ATD Blog

Avatars in E-Learning

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

You may be wondering what else you can do to motivate your learners. Something you may not have considered is the use of avatars.
Now, when someone says “avatar,” it can mean many different things. Google defines it as “an icon or figure representing a particular person in computer games, Internet forums, etc.” However, in e-learning, the term “avatar” can also refer to a type of virtual coach. This virtual coach can be a valuable asset for learners.

Using Avatars

An avatar can be an important device for presenting an e-learning lesson. Adding a face to your module will add interest and motivation for learners. It gives them a person to connect with, in much the same way they would to an instructor or mentor in a more traditional setting. The avatar also can present material in a more conversational tone, perhaps even building up a story that will further engage learners and encourage knowledge retention.

Here are just some highlights on how avatars can aid e-learning:

  • guide the learner through the course
  • present content for the lesson
  • pose questions
  • provide tips
  • prompt reflection on the subject
  • speak directly to the learner
  • use a conversational tone that is appropriate for the topic.

Creating an avatar

Depending on your needs and budget, there is a whole range of methods you could use to create an avatar for a course. The avatar could take the form of a cartoon, a series of still photographs, a 3D character, or a video of an actor. It could use a narrated voice, a computer-simulated voice, or a series of speech bubbles. It could be animated or use stock photography. With a little creativity, you’ll find that there are many tools at your disposal to help you create the avatar your course needs.

The important thing to keep in mind is that your avatar should be instructionally sound. However you decide to create the character, make sure it doesn’t distract from the material you’re trying to present. For instance, a wacky cartoon character may look interesting, but doing a lot of crazy flips and gliding by on ice skates may take away from a module on compliance training.

In other words, keep it subtle. Your learners will notice if you’re trying too hard. For instance, using a doctor as an avatar for medical compliance training would be more relevant. So, create a character that your learners can connect to, either as a peer or a mentor. Then, make sure your avatar presents content in a clear, logical way.


Research on avatars

But are avatars really that effective for learners? There is a growing body of research on the topic of using virtual coaches in e-learning.

In the book E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, authors Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E. Mayer describe the use of pedagogical agents to apply the personalization principle to training modules. Pedagogical agents are “on-screen characters who help guide the learning processes during an instructional episode.”

Clark and Mayer believe that the use of an on-screen agent will engage learners to connect with the conversational tone of the lesson. This connection will motivate them to try to understand what this perceived “conversational partner” is saying to them. The authors suggest that the on-screen agents should have a “voice” that is narrated in a conversational style, and that the agent should move in a human rather than a mechanical fashion.


Karl Kapp, author of The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, insists that more than one avatar can be beneficial for learners. Each avatar should act in a different role to support the learner throughout the lesson. For instance, one avatar could be in the role of a mentor, teaching and guiding learners through new material. Meanwhile, another character would play the role of a “friend” who encourages learners and cheers them on, possibly giving advice and another perspective.

Adding avatars to your e-learning

Avatars may not be the solution for every e-learning module. However, using some type of virtual coach can benefit your learners in a variety of ways. It can make the lesson seem more relevant by presenting it in a realistic, conversational way. It can motivate your learners by encouraging them and presenting them with challenges.

More important, they can help with knowledge retention by providing a context and presenting the lesson in a more memorable fashion. Overall, I think avatars are worth considering for your e-learning design.

About the Author

Vanessa Bailey is an instructional designer at Strayer University.  She is currently working on creating online courses for students utilizing simulations, m-learning, and video scenarios.  She has a M.S. degree in Instructional Technology from Bloomsburg University.  Her background prior to joining the training field was in animation and game development. Her portfolio involves work with gamification, mobile apps, augmented reality, 3D technologies, website development, and more.  In her free time, she is an artist with artwork in a variety of galleries and coffee shops.  You can find her at

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