Improving content inside Moodle: Virtual Puppets, Animated Characters and Avatars in Course and College Communications

Intro

The online classroom is still seen by some as lacking the human “connectivity” of face-to-face courses(Kelly)(Vrasidas, and Stock McIsaac 22-36).  In an online course we lose eye contact, body language and other non-verbal cues which are available to the instructor, as well as students, in the traditional face-to-face instructional setting. My experience as a student, instructor and IT support for online courses has left me less than satisfied with the tools normally available for online instruction. These asynchronous communication tools include blogs wikis, discussion boards and email. At Western Oklahoma State College we feel improving communication is the biggest priority for our online courses.  The term we use in this process is “Humanization of Automation” .

Experimentation with a tool, SitePal.com, originally built for online marketing campaigns led us in a search for ways to apply this tool and toward the search for additional tools.  I describe SitePal characters as talking or animated avatars.  For the purposes of this paper the term avatar is interchangeable with animated avatar.  Dodson (2009) indicates avatar is the term most frequently used in academic literature to describe digital representations of humans.  The word avatar comes from Sanskrit, a very old Indian language. It is often used in Hindu texts, in reference to incarnations of Vishnu, the Supreme god in the Vaishnavite tradition of Hinduism. In 1992 the term avatar was used in and popularized by the cyberpunk novel “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson to describe the virtual simulation of the human form in a virtual reality version of the internet (Use Avatars, 2009).

It is most familiar to many because of the success of James Cameron’s film, Avatar. Other terms often used to describe this concept are virtual puppets, animated characters, and digital agents.  If you have an avatar it is probably used for computer gaming, on forums or on your blog or social network. In these scenarios it is often a static representation of yourself.

Your personal avatar can represent you using actual characteristics such as your gender, height, age, hair color (or lack thereof), interests and social status. It can be an idealized version of what you would like to be or you can communication through a virtual representative which looks nothing like you. The point is the choice is yours – and no one has  to know what you really look like for your message to be effective. This does not take into consideration policies at specific institutions that require faculty to post photos of themselves so that students will know what they look like.   Although I will use a variety of characters, I often use some variation of myself. Below is a real picture of me along with avatars that I have used in various applications:

kent real photo kent nerd photo kent the thing kent in yak hat

The following shows where my message board sits inside my Moodle Course

Stanford University research (Reeves 2004) indicates that virtual characters can increase the trust that users place in online experiences, in part because they make online experiences easier through better engagement, improved comprehension and personalized communication. Brian McFarland at the University of Houston (2008) says, “My students reported the use of speaking characters in the course material improved their knowledge and comprehension. SitePal provided a richer way to relay information than written text and really helped my students to get more out of my classes.”  My personal experience has shown a reduction in the number of redundant posts in a discussion form and a reduction in the number of emails with the same question repeated multiple times.  Students have commented that the messages help keep them on task.

Multiple analyses in a September 2008 MERLOT report (Oomen-Early, Bold, Wiginton, Gallien and Anderson 2008)   indicate the majority of students and instructors reported that Asynchronous Audio Communication can improve online students’ perceptions of instructor presence, student engagement, knowledge of course content, and the instructor-student interaction.

Using the Base Functionality in SitePal

SitePal has an array of features which can be customized to humanize the character and improve the interaction between the character and the website visitor or in our case the student.  The base packages come in packages that cost $9.95, $19.95, $39.95 and $249.95.  In most cases we go with the $19.95 package when we deploy out to our departments.

There are essentially  5 major options shown below which you can choose from to begin customizing your character.

With over 250 base models to start with you can usually have a basic cartoon character that matches your situation.   You can also customize your SitePal character; there are a myriad of options from which to choose.  The character heads are very changeable – from height, to length, to nose size, and mouth size (and color), there are all sorts of variations. You can choose to dress him/her/it into the wildest to the most conservative of clothing. Additionally, depending upon the character you can add glasses, bling and even hair to certain follicalarly challenged models.

The most powerful and interesting part of the process is making the animation speak.  You can:

  1. import a preloaded .mp3 file,
  2. record using a mic live,
  3. type up what you want the character to say for a text to speech experience (NOTE: sometimes you must manipulate the punctuation, spelling, and spacing of the words entered for the voice to sound OK),
  4. (for all who don’t have microphones and hate the preloaded voices like I did), you can call in by telephone to record your voice which is a feature I think is amazing.

I have used all options and although the text to speech typed  voices are very mechanical (to say the least), they do allow quick simple messages to be created.  Additionally, you must keep in mind they are limited to very regular words and even if you manipulate the spelling it doesn’t always work. In a live recording live; I usually use a headset and can get an OK recording a .mp3 first. The recording was easy, but is limited to 90 seconds.  All options are good for short messages, but  which should be more than enough to welcome your guests or pass along instructions, but, don’t expect to tell a (long) story

The telephone service is pretty good  but for those who want studio quality sound I wouldn’t get to excited.  It’s pretty similar to the mic-recording experience.

You also can choose a background from the existing default options or you may upload a background from your computer. There is a decently-sized selection of a variety of different backgrounds to choose from – there are also, animated backgrounds.

The last option is to customize your player; the border surrounding your avatar. There are several buttons which allow you to choose a play so that you can control the volume.  When you publish the character you can also determine if the character will play automatically when the page is loaded or only when you click on the character.  The mouth movements are synchronized to the speech and it really looks pretty good for an avatar.

Avatar Samples

I have included 2 samples avatars  below.  Both are set to launch when you roll or mouse over image.  Please note the first image below shows how you can change the settings prior to publishing your avatar.

Our dear friend Crusty NeverChange.  The voice was created and uploaded by Scott Charlson who at the time was our director of instructional support (He is now of the K20 Center at the Univeristy of Oklahoma)

This is Moodle Founder Martin and was sent in and email to campus Moodle Users. Also note the Austrailian Accent. It is not actually Martin, but is one of the automated voices

The biggest advantage of the paid SitePal version over the Free Voki version mentioned later is that you can upload photos and become your own avatar.  I have used each of the versions of myself  shown earlier in this posting at various times.

Avatars are utilized for instruction at Western inside the learning management system to deliver course messages, updates and mini lectures.   Until recently you have been limited to the stock animated models, but SitePal has recently added a new feature, a 3D photo face which allows you to upload your picture or a picture of a historical character. Sometimes I have used historical characters such as Lincoln or Washington.  I have also used Santa Clause when it was that time of the year.  Preparing a 3D talking avatar of yourself is a matter of taking a head and shoulders shot, uploading it and setting 8 points for the eyes, nose, ears mouth and chin.  SitePal takes those points and generates an avatar professor. Basic steps in the process are shown below:

Step 1Upload Original Photo Step 2Set the Key Face Points Step 3Cut out the Background

Part 1

Step 4Cut out the Background

Part 2

Examples of usage at Western include:   Nursing Educators at Western utilize “Nurse Chrystal” to deliver the core content for the nursing preceptorship.  Psychology instructor John Phelan uploaded a photo of Sigmund Freud to provide updates, announcements and course information.  Child development instructor Lynn Null uses an animated model which provides mini lectures or information about key points throughout the class.  I use it throughout my course and usually change the avatar when my message changes to provide a visual clue that the message has changed in addition to the audio message.   Uses outside of the classroom have included: Support of our text based web transcript request with an avatar and sending invitations for training sessions via email.

Avatars provide promise for improved instruction and institutional communication.  Educators can effectively create animated online characters which can communicate with students & staff.  Western Oklahoma State College is using these tools to enhance course content, internal training and to enhance communication.  The primary tool discussed in this document is the Site Pal virtual character although we are also experimenting with other tools.

Interaction in face-to-face, online, and blended programs vary depending upon the channels of communication integrated into the courses. According to Faharani (2003), interaction in a face-to-face program is predominately based on verbal and nonverbal communicative behaviors while interaction in online courses is predominantly based on written communication. As further indicated by Collison, Elbaum, Haavind, and Tinker (2000), “in the virtual world, there is no body language from which the instructor can gauge the interest of the participants and,consequently, adjust the tone or pace of the presentation” (p. 1). Therefore, administrators and faculty must be cognizant of the communication differences that exist between the on-campus and online environment.

In the mid part of this decade, as we began searching for tools to improve communication in our online courses, I began to see a significant change in how technology was perceived by campus users as they have a tremendous array of technological options at their fingertips all of the time. The availability of robust open wireless technologies, free online storage, powerful applications such as Google’s Gmail, avatars (of course) and a host of other services and applications, often referred to as Web 2.0 apps.  We were beginning to feel the pressure to provide equivalent or better services. Administration, faculty, and student expectations for the provision of adequate technology resources began to increase rapidly in spite of the limited financial means of our institution.   The chart below provides a broad view of how consumer technologies in the past several years have impacted technology user satisfaction and how they impact an institutions strategies for deployment of technology :

an amazing trend

Over the past several years I have continually gotten questions from our own faculty and staff about why we weren’t using a particular product or why one of our systems could not do a particular function. Many times the question had developed because someone was using a free web based tool or in the case of our introduction to avatars it was simply, “Have you gotten a ‘Monkey Mail?’.” Essentially a perspective had developed in which whatever Google did yesterday, you as an institution are expected to do today. Maybe the greatest challenge in being a small rural community college participating in a sea of online courses and programs is the expectation from students that you will provide not only quality programming but the exact same student services for online students you provide for your on campus students. The questions seemed to be increasing while legitimate answers to these questions were decreasing.

The Biggest Challenge for Widespread Usage at WOSC

We wanted to make this available for all departments, but began running into a little glitch as we started having people sign up for commercial accounts.  I started having a few faculty sign up for an account but ran into a problem as the billing was going to the user of the account while the credit card where we charged this were out of our department.   It was not always as easy to get the invoices as it needed to be in that scenario.  I called SitePal to enquire about an enterprise solution, which I still believe they had at one point, but which is now not available.  (PLEASE NOTE:  If you read between the lines on the last sentence they told me there was not an enterprise solution and had never been, but I am clinging to the assumption that I was right even though it is very possible I am confused)

The solution was really very simple.  There is a reseller solution which you can buy which provides the ability for an administrator to change passwords setup accounts and most importantly to me to consolidate billing.  The cost for the account $795 is a wash when you take into consideration the discount given for accounts purchased from your reseller account. Once we found this we again began to push SitePal talking avatars as a solution to improve communication within our online classes.

The Free Option: Voki

SitePal does have a free option and we have focused so heavily on open source and free tools I would feel like I have cheated you if I did not mention it. The main difference is that you don’t have the 3D photoface option and it does have a big Voki Logo plastered across your avatar.  NOTE:  Since I checked last the new Voki for Education is now Advertising Free.  Yea!!!

It does have a couple of advantages.   Voki also has not only classic” humans  but also various animals and characters such as a smiley face and a talking hot dog. You can decide on what character to use – of course, you should take into consideration the appropriateness of the situation.    This is a fun and free way to get into talking avatars although the intent is for individual websites rather than organizational websites.

Other Tools

Below is a brief listing of some of the Avatar tools we have used or investigated.   I love Crazytalk and some of the others have merit as well.

CrazyTalk – Packages starting at $121.45
Codebaby  – Custom Packages and applications for larger scale applications.
Media Semantics – Individual Packages starting at $295
Noah Animated Character Technology Packages starting at $39.95
Morpheus Software  Packages starting at $29.95

Conclusion
Building an effective online program requires institutions to take seriously the issue of communication.  Aggregating text material, inserting web links and subsequently calling it a class is no longer sufficient for online course delivery.  It is critical that administrators and faculty utilize creativity and explore tools which may not have an educational origin.  Utilizing virtual puppets, digital agents, animated characters and avatars appears to provide a positive and effective way to communicate with students in an online class.  Access to such enhanced voice tools and professional development is needed so that faculty can optimize course management system tools that support engagement and foster human communication.

References

Collison, G., Elbaum, B., Haavind, S., & Tinker, R. (2000) facilitating online learning: Effective strategies for moderators. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

Dodson, J. (2009)  Blue Rain Marketing Case Study.  Retrieved February 22, 2010 from http://www.humanityinteractive.com/business/downloads/Blue-Rain_Case_Study.pdf

Faharani, G.O. (2003). Existence and importance of online interaction (Doctoral dissertation, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, 2003). Retrieved December 18, 2008, from http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-04232003 202143/unrestricted/Gohar-Farahani-Dissertation.pdf

Kelly, Rob. “Instructor’s Personality: An Essential Online Course Component.” Online Education (2010): n. pag. Web. 28 Mar 2011. <http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/instructors-personality-an-essential-online-course-component/>.

McFarland, B. “College Students Score Higher In Classes That Incorporate Instructional Technology Than In Traditional Classes.” Science Daily : Retrieved February 23, 2010 from <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080324125154.htm>.

Oomen-Early, J, Bold, M, Wiginton, K.L, Gallien, T.L,Anderson, N. (2008). ” Using Asynchronous Audio Communication (AAC) in the Online Classroom: A Comparative Study.” Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 4.3  Retrieved February 15, 2010 from <http://jolt.merlot.org/vol4no3/oomen-early_0908.htm>.

Reeves, B.  (2004) The Benefits of Interactive Online Characters Standford University.  Retrieved February 15, 2010 from http://www.sitepal.com/pdf/casestudy/Stanford_University_avatar_case_study.pdf

Use Avatars on your company’s website – and watch your business grow. (2009) Retrieved from http://www.squidoo.com/avatarsforbusiness#module82705201

Vrasidas, Charalambos, and Marina Stock McIsaac. “Factors Influencing Interaction in an Online Course.” (2010): 22-36. Web. 28 Mar 2011. <http://www.cardet.org/vrasidas/pubs/AJDE_Vrasidas.pdf>.

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