Talking to avatars makes it real

19th September 2008 at 01:00
Using computer games technology to create a simulated world, young people can now find out more about work experience and what kinds of jobs they might pursue. Douglas Blane reports

Point a camera at people for the first time and nervous smiles and stumbling speech are inevitable. But there is no trace of repetition, hesitation or deviation on a new Learning and Teaching Scotland resource, in which ordinary people talk confidently and engagingly about their jobs.

"I took it upon myself to approach the owners of a local company, did some project work for them and ended up as their marketing manager," says one young lad, dressed casually in combat jacket and jeans.

"We have another marketing manager in a different virtual world who is very smartly dressed," says Gayle Monteith, LTS project manager. "So what you wear, how you project yourself, depends very much on the company you want to work for."

Virtual Work Experience was the brainchild originally of Careers Scotland Highlands and Islands, where real work experience might be a hundred miles distant from the young people interested in it.

But using computer games technology to create an appealing interface - a simulated world - through which film-clips of real people are accessed had such obvious merits that LTS has now developed the concept, and will launch Virtual Work Experience at the Scottish Learning Festival as a national resource.

"It's not just geography that makes jobs hard to access," says Alistair Cairns, assessment, achievement and national qualifications team leader. "Take NHS trauma. Young people wouldn't normally get the chance of work experience there, no matter where they lived."

The new resource also raises the profile of "invisible" careers. "Young people often don't realise the range of jobs - management, human relations, accountancy, and so on - that exist in most sectors."

The overall aim is to provide enjoyable, in-depth information from real people on a variety of work and workplaces, says Ms Monteith. "Around the virtual worlds we have 72 active avatars, from apprentices right up to director level. These are people they would meet out on real work experience.

"We also have people demonstrating practical aspects of the jobs - from changing a headlight bulb on a bus to taking blood from a patient's arm. That kind of instructional footage has proved very popular during the trials."

The new resource is not intended as a substitute for real work experience but is a "valuable additional resource for young people and the adults who advise them".

Schools in half-a-dozen authorities have been trialling Virtual Work Experience and further evaluation is planned, says Mr Cairns. "We want to see how well young people engage with it - both in the classroom and at home with their parents.

"A lot of this is about skills in the broadest sense, so an interesting question is whether talking with avatars can help them engage with real people."

One important lesson users will take away is the need for creativity and persistence in getting a job in the first place, says Mr Cairns.

"Another is provided by the people who talk about training on the job. That demonstrates that you can keep on improving your skills and qualifications, no matter what work you do."


Virtual Work Experience by Ian Carse, Careers Scotland, September 25, 9.30am, followed by opportunities to try the new resource at the Education Village.

Work experience

Virtual work experience comprises six sectors: NHS trauma, passenger transport, food and drink production, contact centre, retail, and hair and beauty. Each simulated workplace has "nodes" - retail, for instance, has office, warehouse and department store. Nodes are inhabited by avatars who, when prompted, talk about their job and how they got it. Virtual Work Experience is browser-based, making it accessible from school or home. Besides the 3D virtual worlds, information and resources are available for adults through a conventional, non-gaming interface.

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