Channel Your Inner Avatar and Add Interest to Your Online Content

Have you ever experienced the eerie, but familiar, sensation that your students have not done the required reading and are not prepared for class? We all know that our class sessions would be a lot more enjoyable—for us and for our students—if our students were better prepared for class discussions. After one particularly challenging session, we discovered that while our students spend around 20 hours a week preparing for class, they spend about 10 hours a day using a variety of digital devices, such as smartphones, tablets, PCs, video games, and TVs.

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Have you ever experienced the eerie, but familiar, sensation that your students have not done the required reading and are not prepared for class? We all know that our class sessions would be a lot more enjoyable—for us and for our students—if our students were better prepared for class discussions. After one particularly challenging session, we discovered that while our students spend around 20 hours a week preparing for class, they spend about 10 hours a day using a variety of digital devices, such as smartphones, tablets, PCs, video games, and TVs. After some contemplation, we decided to embrace our inner avatar! We found CrazyTalk Animator 2, which enabled us to put a face, body, motion, and a voice to the instructor. This program allows users, even those without any coding experience, to create short video clips using a selected avatar and voice. The avatars can run, smile, frown, dance, write, and do a number of other things. Moreover, the user can simply drop the avatar into any PowerPoint presentation to add an additional component of animation to an otherwise lifeless slide. We created the avatars to present short, focused discussions of course topics. Initially, we attempted to use the software to make our own avatars using our pictures, but this required spending time to get our facial expressions aligned and our body movements or “bone structure” correct so that the avatar's movements would look authentic. One way to bypass having to do this is to use the avatars that come with the program. This reduces start-up costs (i.e., your time expenditure), and there are eight characters that come with the CrazyTalk Animator 2 version of the product that we purchased. You have the option of “creating a scene” and making a short video clip within the program (we think that the limit is about 70 seconds per scene), but we have found it easier to use just the avatar, with no background in the program; rehearse the script; add any body movements (we used the “idle motion” option because the avatar is presenting, but you could use other features like walking, running, etc.); and export the avatar to our desktop. This way we can string together multiple sessions into one longer session. We could have improved the transitions between clips, but this was our trial run. After exporting the scripted avatar sessions to our desktop, we integrated them into, yes, a PowerPoint presentation, but we think you will see that the sessions are a bit unique. Once we created the avatar videos on the website, applied the voiceover, and then exported them to our PC, we embedded the avatar into a PowerPoint presentation that had props or content related to the topics that we were covering that week. The goal here was to link multiple clips into a presentation that lasted from 5 to 7 minutes because this was approximately the amount of time students wanted to take to watch a video related to the content that was presented in flipped classroom experiments (Slomanson, 2014; Herreid, Schiller, Herrid, &, Wright, 2014). According to our survey responses from students, the videos could be improved by adding interactive quizzes within each section to ensure knowledge retention; embedding more graphics into the presentation; having the avatar “work through the problems”; and lengthening the avatar presentations. The last result was interesting to us because we initially thought, based upon our literature review, that it would be critical to keep the time of the presentations short to capture our audience's interest. The students indicated that as long as the content focused specifically on solving problems and exploring topics that would improve their understanding of the content that we cover in class, the time of the presentation is not as critical as we initially thought. When discussing the use of the avatars with the students and asking for feedback, the students seemed excited to help us to make adjustments to improve how we use the avatars to focus on improving their learning experience and enhancing our future students' educational experiences. We are excited about continuing to listen to our students and making adjustments to the ways that we teach and the supplemental resources that we provide to make our students' learning experiences more enjoyable and enhance their learning outcomes. As we move into this new age of automation, and as businesses and academic institutions alike leverage technology and implement new techniques to train the next generation's workforce, teachers cannot stand idly by. We need to move forward and push the boundaries of what we can do to interact with our students to help them learn and engage with them in their world. By interacting with our students and bringing them into the planning process, we will be able to create an educational experience that truly surpasses our expectations as well as theirs. Take a look at this example, and consider adding avatars to your online content: https://tinyurl.com/jwl87tb. References: Herreid, C. F., Schiller, N. A., Herreid, K. F., & Wright, C. B. (2014). A chat with the survey monkey: Case studies and the flipped classroom. Journal of College Science Teaching, 44(1), 75–80. Slomanson, W. R. (2014). Blended learning: A flipped classroom experiment. Journal of Legal Education, 64(1), 93–102. Pamela Lee is an assistant professor of management, Shannon Jackson is an associate professor of management, and Zachary Smith is an assistant professor of economics and finance at Saint Leo University.