Virtual Learning Environment

Avatars in a Distance Learning Seminar

Dr. Mirjam Merkel-KissDarmstadt/Karlsruhe, May 2024 - The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research project AVLAB2 works with several partners to investigate the social and didactic benefits of deploying virtual learning environments. In the context of the project, the sociologist Dr. Mirjam Merkel-Kiss conducted an exploratory study into communicative behavior in virtual worlds. Her presentation about the work will take place at the LEARNTEC Congress, 06 June at 10:45.

In a communications seminar using the TriCAT Spaces portal, Dr. Merkel-Kiss examined the beneficial implementation of virtual worlds. The structure of the distance learning course encompassed sixteen teaching hours spread over three days. Each of the participants adopted the form of an avatar to engage in the virtual space.

"We were particularly interested in the avatars' non-verbal communication: how they moved their mouths, heads, and hands - gestures of all kinds," explains Merkel-Kiss. "The study showed that this type of virtual learning space is primarily suitable for long courses. Learners feel stimulated as avatars in changing, entertaining environments, such as on a sunny roof terrace. However, above all, they don't feel observed."

In addition to the lectures, the course also included small group work. The seminar rooms were especially configured to be visually appealing so as to have a positive effect on group work. Dr. Merkel-Kiss explained, "In a friendly setting, genuine feelings can be engendered in the virtual world. At the same time, though, maintaining the flow of speech, e.g. not interrupting each other and creating a sense of team spirit, is a challenge. Ultimately, everyone involved came to realize how important non-verbal communication is."

Merkel-Kiss is convinced that at distance learning universities, avatars in virtual worlds constitute a very suitable format for online teaching. "Of course, the participants had additional desires in regard to customization of the avatars, but overall their feedback was consistently positive." In the presentation, we show a lot of visual material and give an outlook on further developments.