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Online Students Favor Course Guides Who Look Like Them


High drop-out rates plague online courses.

As a result, researchers are constantly looking for ways to make online education more personal and engaging.

Online training companies are experimenting with “virtual agents.” These agents appear as online helper images on course screens. Sometimes called mentors, these agents offer encouragement and feedback as students move through online courses.

Computerized mentors essentially serve as motivational agents. They emulate old school teachers whose words of encouragement have reliably helped struggling students persist and achieve in the classroom environment for centuries.

People who game online or participate in virtual worlds may be familiar with these “course mentors” as avatars. In virtual gaming, one’s avatar image can look like anything, from a wizard to a bespectacled librarian. People can choose which image they want to represent them in gaming scenarios.

A research update in the Chronicle of Higher Education details how academic researchers have recently discovered that young online students perform better when their assigned online course mentors or avatars appear similar to them in terms of gender and race.

Tara Behrend, Assistant Professor of Organizational Sciences at George Washington University, has been researching how online guides effect student persistence and progress in online courses. Her research suggests that online students should be given the chance to assign or create a personalized face for their online course guides.

The Chronicle summary also cites Lori Foster Thompson, Associate Professor of Psychology at North Carolina State University on the effective use of mentor images as a way to personalize the online learning process.

The research suggests that by choosing a personalized face for course guides or mentors, online students may become more engaged in the learning process. Higher engagement may in return increase learning efficacy and lower online course drop-out rates.



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