Avatars in Learning

I’m building a course where I want to use avatars as character personas. Each avatar represents a different learner, with a unique background and learning needs. I started to explore using cartoon avatars, which was (quickly) vetoed by our design team, but it was still fun to create amateur cartoon personas in Illustrator. I thought I’d share here what I learned.

Designing Avatars

I began by finding images on Google Search and then pasting them into Adobe Illustrator for inspiration. I used the pen tool to trace images and then updated the features to make it my own. I’ve only traced images in Illustrator a handful of times, so it was a good opportunity to practice.

Here are my first forays with cartoon avatars:

The top image, Caroline, is my most recent approach. I can already see a major difference between Caroline and Amy, at the bottom. (Yes, I named them. I’m not attached, you are.) I still have a lot to learn in Illustrator, but I feel way more confident using some of the tools!

You’ll notice I designed the characters so they appear to be popping out of the circles. Ever since reading Tom Kulhmann’s post on creating 3D pop-outs in PowerPoint, I wanted to try it for myself! I think this technique can make a character more appealing and welcoming. It looks like my characters are almost gesturing for the audience to come into the screen and join them in learning.

My design team suggested that we use photos of people from a recent photo shoot. Then we are going to use special effects in Photoshop so they don’t appear like an image, but rather like a character. I think this approach will work, and it’s aligned with my vision for the course. But I was sort of hopeful I could use these cartoon characters. Maybe next time…

Learning with Avatars

When I think of avatars, I tend to think of the avatars from the 90s: weird looking characters with robotic voices. Not approachable! I think avatars have come a long way since then, but I also recognize that they aren’t going to reach all learners.

I plan to use my avatar characters to guide learners through different learning themes. They aren’t the main part of the course, but rather they help to supplement students’ learning. When students are learning about a specific topic, they are given scenarios about the character and then have to make decisions. I think this can take pressure off the learner to feel like they always have to have the right answer. It can be comforting to make a decision and then see how the character responds to the consequences.

The eLearning Coach wrote a blog post about the value of using characters to create an emotional connection with learners. I think when characters are relatable and still look human, they can make that connection. I find that most characters in Articulate Storyline look a little too cartoon-y (or unapproachable) for my purposes. Instead, using photos of real people or even creating your own characters can have more impact.


Before using avatars or characters, I think it’s important to think about how they’re going to support course content and how students might relate to them.

Just sticking in a character won’t help students process information or create an emotional connection. But when a character is fully developed and has its own personality, students can relate and even connect in a deeper way than had the content just been presented to them!

Digital Badges

It’s the beginning of 2019, it’s my first blog post, and I’m writing about…badges. Why is that a thing?!

Are Badges Making a Comeback?

Last year, I created a digital badge system for a Moodle course. My research began with the Mozilla Open Badge project, where I learned that a single badge can be chock-full of usable data. Open Badge is wonderful if students are collecting badges from different organizations and wish to showcase them on a site like LinkedIn. Actually, LinkedIn has its very own badge system and could be an interesting case study on the success of badges (especially in conjunction with Lynda.com).

For my purposes, Mozilla Open Badge wasn’t necessary. Many learning platforms are developing their own badge systems and ways to display them, which I found to be the case for Moodle. Used within internal systems or courses, I think badges can be highly motivational and informative. It’s no secret that badges reached “oversaturation status,” the last couple years, and it’s unclear how they compare to other types of credentials. But when used intentionally, I do think they can be very helpful wayfinders!

My aim was to develop badges by assigning them to specific competencies and then using them to guide students through a Moodle course. In the past, online students have had difficulty recognizing when they have successfully completed a course. This is in part because a Moodle course can be a grouping of disparate items like lessons, textbooks, images, etc., or it can be a collection of modules that students complete to finish one course. As a student, it can be quite confusing!

We used the badges to help students self-manage their progress throughout the course. Badges signalled the completion of a course section, usually a lesson and quiz combo. After successfully getting a certain number of badges, students knew they had completed the course. They were also aware of the specific competencies they were gaining by receiving the badge. Another important way we used the badges was to align with the operator manual we created. The badges could help motivate and remind students to complete an online section, review the manual, and then proceed to the next section of the online course.

What I learned is that badges must always serve a purpose, otherwise they will be seen as a gimmick, or worse, a distraction. Being transparent about what it means to achieve a badge is crucial to the badge system’s success.

Some might think badges are “been there, done that,” but I would suggest reconsidering. As a learner, seeing a badge can be a gentle reminder you are on track, while adding spontaneity and fun to a course.

Check Out My Badges

I would suggest using a professional tool to create badges; I used Adobe Illustrator. Canva is a fantastic free tool if Adobe products are not an option. When I first developed the badges, I came up with a random colour scheme. I’m not really sure what I was thinking, because badges should be uniform and also adhere to the company’s brand guidelines.

Here is the before:

All 10 badges used the following colour scheme. I am really pleased with the after:

A Helpful Resource

This is the resource I used to create the badge in Illustrator (the orange and red badge template was my inspiration): https://design.tutsplus.com/tutorials/how-to-create-banner-label-and-badge-templates-in-illustrator–cms-19971

Final Thoughts

Most people who saw the badges were impressed by their look and function. Some even suggested they be included in every future online course build. To me, this has the opportunity for overkill. I think it depends on the type of course and whether or not badges can be used to support learning and motivation. Using badges shouldn’t begin the conversation, but be considered an option if and when the time is right.

For Next Time

Here is what I will keep in mind the next time I create a badge system…

  1. Add random badges to the course. Some of the soft skills we teach students are timeliness and productivity. Since these are habit forming, I think it would work well to surprise students with a badge after they handed in an assignment on time/early or spent a concentrated time on a task. This would reinforce positive behaviour and also add an element of curiosity. Perhaps it could be worked out so that when students accumulate a certain number of badges for soft skills, they move to “expert” status.
  2. Create one badge and upload it to Moodle. Check that the badge does not appear cut off, and that the text is easy to read. I made this mistake the first time, so I spent extra time fixing the badge dimensions and text size.

Thanks for reading!