Self-Made: Introducing Avatars in the Online Law Classroom (Part Three)

By: Joy Kanwar and Kim D. Ricardo

This is the final installment in our three-part series on avatars in the classroom. In Part I, we introduced the avatar framework.  In Part II, we encouraged faculty to use avatars early in the semester to create an inclusive classroom culture, and to eventually help students build toward professional identity. Here, we provide specific details for when and how to create avatars for these purposes.

Law School Avatarification

 Although our ideas are new in a law school context, scholars in other disciplines have found it useful to consider the avatar as an extension or an agent of the individual in virtual spaces.  One study coined “avatarification” in the undergraduate classroom as the “utilization of virtual self-representations within a mediated environment in order to facilitate interactions in that environment.”  Avatars can assist in making the online classroom a space where students can express multiple, overlapping identities (or intersectional identities) and form part of a community.  As discussed in Part II, avatars allow for students to not only express the qualities of their current selves, but also as their aspirational or evolving lawyer-advocate selves.

When to Use an Avatar: 

 Avatars can “stand in” for their student counterparts:

  1. During orientation.
  2. On the first day or week of the semester, to help students introduce themselves to others.
  3. As a continual—and, if students choose, changing—feature of exercises in the classroom.
  4. To help students get ready for a big transformative moment, such as a first interview, memo, persuasive brief, or oral argument.

To determine the best and most useful application of the avatar in your class, consider two things: (1) What is your purpose for engaging a representation of the self, and (2) What do you want your students to take away from the experience?  It helps to have your own course objectives in mind, as well as how you plan to design your semester.

We will go over two different purposes – current identity expression and future identity expression.  We also provide examples of employing effective avatars for each scenario.  Let’s start off with the most basic question:  how does one create an avatar in the first place?

Creating Avatars: Simple to Complex

Creating an avatar is easy, often free, and can be done in a number of forms.  First, creating an avatar does not technically require it to be created online.  Since the most basic definition of an avatar is a representation of self, your students could simply find an image that they think represents their current selves.  This could be a photo, an image of an idol, or some kind of other-self with whom they identify.  Here is one student’s submission:

 

Alternatively, students can create a version of themselves by creating a lookalike emoji, BitMoji, Zmoji, Facebook, or Google avatar, choosing from a set of pre-existing or partially-customizable avatars.  These are widely available free online and as apps.  Here is the same student as a variety of lookalike avatars.

Finally, the most complex use of avatars involves creating virtual landscapes and scenes in which a custom-made avatar can interact with others, such as in Second Life, VRChat, or Nintendo’s Animal Crossing.  This last option is the most time-consuming and costly version because the “world-building” aspect requires significant investment in virtual real estate (as in Second Life, although avatar creation itself is free) or else requires investment in the platform itself (e.g., video game console).

Any of these options can serve the two purposes we outline below.

A Starter Avatar:  Identifying A Current Self and Getting to Know Each Other

When used early in the semester, the purpose for engaging avatars is for students to have another way to identify themselves as well as to “break the ice.”  Creating and using the avatar is meant to allow students to express their identities on multiple levels.  Early in the semester is when students are the most likely to be open to engagement, and it is also the point at which they will need steady guidance from their professor.

Among the ways that a professor can engage an avatar in this context is to ask the students to post an image that starts a conversation about how the students currently see themselves.  This can be as simple as asking the students to create a BitMoji and to answer a set of questions or to write an open-ended short essay about their choices.  Importantly, the representations then become part of a shared story within the class, allowing each participant to discuss the aspects of themselves that they wish to foreground.  What does the student want to convey if their avatar is, for example: standing atop a mountain, wearing a sports jersey, surrounded by family members, holding up a protest sign, posing in a powerful yoga stance, or represented as a superhero?  Students immediately begin to engage with each other’s avatars on a number of levels.  We believe that this activity can build a classroom community that is conscious of its multifaceted participants and is stronger because of it.

Professors have wide latitude in formulating avatar design guidelines, a process which can even include collaborating with the students themselves.  As a sample, below we share a prompt that allows for reflection and conversation in the classroom.  Choose one of the suggestions, all, or create your own!

 Sample Avatar Design Suggestions and Guidelines 

  • Your avatar is the image that your colleagues will see each time you interact in [Blackboard/TWEN/Canvas] and it will be the image that remains as a placeholder even when you are not actively present. In constructing your avatar, consider what the image you select will communicate about yourself to your peers.
  • Identify yourself. What is your name?  What are your pronouns?
  • Write a short bio. Take up to three sentences (no more than 100 words) to describe yourself.  Tell us what makes you unique or special.
  • If you have chosen a pre-existing image for your avatar, in what ways is that person the same or different from you?
    • Is your avatar’s appearance, including build, skin tone, and hair, similar to yours?
    • Does your avatar have any other identifying characteristics (clothing, makeup, tattoos, glasses, etc.)? Are those similar to your real self?
    • Does your avatar identify with any culture(s)?
    • What language(s) does your avatar speak?
    • Where did your avatar go to high school?
    • Does your avatar observe a religion?
    • What does your avatar do to relax?
    • What kind of phone does your avatar use?
    • How does your avatar perform gender?
    • If your avatar wore a graphic tee, what would it say?
    • What values does your avatar hold and how does your avatar demonstrate and act on them?
  • If you are constructing an avatar on your own, consider the questions above. Your avatar does not have to be a mirror image of yourself, but I want you to consider what qualities and attributes you want to convey in making your design choices.

A Later Avatar:  Creating the Evolving Self 

A second purpose for using a classroom avatar is to allow students to create a self that evolves to take on “future attributes” to help guide professional identity.  The professor is trying to help students identify characteristics that are important to being a good lawyer.  This use can be used later in the semester, especially when students are about to undertake a new lawyering skill, like interviewing a client, reporting to a supervisor, or standing up for oral argument.  Here, too, there are a number of ways that avatars can come into play:  (1) ask students to create lawyer selfies of their future selves, (2) write essays about heroes, either fictional or real, who they think of as advocates and who inspire them, and (3) talk about qualities and attributes—even disembodied—that they want to layer on top of their real selves and discuss why.

 Sample Avatar Design Suggestions and Guidelines

  • Your avatar is the image that you choose to stand in for the qualities that you wish to develop as a lawyer.
  • Write a short blurb. Take up to three sentences (no more than 100 words) to describe what qualities you believe are the most important for a lawyer, and why you identify this avatar as embodying those qualities.
  • In what ways is that person the same or different from you? Why does this avatar inspire you in particular?

As described in Part I, Joy had asked her class to choose avatars to inspire them before virtual oral arguments this spring.  After writing essays about their avatars, the students reported that they felt “different” and better prepared to envision themselves as advocates during their oral arguments.  Many of the students chose real people, but many also chose fictional characters like superheroes who embodied qualities like, “belief in justice” (Wonder Woman), “intuition” (Nightcrawler), “fierceness and loyalty” (Okoye from Black Panther), and “standing up for others” (Superman).  Their self-chosen avatar selves are depicted here, images created by the artist Saitastudio.

Conclusion

This historic moment presents both challenges and opportunities.  Using avatars can address urgent issues facing law schools in the fall but will have lasting relevance to students and new lawyers even after in-person classes resume.

We are working on an article-length version of these blog posts, addressing these concepts as well as other professional development uses for the avatar.  We appreciate all comments and questions!  You can reach us at:

Joy Kanwar, Brooklyn Law School; [email protected]; @KanwarJoy

Kim D. Ricardo, UIC Law (Chicago); [email protected]; @LaProfeRicardo

 

How do you foster the development of professional identity? Share your good ideas with TeachLawBetter.com, and we might just post them!

 

 

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