Learning in Three Dimensions: Avatars and Authentic Writing in the Social Studies

Julie A. Taylor, Danielle DeFauw, Glovetta Williams, and Matthew Hundley University of Michigan-Dearborn
Douglass Academy for Young Men, Detroit MI

Three-dimensional technologies are proliferating, yet their use in authentic writing and social studies education has not been explored fully.  The Smithsonian Digitization Office increasingly offers digital assets, including life masks and sculptures, to educators and students as downloads.  Visitors may view objects multi-dimensionally and in high resolution online.  In 2014, Barack Obama became the first United States president to sit for a 3D portrait.  He was scanned by imaging specialists from the Smithsonian and the University of Southern California (Fawcett, 2014).  Inspired by these developments, this action-research study examines the use of technologies to create realistic, 3D student avatars in writing projects.  Avatar is a Sanskrit word that means the physical embodiment of a deity (Ballin, Lawson, Lumkin, & Osborne, 2002; Graber & Graber, 2011).  In its most common usage today, the term refers to virtual representations of users of interfaces (Blais & Ippolito, 2006; Graber & Graber, 2011; Liao, 2008).  The graphical illustrations may be two- or three-dimensional (Berdic, Dragan, Mihic, & Anisic, 2017).

The theoretical framework of this study is rooted in deeper learning, a constructivist approach to teaching and learning in which the cultivation of transferable skills, critical thinking, and creativity are emphasized (Bellanca, 2015; Martinez & McGrath, 2014; Zhao, 2015).  Through deeper learning, students develop academic mindsets as they engage in relevant projects.  In this study, the authors’ research questions were a) would the creation of realistic avatars, based on 3D scans, increase levels of student interest?  If so, why?; b) How does three dimensionality enrich the learning experience?; c) Would students perceive the inclusion of personal avatars with writing assignments as enhancements to communication?  If so, why?; and d) What are students’ views of avatar technologies in the social studies?

 With its emphasis on the expression of students’ views of social and political issues and autobiographical writing, the project supported civics standards in the College, Career, and Civic (C3) Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards, namely on the application of civic virtues and democratic principles when working with others and the evaluation of social and political systems (National Council for the Social Studies, 2013).  Standards in history education were also addressed; students considered scanned, three-dimensional artifacts as historic evidence.  Additionally, the project addressed Common Core State Standards for English language arts (ELA).  Students were afforded opportunities to write, integrate visual literacy components, listen and speak collaboratively, and develop visual literacy skills using different media (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010).  Concerted efforts to connect social studies and ELA support secondary students’ instructional needs (Kern & Bean, 2018).

The School and the Students

            The students, who participated in this action-research project as part of an enrichment program, attended an all-male school in Detroit, Michigan.  With emphases on alternative and special education, the Title I, public school serves middle and high school students.  All 18 high school students, who participated in the IRB-approved study in 2018, were African American.  Each year since 2012, students have studied different social, historical, and cultural topics.  They have also explored emerging technologies. 

The Avatar Project

              Inspired by the creation of a 3D portrait of President Barack Obama by the Smithsonian’s Digitization Office, the authors acquired a 3D printer, and they invited the developer of a scanning app for the iPhone and the chief executive officer of TRNIO, Jan-Michael Tressler, to share his knowledge of 3D technologies at the school.  In preparation for a two-day workshop by Tressler, the students considered current applications of 3D technologies.  They also viewed and discussed the Smithsonian’s video, The President, in 3D, on the creation of Obama’s portrait.  

This project provided students an opportunity to develop digital literacies in an environment that fostered motivation (Kern & Bean, 2018).  Advancing students’ writing skills was a key objective; students created hybrid texts to narrate and inform through writing as well as 3D images (Bintz & Ciecierski, 2017).  Asked to imagine that their avatars would be displayed in a national museum, the students reflected on current social, political, and economic issues, and they considered what they wanted to tell the public.  On Google Slides or Google Sites, each student wrote an autobiographical statement to accompany his avatar in which he responded to the following questions: a) What is your first name?; b) How old are you?; c) In what grade are you?; d) What is your favorite subject in high school?; e) How do you spend your free time?; f) Of what are you the most proud?; g) Who has had the biggest influence on your life?  Why?; h) What current political, social, and/or economic issues concern you the most?  Explain; i) What issues in the local community concern you the most?; j) What does your future hold?; and k) What else would you like to tell people?

            During the workshop, Tressler engaged students in an exploration of 3D technologies in an interactive format.  He showed images of scanned objects and people as well as design features.  Tressler taught the students how to download and use the TRNIO scanning app.  With parental permission, they used iPhones to scan one another in order to generate avatars.  Each young student had the option of adding facial expressions.  To protect the students’ privacy, all files were deleted from the TRNIO server.  No avatars were published on the Internet. 

Tressler engaged in spontaneous discussions with students about the use of avatars in video games and films.  He spoke about developments in avatar technologies that are forthcoming.  In the near future, realistic avatars, generated rapidly with handheld devices, will speak and emote.  Users will choose appropriate environments for their avatars, including historic settings.  Students will engage in virtual travels in time and space.  

Figure 1:  Student (right) explored 3D technologies with Tressler (left).

The authors worked with student volunteers to demonstrate 3D printing by an Ultimaker II.  Because the digitization of the Lincoln Life Mask had inspired the staff at the Smithsonian to approach Obama about a 3D portrait, a STL file of the Lincoln Life Mask was downloaded and printed using PLA filament, which is nontoxic and biodegradable.  At the time of the project, the 3D file of Obama had not been released to the public. 

Research Methods

Action research is a participative, systematic approach to understanding the process of learning (Efron & Ravid, 2013; Mertler, 2014).  Because mixed-methods approaches to research offer insights into multi-faceted questions, they were adopted by the researchers (Teddlie & Tashakkori, 2009).  Mixed methods strengthen inferences and cull diverse views (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011; Teddlie & Tashakkori, 2009).  Jennifer Greene (2007) wrote, “…a mixed methods study seeks broader, deeper, and more comprehensive social understandings by using methods that tap into different facets or dimensions of the same complex phenomenon…results from the different methods serve to elaborate, enhance, deepen, and broaden the overall interpretations and inferences from the study” (p. 101).

            The researchers created an eight-item survey, with an embedded design, for distribution in hard copy upon completion of the project.  The survey included four Likert-scale items.  The students indicated the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with these statements: a) Creating a realistic avatar increased my interest; b) Including an avatar with my statement made the communication more powerful; c) I would like to use realistic avatars in my social studies classes; and d) Avatar technologies should be explored in schools.  After each item, the students were asked to explain their responses. 

The survey had two fixed-choice questions to assess students’ familiarity with video games and avatars: a) Do you play video games? and b) Before this project, had you ever seen avatars in video games or movies?  The students had the option of responding “yes” or “no.”  The final two items on the survey were open ended.  To gain understanding of the participants’ views of 3D-printed portraits and avatars, they were asked to write responses to these questions: What do you think about having 3D printed portraits of yourself and others in museums, homes, and other places? and What additional comments about avatars and/or 3D printing do you have?

Fifteen of the 18 (83.33%) students completed the optional and anonymous surveys.  For the calculation of percentages, the authors manually entered the data into the cloud-based site, Survey Monkey.  They prepared graphs with the graphing tool of the National Center for Education Statistics.  In addition to reading the students’ comments multiple times, the researchers repeatedly reviewed the students’ autobiographical statements. 

On avatar technologies, they conducted a semi-structured interview with Tressler.  This action-research project was noncommercial and autonomous; it was not sponsored by TRNIO. 

Findings

  The students recognized the impact of having strong likenesses with their written communication.  They had the option of adding some facial expressions to their avatars.  Over 86% of the students strongly agreed (60%) or agreed (26.67%) that including avatars with their statements had made the communication more powerful.  Two students (13.33%) disagreed.  The following comments were representative:

With 3D scanning, faithful and compelling portraits can be rendered.  The strongest finding in this study was that all students either strongly agreed (66.67%) or agreed (33.33%) that creating a realistic avatar had increased their interest.  As was the Smithsonian’s 3D Obama portrait, the students’ avatars were based on data.

  • I really think the avatar is cool because it’s a mixture of science and history.
  • Realistic avatars show how people feel.
  • The avatar increased my interest because my creative skills came out.
  • It made it more powerful because it was like I was actually there saying everything.
  •  (The avatar) added a lot of extra information.
  • People will think it’s true.
Figure 2.  Including an avatar with my statement made the communication more powerful.
Figure 3.  Avatar technologies should be explored in schools.

The majority of the students (73.33%) indicated that they would like to use realistic avatars in their social studies classes.  Sixty percent strongly agreed, 13.33% agreed, 20% were neutral, and 6.67% disagreed.  They commented on how avatars draw attention, bring things to life, and serve as strong visuals.  With the statement, “Avatar technologies should be explored in schools,” 93.33% strongly agreed (53.33%) or agreed (40%).  One student (6.67%) was neutral.  Students wrote the following comments:

  • It’s an interesting, fun way to learn.
  • It would make kids more involved and interested.
  • …kids would learn better.

 Media consumption by children and teens in the United States has been steadily increasing due to the ubiquity of mobile devices (Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010; Katz, Felix, & Gubernick, 2014).  Over 93% of the students, who participated in this action-research study, indicated that they played video games.  Eighty percent had seen avatars in video games or movies before the project.  Self-reports by adolescents suggest that playing strategic video games may improve problem-solving skills (Adachi & Willoughby, 2013).  Virtual spaces are integral to the lives of teens and young adults today.  In the manifesto, We, the Web Kids, Polish writer, Piotr Czerski (2012), wrote, “The Internet to us is not something external to reality but a part of it: an invisible yet constantly present layer intertwined with the physical environment.  We do not use the Internet; we live on the Internet and along it” (para. 1).

The Smithsonian transferred Barack Obama’s portrait to the National Portrait Gallery, where it was placed on display.  On the survey, the students wrote about the prospect of having printed, 3D portraits of themselves and others in museums, homes, and other places.  They expressed an interest in viewing such portraits, and they commented on the value of having a legacy.  When asked to share comments about the avatar project, students used adjectives such as “fun,” “cool,” “great,” “interesting,” “fantastic,” and “rich.”  One young man stated that he would be interested in the development of 3D technologies as a career.  During the project, other students conveyed similar goals verbally to the authors.   

On Google Slides and Google Sites, the students wrote autobiographical statements to accompany avatars.  They communicated concerns about social, economic, and political issues.  Global warming, pollution, and racism were the dominant issues.  “We create factories, cars, and plastics that pollute the earth.  I think that if we keep doing what we’re currently doing, we might make the earth unsafe for future generations,” stated a student.

Writing around the time of President Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-Un of North Korea, the students also expressed worry about the potential outbreak of war.  “The current political issue that scares me the most is the issue with us and North Korea,” wrote one student.  Of local community issues, crime and littering were primary.  “The issue in the local community that concerns me the most is the crime rate because it moves people out of the neighborhood, which brings down the population,” wrote one young man.  “I want the crime to go down in my city so that we don’t have to be worried…when we are outside,” stated another.

When asked about the future, the students described aspirations such as attending college, becoming entrepreneurs, entering skilled trades, and starting families.  In response to the prompt, “What else would you like to tell people?”, the majority of students offered forward-looking and encouraging messages.  “I would like to tell people to spread positivity and help us create a better community,” wrote one young man.  “What I want to tell people is that you should take your education seriously because it is the best way to become successful later in your life,” stated another.  “I would like to tell people to keep strong,” wrote a third.

Discussion

In video games and films and as icons on social media sites and blogs, avatars are pervasive.  Because they exist in artificial space, they challenge notions of embodiment (Leaver, 2012).  Self-avatars increase users’ sense of presence in virtual environments (Wolfendale, 2007).  Although they may intentionally alter phenotypic characteristics (Graber & Graber, 2011; Villani, Gatti, Triberti, Confalonieri, & Riva, 2016) when designing avatars, people often integrate aspects of their identities (Carruth & Hill, 2015).  Businesses, libraries, and universities have piloted programs in virtual worlds, such as Second Life, though the platform does not lend itself for use by K-12 students presently (Mon, 2012; Schultz, 2010).  With templates, users of Second Life customize avatars, cultivate social relationships, own land, and engage in business transactions (Schechtman, 2012).  With over 600,000 regular users, Second Life offers avatar-mediated communication (Koda, Ishida, Rehm, & André, 2009).  Often imaginative, avatars in Second Life may be viewed as a form of new media art (Liao, 2008). 

With facial expressions and gestures, empathic avatars, referred to as animated pedagogical agents, have been used in computer-aided learning programs to motivate students to continue working (Chen, Lee, Wang, Chao, Li, & Lee, 2012).  In affective computing or artificial emotional intelligence, computer scientists and cognitive psychologists study the recognition and simulation of emotions by computers and devices.  Interpretations of the facial expressions of avatars vary by culture (Koda, Ishida, Rehm, & André, 2009).  Affective computing has implications for education, neuroscience, medicine, and other fields (Calvo, D’Mello, Gratch, & Kappas, 2015; Powell, Garner, Tonks, & Lee, 2017). 

Three-dimensional models of people and artifacts in the collections of the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, and other institutions advance historical knowledge.  Internationally, 3D imaging is being used to capture threatened objects and sites; the Institute for Digital Archaeology is currently collaborating with UNESCO.  Evaluating sources and using evidence is the critical third dimension of the inquiry arc in the social studies (National Council for the Social Studies, 2013).  Lévesque (2008), wrote, “The intellectual ability to collect, process, analyze, and cross-reference evidence is crucial to an informed citizenry” (p. 115).

Figure 4: A student selected facial expressions for his avatar.

What is unique about the TRNIO app is its nearly instantaneous generation of three-dimensional, realistic likenesses with handheld devices.  In a photogrammetric process, between 10 and 70 pictures of each subject are taken.  The pictures are then digitally meshed together.  Blender and SketchUp Make software can be used to model 3D images; both are user-friendly and free.  It should be noted that the TRNIO app is still under development.  Several scans had to be redone during the project.  In his interview, Tressler stated that TRNIO is currently developing a web-based platform for classroom use.

Because 3D scanning renders images of high fidelity, a 3D video file offers a record of the subject at a particular point in time.  The use of realistic avatars is in alignment with goals for the study of history as students consider people in time and space (Drake & Nelson, 2005).  In creating realistic avatars, the students, who participated in the project, left “traces” of themselves (Seixas & Morton, 2013, pp. 50-51).  When they critiqued real, contemporary issues, they engaged in democratic education (Beyer, 1996).  In their statements, the students took identificatory and analytical stances as they weighed the history of the present (Barton & Levstik, 2004).  As embodiments of people within virtual environments, avatars enhance expression.  Lifelike representations may increase the persuasiveness and effectiveness of communication (Schultz, 2010).  With high degrees of representational fidelity, the avatars afford authenticity, increase ways of knowing, and amplify individuals’ voices.  The majority of the students in the study felt that the inclusion of the avatars had made their statements more powerful.  The likenesses offered vitality, realism, and agency.  They enhanced performative value. 

Projects that respect students’ voices increase their interest in exploring content (Hidi & Renninger, 2006).  Writers use voice to speak to and connect emotionally with audiences (Fletcher, 2006).  Writers are motivated to write to authentic audiences, which may be themselves (Murray, 1982) or authentic or fictionalized readers (Ede & Lunsford, 1984; Ong, 1975; Steinbeck, 1975).  Expanding the audience beyond the classroom increases the authenticity of a task (Duke, Purcell-Gates, Hall, & Tower, 2006) and creates more interest (Hidi & Harackiewicz, 2000).  In the avatar project, students created authentic, hybrid texts as they communicated through writing and three-dimensional representations (Bintz & Ciecierski, 2017).  

Implications

 Inquiry design and technological exploration are pedagogically synergistic (Magana, 2017).  Students are motivated to use technology and to create media (Unrath & Mudd, 2011).  To support learning, openness to new literacies (Kern & Bean, 2018; Kist, 2012), including screen-based texts, is vital.  Reflecting on today’s youth, Unrath and Mudd (2011) stated, “[They] are increasingly multi-modal, alternatively literate and technologically driven.  Their world demands the ability to think critically, create and re-create, and combine and recombine multiple sources to produce something new” (p. 10).

Figure 5: Inspired by the project, a student conducted research on 3D printing.

As 3D technologies develop, avatars and 3D prints will combine representational fidelity with customization.  TRNIO is currently working with artists on garments and hairstyles for avatars.  Other software developers are designing sketch interfaces to enable users to draw personalized garments on avatars (Yu, Qin, Sun, & Wright, 2012).  In the future, students will be able to place their avatars in diverse, including historic, digital settings.  Such visual landscapes will offer “imaginative entry” into the past (Levstik & Barton, 2001, p. 78).  Potentially, avatars could be used to increase students’ telepresence in virtual, educational contexts. 

Conclusion

            The exploration of 3D technologies engages students in deeper learning while advancing educational objectives in the social studies and English language arts.  Three-dimensional images are records of people and objects at specific points in time.  The realism of scanned portraits increases agency and credibility.  Students perceive the inclusion of personal avatars with written statements as enhancements to communication.  Though still in the early stages of development, technologies for the creation of realistic avatars in classroom settings are promising.  This study suggests that 3D technologies have the potential to build upon and generate students’ interests and skills.

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