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Online, People Learn Best from Virtual ‘Helpers’ That Resemble Them

Courtesy of Lori Foster Thompson

Turns out looks and personality still count in online learning.

That’s the finding of a study on how people’s perception and performance in online training is affected by the appearance and communication style of online learning “helpers,” or virtual agents that pop up on a screen and guide people through a program.

Some of the earliest uses of such programs have been with younger students. One program used an online helper named Herman to help students identify different types of plants, says the study’s lead author, Tara Behrend, an assistant professor of organizational sciences at George Washington University.  She says online helpers typically serve as coaches or mentors, urging a participant through a program, rather than as an instructor.

Her study, which is forthcoming in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, involved 257 people who encountered different kinds of helpers. They reported being more engaged by online helpers that resembled them—in race and gender—than by ones that did not. Participants also learned more from helpers that measured success the same way they did. Some people judge their performance compared to the rest of a group (top 10 percent, for example), while others judge against their own previous performance (better than the last time). In the study, matching those styles resulted in better learning.

The study findings suggest that organizations using online helpers would  serve learners better by personalizing the appearance and communication style of the helpers to match individual users, Ms. Behrend says.

“It’s important to remember that one size doesn’t fit all,” she says.

Effective helpers can also make the experience more social, says the forthcoming article’s coauthor, Lori Foster Thompson, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University.

“That is one of the issues with online learning, that it can be kind of lonely,” she says. “If these agents are designed well, it can be a way to mitigate that.”

Improving the experience of users is important, she says, because online training programs, such as those used by companies to introduce their employees to new computer programs, often have low completion rates.

A related study by the researchers, whose results are not yet published, indicates that people liked and learned more from online trainers when given the chance to design them. And in yet another study, whose results are also unpublished, the researchers found that the attractiveness of avatars, virtual stand-ins for real people, had an impact on hiring decisions during virtual interviews.

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