Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Student-Created Avatars

As my colleague and I met a few months ago to plan out how to bring more multimedia and online goodness into our curriculum, the topic of avatars came up. They can be a fun part of developing an online identity, but we have so little time with our classes, were they worth the time?

That lead me to think about Moodle. A few years ago, I set up a Moodle for my fifth grade classes. We frequently used it to host our asynchronous discussions. From the start, some kids loved it. Quite a few others approached it with suspicion because it looked too much like work. They weren't connecting with it.

Then I got the idea of avatars. Moodle allows each user to upload an avatar which appears beside their screen name when they post into Moodle. Since our Moodle was private, I figured educational use of graphics allowed us to choose avatars from one of the many online sites offering them. To my surprise, it worked. Being able to personalize Moodle, even in only that small way, helped many of them connect and they began taking part much more.

Based on that experience, we decided that if time permitted, we would devote a short amount of one class period to creating avatars. If time didn't permit, they would go without.

Our first thought was to use Kerpoof since they have a kid-friendly avatar creator. Unfortunately, you have to create an account to make an avatar.

Our next idea was to create them in Kidpix. This had a few advantages. First, we have it and the kids know how to use it. Second, our students adore using it, but we haven't had much call to use it this year. Third, self-created images are free of royalty complications. Finally, it is difficult to create photo-realistic type of drawings in Kidpix so there is no danger of making the avatar too realistic if the child decided to do a self-portrait.

Here's how we did it. First we modeled using the rectangle tool to create a square, since so many programs crop avatars to a square shape. Then me modeled making our drawing be large, fill the square. I showed them an avatar still in Kidpix, then how it looked after it was in Voicethread so they could see how much the image would shrink. Finally, I showed them how to export their avatar as a JPEG file to their My Documents folder rather than to the network location that the network version of KidPix uses by default. Then they went to work.

I was impressed by the creativity the students showed. I had expected that they would make representational art, and some did, everything from sporting equipment to animals to cartoon-like portraits. However, Kidpix has so many tools that many kids created abstract images and were pleased with their final product.

I have a number of classes working on Voicethread projects but most aren't to the point of adding their avatars yet. However, my colleague is ahead of me on it and already he is seeing that the avatars are once again proving powerful, helping the students feel connected to the activity. They also make viewing the Voicethread feel more personal for the viewer.

Do your elementary-aged students have avatars for their online school identity? Did they make them themselves or use ready made avatars? Do you think the avatars are worth the effort?

For an insightful article regarding bloggers and the reasons for having an avatar, check out Sue Waters' recent blog post, Is Your Photo Avatar Making You Look OLD?.