Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Voki: can avatars help foster language learning?

In the coming few posts, I will be reviewing a number of tools and technologies and attempt to evaluate their suitability for language learning purposes. In so doing, I'll each time be examining the following questions:

1) What is the relevance of this particular tool or technology to language learning? What methodological approaches or research underpin its use?

2) How might it be used to foster language learning? (I shall consider this question both in relation to younger learners, and with adult education, my principal background, in mind)

3) What limitations might there be with the use of the technology?

The first tool I'd like to evaluate today is Voki, a service that enables users to create their own speaking avatars (icons or figures representing a particular person or "alter ego" in a computer game, Internet forum, etc), often for free. Here is a character I created a little earlier: you can find out what he has to say by pressing "Play".

Russell Stannard provides a useful tutorial on how to get started with Voki at It's not too difficult to handle once you know how, and you can be almost certain that younger learners will be up-and-running with it very quickly!

In terms of its potential to assist language learning, I'm inclined to say the following:

1) Relevance and rationale
Actually, avatars have been with us for a while now, thanks to online games such as Second Life. Writers such as Prensky (2003, cited by Jarman 2008) have argued that "digital native" learners find interacting in 3-D virtual worlds highly motivating. 

Voki perhaps offers more limited affordances, but studies have certainly suggested that the presence of avatars enhances engagement and learning beyond computer-mediated communication without such agents (Atkinson et al., 2005; Moreno et al., 2001: all cited by Jarman 2008). 

If there is a pedagogical case to be made for Voki, it would surely be one based on its capacity to motivate learners to communicate and interact.

2) Avatars as an aid to language learning
Speaking as a language teacher, the use of an avatar as a vehicle for student expression appears to offer a number of possible pedagogical advantages, chiefly where younger learners are concerned.

Firstly, there are unlikely to be any "face" issues if the avatar is speaking, and not a shy or inhibited learner! It may also serve to "level the playing field" in a class containing both extroverts and introverts.

Second, avatar utterances may be planned in advance and what's more, extended. The characters can be used as a vehicle for monologue, storytelling, argument, and much more.  All of this encourages learners to be more courageous, say more, and utilize more of their emergent language.

Third, if students record their own voices rather than type what's to be said, they can play recordings back to themselves and practise their delivery in a safe, unthreatening way. This may help alleviate "language anxiety" for some learners.

Last but not least, it is likely that young learners will want to "play" with their avatars, e-mailing them to each other and so forth. That's a good thing if it makes students want to communicate in English more, but one should first make sure that everyone understands that cyber-bullying isn't acceptable.

A number of interesting lesson plans exploiting Voki can be found online. Here are a few I've found:

3) Possible limitations
From an adult education vantage point, Voki's advantages seem rather more limited as avatars are by their very nature inauthentic. One could get an avatar to advertise a product, for example, but wouldn't it be better to record the learners themselves?

Similar considerations apply in the case of Second Life, too. The trend I've observed is in my limited time as a teacher in higher education is instead one towards authentic communication between students from institutions in different countries, using a combination of synchronous and asynchronous tools such as Facebook and Skype. Authenticity has high face validity in business education, and it's clearly felt that students need to learn how to communicate this way in order to keep up-to-date.

Overall, it seems Voki has promise, but chiefly with younger learners. Even then I'd suggest it shouldn't be overused as there's a danger of the novelty wearing off. However, if used as a stepping stone towards learners recording videos of themselves, it might work especially well.

So that's my take on Voki. Have you used the tool with your learners? Or would you be tempted to give it a try? I'd be interested to know what you think.

Jarman, L. (2008). "Pedagogy and Learning in the Virtual World of Second Life" in Rogers, Berg, G., Boettcher, J., Howard, C., Justice, L., Schenk, K. (eds.) Encyclopedia of Online and Distance Learning, 2nd edition.


  1. I use it with young learners in 1-2-1 lessons. Most of my students take private lessons because they struggle with English at school. My main task (sadly) is to help them improve their test scores. Their test scores are poor because of spelling and the fact that they make no sense of English at all. Somehow they think it is only another subject.
    They just love creating their avatars (which seems pretty time consuming if they can't make up their minds), it's authentic, they actually meet the words 'eyes' and 'mouth' in real life.
    Schools don’t teach phonics, so I find the text-to-speech feature very useful, they understand the importance of spelling, misspelt words are also mispronounced and it helps them with the spelling-pronunciation puzzle somehow. (I hope.)
    Before a certain age it's also very motivating.
    Making parents understand why we make the funny speaking figures is the tougher part though:)
    I wish there would be an easy to use mobile app.

  2. Thanks for a very informative comment, Barbara! I can see that Voki could be very helpful in situations such as those you describe…ICT can certainly be a way to increase students' willingness to communicate and the amount of practice they do.

  3. Great blog, Philip and thanks for sharing it in my Facebook group. Am just in the middle of editing and updating a very old blog post on voice tools like Voki and this was a good inspiration, Here is the link if interested

    Xtranormal, one of my fave tools died an unexpected death in 2013 and so I will redo this post soon



  4. Marisa, thank you very much for dropping by! I have only recently reviewed all of my previous posts, but am very grateful for the link you've shared: there's some very detailed analysis there!

    I think voice tools and other apps such as Fotobabble have a place in ELT, and can get shyer young learners talking - are you using these in Athens currently?

    Thanks once again for commenting, anyhow!