Today’s deep question: Would I improve or detract from this instructional experience if I were to, oh, I don’t know, actually give this course a smidge of personality?

Could the inclusion of something resembling a “life-like” personality be an easy, but meaningful, step towards creating eLearning that is actually fun to take? Asked yet another way, if we were to imbue our course avatars/agents with a personality that reveals itself through the system-generated feedback/prompts of the course, would we increase student engagement with the course content? (Notice I said fun, not funny. Funny is way too hard to do and should be left to the professionals.)

Are we, as Instructional Designers, capable of jettisoning the familiar and comfortable yoke of tradition and venture into uncharted territories? Of course we are! After all, we are fearless in our quest to improve outcomes! We just need to shake off or at least set aside the traditional avatar/agent repartee and listen to how good friends talk to one another. Listen closely as two or three friends discuss how one of them could improve this or that. I am betting you are apt to hear: candor, cajoling, sarcasm and support. In the real world we’re not going to hear much sophomoric coddling, faint praise, or veiled reprimands.

As a case in point, in a recent collaboration with The Institute for Intelligent Systems, we were delighted to learn that in an experiment with automated tutoring, students expressed a clear preference for interacting with a “Rude Tutor” as opposed to the traditional, “buttoned down” personality of avatars/agents found in most online training. Specifically, students enjoyed the snarky, system-generated feedback, i.e., “Seriously, you thought that was the right answer? vs. “Incorrect. Please try again.”)

I’d be willing to bet that if we perused most any corporate library of online courses, we’ll hear and see: “Correct. Please press ‘next…’” and “Sorry, that’s incorrect. Please try again”… or “John is a new team member and unsure of his authority…

Let’s face it, few people actually interact in that way and, for that reason, many students may find it nearly impossible to relate to, much less enjoy, the avatar/agent interaction.

To those of us that think about student engagement and knowledge transfer, this should really come as no surprise as we have all grown to appreciate the value of “fun” in the context of learning. That said, let’s also agree that we don’t need a full-blown gamification experience to build in course elements that add to the “fun” of a course, including some good-natured cajoling (aka Snark Lite) as a means of conveying a sense of personality within an online course.

Imagine, if you will, upon signing in to your next online class you are presented with a choice - Choose your guide: (A) Snarky Guru (B) Subject Matter Expert

Which would you choose?

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