Paid Actors vs. Animated Characters: Which is Better for eLearning Courses?

July 9, 2012

This content is a repost of the original guest post on Open Sesame Blog.

Budgets are tight, so companies must find ways to trim expenses. My goal is for businesses to build training courses that operate within their means while still reaching company goals. My research finds the use of animated characters can help businesses achieve their learning objectives while cutting costs.

While the term “animated characters” has a pretty straightforward definition (courtesy of Disney), “paid actors” has a broader meaning. In this case “paid actors” will refer to any face-to-face instructor, including the sales guy who trains other sales reps on-the-job to the monotone professor.

The table below illustrates the effectiveness of animated characters in elearning situations. I’ve outlined four facets of elearning as they apply to paid actors and animated characters: cost, emotional investment of learners, content engagement, and time. The information therein draws from a Stanford case study outlining ten benefits of interactive online characters and a paper by Hewlett Packard about the advent of virtual agents.

Paid Actors vs. Animated Characters

picture of a real doctor
Cost of Live Actors:
High rates for developing small media. Monetary expense is the bottom line where hiring cycles, staffing levels, and training budgets are concerned. Excluding the time to teach company trainers, content is not always consistent (actors’ “artistic interpretation” may present an obstacle).
Cost of Animated Actors:
Comparatively little-to-no cost. Virtual characters aren’t unionized yet, they do exactly what they’re told when they’re told. Content is consistent & correctable. Studio software has a high learning curve with advanced animations but the more you use the software the better you become.
Emotional Distance:
Learners will critique the actors on a personal level (e.g., “Look at her nails!” or “I’ve never seen a doctor look like that.”); therefore, distracted by superficial details instead of content.
Emotional Dissociation:
Learners understand animation isn’t real; there is a sort of forgiveness by the learner for the character’s appearance (see a description of the “uncanny valley” hypothesis).
Distraction (Not Taken Seriously):
Regardless how dry the content, training videos often appear awkward, therefore, forced. Not only is personal appearance criticized, but so is the delivery of the content (think uncomfortable company PSA about workplace harassment).
Engaged with Content:
Because of the emotional dissociation mentioned above, the simulation provides complex replicas of the real world. Interpersonal and intrapersonal engagement with the training’s content is involuntary.
Cost of Time:
When there are changes or edits to complete, sometimes a re-record may be required including rescheduling which involves time consuming activities like booking studios and renting equipment.
Cost of Time:
When there are changes to be made or edits to complete, editing the content is easier in a studio program where you can use the same avatars (or different ones!) saving you considerable time.

The table clearly illustrates that animations are easily manipulated, can enhance already existing content or create an entire course from scratch, and can cost considerably less than paid actors. Animated characters are an excellent option when companies are looking to engage employees with elearning initiatives without spending a considerable amount of money.

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