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9. Creating Avatars

An avatar can be as simple as the profile picture you post on Twitter to show the world your face, or it can be created in three dimensions in a virtual environment, fully customized from the skin and size to hair, eyes and clothes. In some virtual environments, participants have full control over the appearance of their avatars, right down to body shape, color and size, the shape and placement of facial features, hair style, clothing, posture, gestures and even whether or not they want to appear in the guise of a person, animal or inanimate object.

Like a chalkboard, an avatar is a blank slate. Unlike a chalkboard, an avatar can morph into anything and the student can actually embody the object for the ultimate learning experience.

Hundreds of colleges and top universities around the world have experimented with some form of virtual campus, holding lectures, symposia and small group breakout sessions. These digital environments sometimes resemble real life, with chairs, walls and ceilings, but occasionally they look like the ocean floor, including flora and fauna and some can even show the effects of climate change or coral reef death in compressed time.

A learning environment might look like a giant replica of a human heart which medical students can explore at a previously unattainable level of depth and scope, or it can look like a fuel cell, magnified a thousandfold to allow learners to witness scientific processes in action.

Educator Peggy Sheehy is a pioneer when it comes to the power of avatars and virtual environments for education. Not only did she spearhead the development of a major virtual campus project for middle school students, but she kept “a running account of the proposal, acquisition, development, and implementation of the virtual presence of Ramapo Central School District on the Teen Grid of Second Life.”

Like Metaplace, the Second Life Teen Grid was a fruitful environment for education. Also like Metaplace, the platform is now defunct. When it was thriving, Sheehy inspired over 1000 students and their teachers to participate in this bold initiative at Suffern Middle School in the Ramapo district in New York.

After receiving her Master’s Degree in Educational Technology from Stony Brook University, Sheehy became an advocate for the authentic use of technology in education. In 2003 she became Media Specialist at Suffern Middle School, “a fierce advocate for the meaningful infusion of technology in education.” In 2006 she established the first middle school educational presence in Teen Second Life: Ramapo Islands.

“Engagement, edutainment, and the authentic application of 21st Century collaborative tools in education is paramount to preparing our students for success,” Sheehy said.

On October 23, 2010, Jaron Lanier wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, “On the Threshold of the Avatar Era,” in which he describes an experiment with elementary school kids who got the chance to become the things they were studying.

“Some were turned into molecules,” Lanier wrote, “dancing and squirming to dock with other molecules. In this case the molecule serves the role of the piano, and instead of harmony puzzles, you are learning chemistry. Somatic cognition offers an overwhelming emotional appeal for education, because it leverages vanity. You become the thing you are studying. Your sensory motor loop is modified to incorporate the logic of a science, and you develop body intuition about that logic.

No one knows how big a deal avatar-directed cognition will be. Will students routinely dance to learn chemistry in the future? Quite possibly. A student might also become a triangle to learn trigonometry, or a strand of DNA to learn about biology. Will professional nanotechnology engineers become molecular structures in order to refine them? Once again, it seems quite possible.”

Not only is it possible–it’s happening already, and there’s no going back. Some platforms offer the capability to create avatars from scratch, giving students and educators the opportunity to explore identity and community. Other environments offer innocuous small avatars that create a uniform effect, creating focus on the subject at hand. The permutations are endless, limited only by imagination. This recent interview of Microsoft by the BBC shows that the concept of avatars is becoming mainstream.

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