Drawing from his several decades of experience, e-learning
expert Timothy Freriks examines the critical issues involved
in understanding the role of avatars in e-learning and
their growing capabilities. In this interview, Freriks
shares his views on
- e-learning and avatars
- personality and emotions
- learner retention
- emerging trends.
George Hall (GH): How did you become interested in
the use of avatars?
Timothy Freriks (TF): I've been involved in the
learning and performance arena for more than 20 years as both as an
instructor and as a C-level executive. The mid-1990s, when we
started our company, was a seminal time in the history of
e-learning. I noticed a major gap in the learning result between
classroom-facilitated learning and conventional e-learning. I saw
something that had been largely overlooked by the e-learning
community at this time: the importance of a human-like connection
to accelerate learning. In the classroom, for example, you had an
instructor who grabbed your attention, pointed things out, and
explained things. You, pretty much by human nature, pay attention
to them because they are talking to you. In contrast, early
e-learning was basically just pages of text. There was nothing
there to grab your attention. There was nothing to help you retain
anything or explain concepts further. In short, there was no
engagement with the learner. I thought that there must be a
bridging concept that we could use to enhance e-learning. How can
we transfer what succeeds in the classroom-facilitated environment
to an online learning environment? Animated avatars are the answer.
GH: What is an avatar, and why are they important?
TF: The term comes from a Sanskrit word meaning an
incarnation in human form. In online environments, an avatar is a
virtual digital image representing a person. In e-learning, avatars
usually represent the learner. An avatar can also represent the
instructor. Either way, avatars attract and hold your attention.
Essentially, an avatar is an engagement device. When the avatar
points something out and discusses it in detail, for example, you
pay attention to him and look at the information on the page. By
bringing a person-like facilitator to an online environment, the
avatar embodies and personifies the instructor, who is arguably the
most powerful ingredient to learner success in a classroom setting.
The avatar provides the same sort of learning dynamic. The avatar
is the instructor who grabs the learners' attention by pointing out
the essential messages. The avatar moves around the page, reflects
on key points, and draws conclusions. Avatars do this by pulling
something out of the text on a page and saying, "This is really
GH: What features have you designed into your
next-generation avatar, the Noah personality?
TF: Noah is an animated character for e-learning
applications. As such, he can mimic what an instructor does in the
classroom. The avatar is very lifelike: His abilities include
movement, human-like speech with different accents or inflections,
human-like mannerisms that accompany speech (nodding, turn his head
left or right, shrugging his shoulders, pointing), and personality
(different clothes, colors, hairstyles. The Noah technology allows
for the execution of Java script or action script, if you are doing
a Flash program, which means that he can pause in speech and cause
something to happen, such as highlighting. He can call up a
graphic; he can make a graphic turn different colors. He can start
a movie. He can start a video. He can do anything you can actually
do with action script or Java script, while he's talking.
Practically, this means that the avatar can move around and point
things out on the page. Let's say there's a sentence in a
paragraph. He can highlight that and talk about it, and summarize
what that part really means. He can provide deeper explanations of
things. That is part of why he is powerful: He increases retention.
The bottom line is, engagement with an avatar leads to enhanced
learner attention, and learning retention goes up dramatically.
GH: Do you think that people are simply hard-wired
to learn better from an instructor or a simulation of an
instructor? Do you think there is something about human speech and
mannerisms, the pointing, the shrugging of shoulders, or the
rhetorical questions that causes people to respond?
TF: Yes, absolutely. Our avatar, Noah, is very
sophisticated. Noah can display a wide-range of human emotions, and
he has a real personality. Does the display of emotions interact
with personality to affect learning and retention? Yes. If somebody
starts talking to you, for example, you generally pay attention to
them and what they say. It is a natural response; we are hard wired
this way. For example, we watch people using Noah projects, and
their eyes focus on Noah. They watch him. One of my favorite
stories was when we were showing some people a shopping cart
application, and it came down to the credit card place on the page,
and Noah said, "I know it's kind of scary for a lot of people to
put credit card numbers online, but, trust me, it's safe." And all
the people listening are nodding their heads. There's this little
man telling me it's safe to put my credit card information online,
so I guess it is. There is a certain bond, a certain amount of
trust that forms between the learner and the instructor, whether it
is a person or a character that is talking and engaging with them.
This dynamic fascinates me, and it's what initially inspired me to
GH: What do you see as the future of avatars in
TF: Avatar technology, like Noah, can
revolutionize e-learning. The true innovation of Noah is that he
shows emotion and moves in connection with function. Our avatar is
among the most sophisticated available, and Noah will become the
benchmark in the e-learning marketplace because of its great
flexibility and versatility as a tool for learning. Noah is the
right solution to the field's universal need to grab attention and
increase retention. The question for the future is, "What will
avatars be able to do and accomplish further?" Future versions of
Noah and other leading avatars will likely involve cutting-edge 3-D
models. The look of the avatar will be more detailed, but the basic
functions will be the same. The future will involve more advanced
speech technology, more dramatic 3-D events, and more human-like
avatars, which will greatly increase engagement with the learner.
2007 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.