Even the most innovative new use of digital technology in education comes with potential problems, and unforeseen consequences …
Recent news of lecturers being able to deliver their online lectures in the guise of virtual avatars (rather than appearing on screen as ‘themselves’) raises a host of interesting issues about education and technology.
On one hand, this idea might have obvious appeal to lecturers, their students and employers for a number of reasons:
- Many lecturers might be keen to not have to perform for the camera – being freed-up to focus on the pedagogical content of their lessons, rather than worry over their appearance and the pressure to produce slick-looking content.
- Conversely, many students might find avatar-tutors to be more engaging and less distracting (echoing the idea that students respond better to lectures presented by professional actors than those delivered by professors). The concept of the avatar-tutor also fits with the idea of students being able to customise their learning to fit their preferences – for example, the potential for students to choose which ‘character’ they are being taught by.
- University administrators might also welcome the opportunity to better fulfil diversity quotas – ensuring that students are taught by lecturers who represent a range of backgrounds and cultures, as well as dressing well and remaining ‘on-brand’.
All told, such developments might seem like an innovative use of technology. Indeed, the idea of professor avatars chimes with trends elsewhere in online popular culture – such as virtual influencers, virtual pop-stars and TV presenters, as well as the recent hype around the ‘metaverse’. If we are increasingly going to be living in a world populated by online avatars and animated characterisations of people, then why shouldn’t educators follow suit?
Yet, as with any ‘innovation’ in the world of digital education, there are various trade-offs and potential problems that need to be considered:
- Clearly, the use of avatar-tutors raises a number of workforce issues – not least the issue of professor redundancy. In theory, there is little to prevent universities ‘re-animating’ previously recorded video lecture content, simply by using different virtual presenters and freshening-up backgrounds. In an era of university cut-backs, this technology could be seen to reduce the necessity of continuing to employ teaching staff once their original lectures are recorded. In addition, animated-tutors are not going to join a union, refuse to break a virtual picket-line, ask for pay rises, or make awkward claims over intellectual property. Finally, having a diverse set of animated professors is clearly not the same as recruiting a fully representative teaching workforce.
- Getting rid of real-life human bodies from the screen might also be seen to diminish the quality of the teaching and learning experience. There is much to be said for the importance of ‘embodied pedagogy’ – i.e. the ways in which expert educators teach with their bodies by moving, pointing, gesturing, emoting and other subtle forms of non-verbal communication that can easily get lost in the bland rendering of online animation.
- Finally, this technology could be seen as yet another ‘flattening out’ of the university experience. Higher education is a time to make personal connections with others. While they might not look perfect, there is something to be said for watching a video lecture presented by a familiar real-life tutor that students might have met in the flesh. Moreover, universities are a great place to learn to engage with people for their intellect rather than their looks, where the range of authentic body shapes and appearances is to be celebrated rather than air-brushed away.
All told, while the innovative use of digital technology is to be welcomed in education, we need to think what is being lost in the continued race to move to online forms of teaching and learning – not least, the risk of reducing higher education to a narrow caricature of its former self.
Thanks to Chris O’Neill, Mark Andrejevic, and Xin Gu for discussing these issues.