Communication through Avatars in e-Learning Contexts

Communication through Avatars in e-Learning Contexts

Philippe Bonfils (Université du Sud Toulon-Var, France)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-517-9.ch008
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This chapter first presents the results of a study regarding a teaching method and scientific experiment conducted in France (Bonfils, 2007). It demonstrates how 3D virtual environments, and particularly avatars, are contributing to the development of identity groups within the framework of collaborative and constructivist student projects (Leontiev, 1991; Vygotsky, 1978). The chapter introduces the specificities of 3D virtual environments characterized by rich, spatial, and metaphoric environments where a kind of ubiquity is possible. This new generation environment is also a subject of controversy because some people attribute it amazing powers (and even magic), and others refer to a potential addiction (and therefore not social). In the meantime, the development of e-learning seems inevitable despite the fact that, in this distant context, the subjects are faced with loneliness. For those reasons, it is believe that the emergence of 3D virtual environments can provide new communication situations and maybe solve some e-learning shortfalls. Then, a communication analysis of the results is posed on the role of spatial environments, of the characterization of the avatar in the identity group process, and the communication of the students. Next, the chapter focuses on the proxemics (Birdwhistell, 1968; Hall, 1966) and the kinetic uses, as well as the potential in social relationships as a non-verbal and new form of group communication (Watzlawick, 1980). It also shows the appearance of interaction rituals (Goffman, 1974). As to share different points of view, a theoretical approach is shown and the epistemological perspectives are identified for future research (Bonfils, 2008).
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3D virtual environments are characterized by rich, realistic, and real time 3D spatial environments, where users are represented by their avatar. Moreover, the emergence of ADSL networks enable a massive number of users to interact without introducing additional delays thanks to this communication environment. Through the new practices and forms of socialization 3D virtual environments generate, this media-rich technology represents an important social phenomenon, a new way of communicating, and therefore possibly training which may interest governments, industries and universities. Several studies conducted by research laboratories and universities in North America prove the scientific potential of these social studies. We particularly refer here to the work on social interactions and interpersonal distances (Bailenson, 2006; Yee, 2007), distributed cognition (Steinkuehler, 2006), the activity theory (Nardi & Harris, 2006), the psychology of cyberspace and avatars (Castronova, 2001; Suler, 1999), the impact of role playing in e-learning (Gee, 2005; Jenkins & Cassel, 1998; Eustace & al, 2004), and teaching and learning in 3D virtual immersive environments (Sanders, 2007).

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