Sunday, March 15, 2015

New mesh avatars

(Written in September 2014, edited/pictures added March 2015)

The semester has just begun, and I'm pleasantly surprised with the gratitude I've been seeing with students, unsolicited. I get thank yous from students, sometimes at the end of semesters, though, there have been years when such is not expressed.

But this very first week, I've had several online students thank me for the checklists I set up for the weekly work, and for the helpful organization of my Desire2Learn site and with my online assignments. And emails thanking me when I send out reminders.

I'm not saying this hasn't happened before. But it just seems to be taking place more frequently, especially in the first week, than I recall taking place in previous years.

But that's not really what I want to focus on with this entry.

Linden Lab last May introduced new standard avatars that use mesh rather than prims for skins and clothing. Fitted mesh makes the avatars look more realistic than the previous default avatars, which are still available, but labeled "classic."

So, that sounds beneficial for new users, such as students starting a new semester. Yeah, well, not so much.

Here's the problem. They are very difficult to alter. One of the tasks that I have students complete for their orientation is to grab some free stuff at the Virtual Ability Island and try some new clothes or accessories.

Doing so has never been a problem in previous semesters. The instructions Virtual Ability Island display are clear and easy to follow, and the avatars are easily manipulated. Furthermore, I gave them the opportunity during an early scavenger hunt to go grab some free clothes, hair and avatars at the University of Cincinnati Bookstore (which has since disappeared :(.

This semester, though, was problematic. With these new avatars, changing shapes and clothes is very difficult. Students found it near impossible to manipulate their avatar and make it their own.

Now, I'm not having them change their avatars for spurious reasons. Based on my experience, and on research (more later... meanwhile, here's a more casual but interesting blog posting in Scientific American: "My So-Called Second Life: Are You Your Avatar?"), residents who bond with their avatars become more invested in them, connect more fully with them, and thus have a richer experience in world. And for an online class where we meet two hours a week minimum, that's really important. When the class begins to become stressful (and it always does--it is college, mind you!), students who are comfortable in their virtual skin are much more likely to stick it out and use the class meetings to their advantage.

Next semester, I think I'll have everyone grab the classic avatars, until the mesh ones are ready for prime time.

Update: Spring 2015 semester, I did ask students to go classic, and the customization of avatars during orientation went much smoother.

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