark Twain. Narration, scripts, and voiceovers are only some of the features that students use to design their own entertaining digital stories.

A video made using CrazyTalk.

Younger students will especially enjoy GoAnimate, a web-based platform that produces animated flash skits with cartoon characters. Students can express themselves creatively by adding speech bubbles, selecting themes and backgrounds, changing characters’ facial expression, and mixing audio tracks for their projects.

The Monster Mash Music Video by CoadyTNP using GoAnimate
Although more advanced, Oddcast is another fun virtual representation. Students can star in any existing movie, sporting event, or TV commercial by uploading an image of their face and mapping it onto any existing scene.

Avatar-based learning and digital personas are inherently engaging. Students construct the tales and share them; they are theirs. So far, it seems that these types of platforms are perfect for independent learning, but what if a computer program could be more effective than traditional modes of teaching?

John Harris, a teacher at Lochiel U-Connect Education Centre, a technology school in Langley, B.C., explains that “computers are more effective when kids have to juggle a lot of different factors and that’s where a simulation can come in handy.” In the real world, whether concrete jungle or tropical rainforest, the problems we face are nonlinear. The outcomes are open-ended and there are blended causes to the problems. Simulators are great for positioning students to independently face complex scenarios.

At Lochiel U-Connect, some of the students have created Salmonids in Troubled Waters, a web-based interactive game that has students “designing viable salmon streams that will facilitate the most efficient hatch,” explains Harris. It’s one thing to tell a student that shade, woody debris, stream depth, bed structure, current speed, and toxins are crucial factors in a viable salmon stream. But when students create the streams and alter them according to conditions, they are experiencing a simulation of a naturally complex reality. “The kids play, interact, and learn. It’s immersive learning, not passive,” Harris says.

Other types of classroom-ready simulators include careful dissection of frogs for biology class, intrepid explorations of the moons of the planets in the Solar System, or recreating experiments once performed on Mars. But the most immersive self-guided learning occurs when students personalize an avatar and journey through a multitude of worlds, of any time period, using a virtual simulation game.

Active Worlds is a platform that teachers can use to build their own “worlds” for students to roam, interact, and learn. The program can be as simple as recreating the Roman Empire and having younger students visit the markets and sell some goods. Or, teachers with a more advanced computer programming background can create an entire virtual universe complete with a catastrophe that students must resolve through completing missions and unscrambling clues.

When students use their avatars to explore a virtual world they have access to a wealth of knowledge. When they enter a Roman Empire for example, avatars can reconstruct famous Roman monuments such as the Colosseum or the Pantheon. Students can study the architectural details, characteristic clothing, or culture of the Roman peoples. Teachers can instantly change the virtual realities by switching from historical mode to archaeological mode and now students explore Rome again, this time with different learning goals and outcomes.

Virtual worlds provide access to environments that are otherwise too expensive, inaccessible, dangerous, or completely nonexistent in real life. Harris promises that virtual tours need not always take us to a foreign and distantland. Closer to home, students can step into nineteenth century Canada and discover the rolling hills and salty sea, just like Anne of Green Gables.

It’s ironic that only when students are off playing computer games and not interacting with teachers that a clearer image of their learning style is captured. An online learning environment tracks real-time engagement and demonstrates how students learn. “Tests are not good measuring sticks. One snapshot isn’t enough. They don’t show how one learns or what they learned – only how they have performed on a test. It’s a disservice to one’s mind,” states Friedberg.

On the other hand, there are some students not enticed by computers or video games. We can remind them that we’re currently living in a technology age. Today, higher education and workplaces expect detailed technological knowledge. Harris suggests that we can change these students’ attitude by linking a social element. “When kids who are reluctant to use technology receive responses to their online activities, they experience a social element. Technology phobia begins to fade.” After all, humans are innately social beings. Friedberg adds, “Some kids never play video games, but they’re addicted to Facebook.”

We are indeed living in a technology era and the “future” is only an idea away. For Harris, he predicts that new technology will help reduce some of the health problems caused by the sedentary nature of computer games. Specifically, his students at Lochiel U-Connect are developing a device that accurately measures and analyzes cardio activity when a student wears a special watch. The data is computed into personalized math problems. The greater their level of physical activity, the higher lifestyle score they achieve, that then translates into special privileges for their avatar in a virtual world. This approach reinforces good lifestyle choices, ties the real world with the virtual world, and provides students with truly personalized learning.

Friedberg also sees more avatars in the near future, or perhaps fewer because soon users can sync a single avatar with all of the virtual worlds, e-mail applications, and social networks.

A student’s approach to learning comprises a unique a character trait. Every mind is different. Personalized education could potentially meet each student’s individual learning style. One-to-one student-teacher interaction isn’t feasible whereas one-to-one student-technology is. Technology allows us to “challenge gifted students and help those who are struggling,” notes Harris. The goal is to keep students learning. Friedberg agrees, “No matter the pedagogy, whatever a student learns needs to extend outside the four walls of the classroom.” Digital storytelling, simulations, and educational games are like the empty stages of a theatre. Students are the ones directing the show by adding magic and dramatizing learning.

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Salmonids in Troubled Waters

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