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Editor’s Note
: Google lists about ten million references to avatar (and) research, while the string “avatar research” retrieves only 475 entries. Avatars have been used to explore virtual worlds and human relationships. The use of avatars in virtual learning environments is a logical use of this technology. This article comes from two researchers at North Carolina University.

Creating Presence and Community in a Synchronous Virtual Learning Environment
Using Avatars

Leonard A. Annetta, Shawn Holmes


Effective synchronous instruction over the Internet has been the quest of researchers and practitioners for some time. As technology advances and today’s students become increasingly more techno savvy, Virtual Learning Environments are becoming a viable vehicle for distance instruction. Synchronous learning environments provide rich opportunity for building learning communities and Virtual Learning Environments allow students a sense of presence within their class. This explanatory case study investigated the relative effectiveness of using avatars in a Virtual Learning Environment for building learning communities and presence in a synchronous online science education course. Observation and interviews were conducted within 2 cases: Case I consisted of 12 graduate science education students participating in their first online course. Case II consisted of 14 undergraduates. Results suggest students’ avatars provide a sense of presence that is the catalyst for community and learning. Furthermore, a variety of avatar choices allowed for individuality by which these results suggest is a critical component of course satisfaction.

Keywords: Distance Learning, presence, virtual environments, communication, gaming, Internet, avatars, learning communities, e-learning, synchronous, instructional technology, computer mediated communication, satisfaction


Access to the Internet is increasing, not only in terms of who can get online, but also in terms of what devices can assist in getting online. This trend, driven by the increasing demand to keep in touch and stay informed, is resulting in more possibilities for communication and information retrieval (New Media Consortium [NMC], 2005). For example, more college age students are synchronously participating in online video games. "Today's teenagers live and swear by the cult of computer games and people whose lives had remained untouched by computers have been drawn into the computer arena through the lure of games. Online gaming remains an entire subculture with its own meeting places, characters, and environments" (Jayakanthan, 2002, p.98). The worlds by which video games immerse players lend themselves to Virtual Learning Environments (VLE). In this study, VLE is defined as a three-dimensional world where multiple students can interact in real-time while using avatars as representations of themselves. The popularity of these and other virtual communities (such as 3D online chats) reflects the fact that individuals are using new technologies, such as the Internet, to fulfill both social and economic goals (Wind & Mahajan, 2002).

In a report entitled, “The Internet Goes to College”, (Jones, 2002) detailed the degree to which today’s college student relies on technology. Nearly four-fifths of college students agree that Internet use has had a positive impact on their college academic experience. About half of all college students (48%) are required to use the Internet to contact other students in at least some of their classes. 42% of college students say they use the Internet primarily to communicate socially. But 85% of college students consider the Internet to be an easy and convenient choice for communicating with friends. Half of the students who took an online course said they believed they learned less from the online course than they would have from an on-campus course. 84% percent of Internet users have contacted or participated in a virtual community (Horrigan, 2001).

Based on these findings, it is clear that for students already enrolled in traditional college courses, online education has a long way to go before it might challenge the traditional classroom. College students use the Internet more as a medium for social communication than for educational or professional communication. The answer might be that online course designers are not meeting the needs of their students. College students are a group primed for interactive entertainment. Although most did not report the Internet being a primary entertainment device in their lives, the degree to which they use it for socializing makes the Internet an important leisure activity (Jones, 2002). The game playing generation thinks fundamentally different than those who have not spent thousands of hours playing digital games (Prensky, 2001). We need to ask what students’ want and how new electronic media can motivate them to become immersed in online education (Zemsky & Massey, 2004).

VLE for Distance Education

As today’s college students continue to rely on technology in and out of the classroom, it is critical distance educators find ways to meet their needs.  For example, Podcasting is becoming more commonplace as an instructional tool as is instant messaging acquired through cell phones. Virtual reality research suggests participation in a 3D environment supports the constructivist paradigm of instruction. VLE's provide facility for experimental learning by allowing the students to explore the VLE at their own pace in real time (Dede, 1995). 3D worlds have the potential to provide various types of educational initiatives such as extension of the classroom and as a medium for distance education (Dickey, 2000). Programs for synchronous communications have moved beyond text-chat to become more rudimentary forms of virtual reality (Jackson, Lamora, Darby & Russell, 2002). Individuals also use virtual communities to discuss shared interests (communities of interest), to develop social relations (communities of relationships) and to explore new identities (communities of fantasy) (Hagel & Armstrong, 1997).

The Case

The sample of this study was comprised of two cases.  Case I consisted of twelve students participating in a synchronous, online graduate science education class. The focus of the class was designing and implementing role play/adventure games as a supplement to K-12 science instruction. Case II had 14 undergraduate science education students enrolled in a senior seminar during their student teaching semester. Both courses were designed on the ActiveWorlds™ platform. ActiveWorlds™ was created for social interaction in 3D immersive worlds created by individual users.  Through close collaboration with the ActiveWorlds™ staff, these courses set parameters as to who could enter the world. Each student chose an avatar, a 3D embodiment that conveyed their identity, presence, location, and activities to others (Benford, Greenhalgh, Rodden & Pycock, 2001). The word avatar is derived from Hindu as an incarnation of a deity in a human or animal form.

This explanatory case study investigated the relative effectiveness of using 3D, multiuser Virtual Learning Environments as a method of delivering synchronous distance education coursework. Specifically, this study set out to answer the question, what role do avatars play in developing presence in a distance education class?

Literature Review


Virtual learning environments have definitions ranging from online message boards to 3-D worlds. These worlds have evolved from the popularity and engaging atmosphere of video games. Games are not new to education. Teachers at all level have used some type of competition within their instruction to provide students with a fun, challenging learning environment. Technology and gaming combined in interesting ways, have the potential to impact today’s students (Kirrirmuir, 2002) who have grown up in the digital age. What is evolving is the way technology is applied to gaming in education, with new combinations of concepts and games appearing on the horizon (NMC, 2005). Neal (2003) and Foreman (2003) predicted game technology will replace classrooms, lectures, tests, and note taking with fun, interactive learning environments. For education, what is needed is more high-quality user-relevant software, combining the best game techniques (contributed by games designers) and proven learning techniques (contributed by teachers), implemented on consoles with which learners are familiar, rigorously tested, independently evaluated, and widely publicized (Kirrirmuir, 2002). Kirrirmuir (2002) challenged educators to investigate the opportunities provided by ubiquitous gaming consoles, such as stability, ease of use, and broadband access. Kirrirmuir justified this challenge by stating games are diverse, complex, engaging and attractive; and they are being played in rapidly increasing number.

Video games often have a reputation of violence and adult situations. However, role-playing and adventure games lead gaming sales.  In education, there is room for games where the goal is to solve a problem cooperatively where everyone can win at some level. If the outcome of a game is not to have a single winner, but to have a group come up with a perfect solution to a problem, more than one group may achieve this outcome. Thus the point becomes problem solving and working together rather than winning or defeating opponents (NMC, 2005). VLE’s can provide such a platform for teaching and learning as they allow real time interaction between the user and environment (Cobb, Neale, Crosier & Wilson, 2002). Porter (2004) defined VLE’s as an aggregation of individuals or business partners who interact around a shared interest, where the interaction is at least partially supported and/or mediated by technology and guided by some protocols or norms. Britain and Liber (2000) asked teachers to evaluate VLE's from an educational perspective to determine whether they can be embedded into their teaching practices. Due to their 3D nature, VLE's also have great potential for demonstrating complex abstract concepts, such as representing a magnetic field or simple machines (Dede, 1995). VLE's motivate learning by challenging, providing curiosity, beauty, fantasy, fun, and social recognition. They often reach learners who don't do well in conventional settings (Dede, 2004).

VLE’s come in different shapes and sizes. The literature suggests that five attributes could be used to characterize virtual communities: (1) Purpose, (2) Place, (3) Platform, (4) Population Interaction Structure, and (5) Profit Model (Porter, 2004). Porter (2004) proposed a typology of virtual communities that included two first-level categories: Member-initiated and Organization-sponsored. Member-initiated communities are those where the community was established by, and remains managed by those members within the community. Organization-sponsored communities are communities that are sponsored by either commercial or non-commercial organizations such as educational institutions. A second level of the typology contains virtual communities categorized by their general relationship orientation of the community. Relationship orientation refers to the type of relationship fostered among members of the community. Member-initiated communities foster either social or professional relationships among members. Organization-sponsored communities foster relationships both among members (e.g., customers, employees, students) and between individual members and the sponsoring organization (Porter, 2004).

Hoyt, Blascovich and Swinth (2003) examined VLE’s within a social psychology perspective by replicating social influence effects. Specifically, Hoyt looked into the social facilitation/inhibition effects wherein individuals' performance on a task is affected by the presence of others. Results suggested participants mastered one of two tasks and subsequently performed the mastered or non-mastered task either alone or in the presence of a virtual human audience whom they were led to believe were either computer-controlled agents or human controlled avatars. Those performing in the presence of avatars demonstrated classic social inhibition performance impairment effects relative to those performing alone or in the presence of agents.

Learning Communities and Presence

A learning community has been defined as a culture in which everyone is involved in a collective effort of understanding.  In these communities learners share and develop a repertoire of resources (experiences, tools, stories), allow for a close connection between learning and doing, addresses the informal and tacit aspects of knowledge creation and sharing. Learning occurs in communities, learning requires greater participation in communities, and participation ensure the survival and growth of communities (Jackson et. al., 2002). Jackson continued stating emotional and social dimensions rely on synchronous virtual interchanges. It is a place where learners represent themselves through graphical avatars, and communicate with other avatars and computer-based agents as well as interacting with digital artifacts and virtual contexts. Through these 3D graphical environments the users gain a perception of actual travel in a virtual space.

Brown (2001) describes a three-stage process by which a community is formed in an asynchronous distance learning class: 1: Making friends; 2: Community conferment or acceptance; and 3: Camaraderie. Each stage represents a greater degree of engagement in both the class and the dialogue over the previous stages, and greater levels of interpersonal bonding or affiliation. The advantages of students building community include improved confidence expressing oneself, learning from others, and feeling connected and accepted. However, online learning environments that feature mainly asynchronous text-based computer-mediated communications (CMC) have been criticized for their lack of support for social presence, and this lack of support may impact the sense of belonging and acceptance in a group (Rovai, 2002). However, if there is one strong area where the Web has been most effective, it is by making ample interaction feasible. This interaction, if consciously programmed into the course, allows students to discuss ideas online, ask questions, share information, tackle group projects, develop joint understandings and even forge friendships. If someone complains that online learning is passive, the problem isn't the web, it is the use that is made of it (Meyer, 2003).

Presence is traditionally defined as the psychological perception of “being in” or “existing in” the VLE in which one is immersed (Witmer & Singer, 1998). Garrison and Anderson (2003) defined presence as the ability of participants in a community of inquiry to project themselves socially and emotionally, as real people through the medium of communication being used. Short, Williams and Christie (1976) stated social presence is the critical factor in a communication medium and the ability to work collaboratively is at the heart of social presence theory (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000; Tu & McIsaac, 2002; Gunawardena & Zittle; 1997). Gunawardena and Zittle (1997) reported "social presence" (i.e., the degree to which a person is perceived as real in an online conversation) is a strong predictor of satisfaction with CMC and reports intimacy and immediacy enhance social presence although they are not mutually exclusive. One could then argue that social presence is strongly associated with individuality. If a student in an online community feels they are perceived as an individual then they feel a sense of presence within that community. Festinger, Pepitone and Newcomb (1952) defined this as deindividuation: a state in which people lose their individuality because “group members do not feel they stand out as individuals” and individuals act if they are “submerged in the group”.

For distance educators, one might follow the lead set forth by Chepya (2005). Chepya redefined distance learning as “presence learning.” Presence learning creates a palpable connection between the instructor and the student, engaging students in "reality" and not "virtual reality"—another outdated aphorism. Supplying people’s need to connect with each other in meaningful ways, social networks and knowledge webs offer a means of facilitating teamwork and constructing knowledge. The underlying technologies fade into the background while collaboration and communication are paramount (NMC, 2005). Within the confines of a VLE, presence can be thought of as a product of two factors: (1) “arrival,” or the sense of being in the VLE, or (2) “departure,” or the sense of not being in the VLE (Kinm & Biocca, 1997).

Benefits VLE's bring to the teacher are increased participation and performance (Pilkington, Bennett & Vaughn, 2000). However, this is only true if the course design is synchronous in nature. Synchronicity can be valuable for virtual communities provided that members actually take advantage of the synchronous technology design by interacting (Blanchard, 2004). With Voice over IP (VoIP) technology becoming more mainstream and student comfort with real-time chat allows for a synchronous learning environment. Indeed, a highly interactive environment can enhance a member’s perception of social presence, co-presence and sense of place (Blanchard, 2004; Liu, 2005). It also can facilitate the construction of social reality for members (Rafaeli & Sudweeks, 1997).


Avatars are graphical embodiments that convey a student’s identity, presence, location, and activities to others. In VLE’s the 3D nature of the environment allows for a first person view of the environment, classmates, and instructor. Barfield and Hendrix (1995) distinguished virtual presence from real world presence as the extent to which participants believe they are somewhere different than their actual physical location while experiencing a computer generated simulation. Avatars create a cognitive residue where students believe they are in an actual environment. Avatars use one of the most powerful forces in the human psyche: social interaction (Moshell & Hughes, 2002; Garrison, 2000).

By feeling one is participating in an actual environment, distance educators can move current relationship theory away from the dependency on "physical co-presence of individuals" and into a realm where the attraction and social dimension are seen as essential components to forming relationships through VLE’s (Lea & Sparks, 1995). The premise of “social presence” is that if other people (in the form of avatars) reside in a VLE there is more evidence that the VLE actually exists. Correspondingly, if other persons in a VLE essentially acknowledge one’s presence in the VLE, it offers further affirmation that one actually “exists” in that environment (Sadowski & Stanney, 2002).

Avatars potentially build and sustain group commitment through expression of feelings such as salutations using a person’s name and/or referring to the group as "we" (Rourke, Anderson, Garrison & Archer, 1999). They are able to use these avatars to interact with contents of the world and to communicate with one another using different media including audio, video, graphical gestures and texts. VLE’s can be seen as the result of a convergence of research interests within the virtual reality and computer-supported, cooperative learning communities (Benford et. al., 2001).


This study consisted of an instrumental, explanatory case study design.  This design was chosen because of the methodological triangulation that increases confidence in the interpretation of the results.  Two cases were analyzed to ascertain individual emotions of presence in a VLE.

VLE Platform

The 3D VLE chosen for this study was ActiveWorlds™. ActiveWorlds™ is designed for casual online chat and for businesses to showcase and sell their products.  Recently ActiveWorlds™ added the education universe where educational institutions can purchase virtual server space at a reduced rate for teaching and learning purposes.  The universe allows for real-time chat and VoIP technologies to be integrated into a VLE. The administrator of the VLE, the instructor in this case, has rights to build the environment as seen fit. ActiveWorlds™ provides the administrator with over 20,000 objects and textures to choose from for the building environment.


Case I consisted of 12 science education graduate students participating in their first synchronous, online class. The course was designed to introduce 3D role-play games as a viable source for technology integration in secondary school science classes. Case II consisted of 14 undergraduates enrolled in a senior seminar as part of their student teaching experience. None of the students in either case were exposed to VLE’s before this course. In both cases, students were given directions on how to access the VLE and where to meet once inside the VLE. Students were instructed to view the various avatars available to them. Case I was given 100 different avatars to choose from that ranged from common humans to abstract objects such as a motorcycle or helicopter to animals. Case II were only given 2 choices: a male tourist and a female tourist.

Data Collection

Data was collected in a three forms. Observation of each student was noted during each class.  Since both classes were given various assignments outside of class time, a server side bot was written to ascertain individual avatar changes and to record conversations while the instructor was not present. Finally, each student was interviewed at the conclusion of the classes.  The interview protocol was designed to determine the reasons for avatar choices and individual student attitudes as to how the avatar choices correlated with class satisfaction.


From the aforementioned data collection, it became obvious that students preferred to have a variety of avatars to choose from. Particularly true was the functionality different avatars presented. Table 1 shows the students from Case I, their avatar choice(s) and a justification for their avatar choices.

Table 1
Case I Avatar Choices and Justification

Case I Student


Reason for Choice



She moved quickly; She looks good; Her fashion was trendy


Special Agent

She looks like the girl from the Matrix; She could fight;



It was a funny character



He fits my personality



I used him while building because he moved fast while flying



She looked like Kate Blanchett…I love her.



She looked most like me.


Female Cyborg

It was fun and showed my geekyness.



I thought it would be cool.  There were so many choices that I never changed.  Heck, I didn't even know what I looked like until I realized I could switch to a third person view.



I thought she would help me stay inconspicuous.


Special Agent

I liked using her when I would go around seeing what others in the class were building. Plus she has the body I wish I had in a lycra suit.



I switched a lot.  Maybe I have multiple personalities. My choice of avatar was based on my mood that day. On days I felt like wearing pajamas, I picked Lenora.





I chose either of them on days I felt more casual



I stuck with her for a few days when I was feeling a little wilder and because she looked like someone from Blade Runner.



When I knew I had to present in class, I chose her because she dressed business like.



He looks just like me



I chose her because she looks normal.  I am not a glamorous person so I didn't want to be a princess or any of those.



I love Clint Eastwood and this was just too funny.  I love the cigar in his mouth too.


These data suggest students chose avatars based on either the avatars function in the class assignment, or more commonly by how the avatar affected the student as individuals. Of particular interest was the fact that only Tom chose to use a non-human avatar at any one time in the course. Although Case I had 8 non-human avatars from which to choose, all with different functions, only Tom chose Birdy. Case II had very different reactions that were primarily a result of their lack of avatar choices (table 2).

Table 2
Case II Avatar Choice and Response to their Choice

Case II Student


Response to Avatar Choice


Female Tourist

I look like everyone else


Female Tourist

This stinks.   Is there a way to choose another avatar?


Female Tourist

I wish I could be a lion or something cool.  I look like the other girls.


Female Tourist

She kind of looks like me.


Female Tourist

I don't look anything like her.  Is there a way to change her?


Female Tourist

How do you know who is who?  We all look the same except for the 2 boys.


Male Tourist

This is cool.  


Female Tourist

Can I at least change my name so I can discern myself from the others?


Female Tourist

I didn't even know what I looked like until I used the third person view.   I don't like that I look like the other females.


Female Tourist

I look like a dork.  Of course that is fitting I suppose.


Male Tourist

If I were really a tourist, I would have a drink in my hand.


Female Tourist

This is too funny.   We all look the same.

What is apparent in the responses from Case II is the feeling lacking individuality, and subsequently presence, in the VLE in which they participated. What follows is a discussion of these results and the implication for distance education practice.


Avatars Role in Providing a Sense of Presence

The first theme that arose is the fact that the instructor must "be there" and create a "there" that is palpable to everyone if the course is to be a success. When Internet communication works, the medium becomes a place, as a physical classroom is a place. The shared experiences of the lectures and the discussion create a shared memory of incidents and events (Chepya, 2005). Avatars provide individual students a sense of being. When given a plethora of avatars from which to choose, students find a representation that is unique to them or one that provides assistance on a particular task. As Gunawardena and Zittle (1997) reported, social presence is a strong predictor of satisfaction with CMC. For students to feel the online course was a worthwhile experience, they need to feel as if they were part of the big picture.  They need to feel they were different from the others in the class. Social presence is also seen to influence not only online activities generally designated as group projects, but also those usually designated as individual projects (Richardson & Swan, 2003). In addition, students with high overall perceptions of social presence scored high in terms of perceived learning and perceived satisfaction with the instructor (Richardson & Swann, 2003).

Moreover, students need to see and hear others; even if the others are avatars. Humans are hard wired to engage in the learning process in this manner.  From preschool through college, students interact in a social environment in which a teacher is present directing them toward a common goal. Distance education should not be any different.  Course design needs to juxtapose making students feel as if they are part of the whole and that they are individuals. As this study suggests, students with a sense of presence in a synchronous, online class will have a higher degree of satisfaction with the course.

Community and VLE’s

Before a community can become a knowledge-building community it is first necessary to establish a “safe space” in which the sharing of knowledge is encouraged and validated (Pilkington & Walker, 2003). In a learning community, students learn to cooperate and make teams work. Past technologies (print, photography, film, and computers) have enabled idea sharing, but are one-way communication modes. Broader learning communities have been made possible through electronic field trips, online mentoring, science investigations, and humanities activities (Riel & Fulton, 2001).

According to the University of Manchester’s Mark Clark, "The nature of documents is increasingly trending to compound documents that incorporate image, data, text, and voice annotation. E-mail is likely to shrink as a way of sharing documents, giving way to the increased use of collaborative working environments for document development analysis, editing, and even drafting. Video conferencing, particularly that on the high end associated with technologies such as access grids, is showing exponential growth. Increasingly, virtual communities will be built upon networks as the glue to provide social cohesiveness. Managing the deployment and then integration of converged technologies into a cohesive, converged service environment—and ultimately into the kind of rich collaborative environment Clark describes—will likely demand considerable attention in the future (Katz, 2005). The future is now.  The technology is readily accessible and students desire courses to meet their needs.

What Avatars Tell Us About Students

Avatars can tell us a lot about our students.  Although one might never physically meet another member of the VLE, one’s avatar choice usually implies gender, ethnicity and personality.  This may not always be true as the server side bot written to glean information of student progress outside of class reported one male student taking on the role of a female avatar while working on a project inside the VLE. It can be argued this tells even more about the student. As was evident from Stacey, Tom, Shelly, Samantha and Susan, avatar choices that change regularly can shed light on how the student feels at a particular time. As with a traditional class, knowing how a student feels helps the instructor know how to react to the student or at the very least understand why a student is acting differently than normal. This too can be a variable in addressing student satisfaction and ultimately learning.


In conclusion it is pertinent to revisit course design using VLE’s. While choosing courseware for Internet delivery, serious thought must be given to the aesthetics of online pedagogy. Just as any measurement of instructional success should take into account the effect of the instructor’s particular pedagogical style and method, so too any measure of the success of online teaching should refer to the design and dynamics of the online course. The human element, companionability, and presence, once almost impossible to create on the Internet, are now becoming a reality with the onset of emerging technologies such as VLE’s. As more and more students use the Internet as a medium for social communication, it is crucial we meet their needs in the educational and professional settings as well.  Distance learning is only as good as the “learning” regardless of the distance.  In turn, “learning” is only as good as the sense of presence a student has and the satisfaction they perceive while in a distance delivered course.


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About the Authors:

Leonard A. Annetta is from North Carolina State University,

Shawn Holmes is from North Carolina State University.

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