AI-generated avatars in education and business ethics: What do students think?

Education, like Business and Management, is being reshaped by artificial intelligence. The introduction of AI-generated avatars marks a significant shift. Our recent study explored this new reality, focusing on the use of AI avatars in teaching business ethics at the postgraduate level.
Published in Education and Business & Management
AI-generated avatars in education and business ethics: What do students think?
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Student Perceptions of AI-Generated Avatars in Teaching Business Ethics: We Might not be Impressed - Postdigital Science and Education

In our postdigital world, unseen algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) underpin most business and educational technologies and systems. Also, the use of educational data to better understand and support teaching and learning is growing in higher education. Other AI technologies such as synthetic media and AI-generated avatars are increasingly used to present video-based content in business and society but are less common in educational content and lectures, as their effectiveness and impact on learning are still being researched and debated. In this study, an AI-generated avatar was implemented in the redesign of business ethics material in a postgraduate course to present videos and online activities and to prompt critical reflection and discussion of the social and ethical implications of algorithms. Using a qualitative research design, we then explored students’ perceptions of teaching and learning with AI-generated avatars. The students interviewed felt AI avatars were suitable, sometimes even preferred, for lecture delivery, with some enhancements. This study contributes insights into the use of AI-generated avatars in education by examining their potential benefits and challenges and generating three key pedagogical principles to consider. Future directions for educational design and research are discussed, particularly the pressing need to engage students creatively and critically with the social and ethical implications of AI avatars.

AI text-to-video creation is already big business for commercial learning and development, particularly for generating training videos. The video process offers efficiencies and is easy to update in multiple languages, without needing human actors, cameras and microphones, or media expertise. Our research considers the ethical implications of using such commercial AI software in educational video.

In focus groups, we asked for students’ perceptions and experiences of AI-generated avatars in a module about business ethics. The transcripts of these discussions were analysed with a systematic inductive research approach to thematic development, as proposed by Gioia et al. (2021).

Student perceptions and experiences

We found that students are immersed in and largely accepting of technology, including AI, and are at times unaware of its use. This trend seems likely to continue as AI avatar technology becomes better at mimicking human gestures and expressions.

Students had mixed reactions towards AI avatars. While some students appreciated the innovative approach, others were less impressed, highlighting the complex and contextual nature of integrating AI into teaching and learning.

On the one hand, students liked the idea of customisable avatars, already popular in gaming. Students suggested avatars could respond to questions and offer personalised learning pathways. Such avatars may also have the potential to engage students more because of their emotional connection, which in online learning environments is sometimes lacking.

The future of AI-generated avatars in education

Our findings suggest a cautious approach towards integrating AI avatars. Students viewed educational videos not just as sources of information but as platforms for social communication. In remote learning scenarios, teachers' video presentations become critical in establishing their presence and building relationships with students.

Video content generated with AI is more engaging when it has a pedagogical purpose and includes human and nonhuman interaction. If learning is just about acquiring knowledge, AI avatars might even be preferred in some contexts. However, students value the human touch, the conversational insights and idiosyncrasies of their human teachers. The future of learning lies in more active participation and a collaborative approach, where AI enhances, rather than replaces, the irreplaceable human elements of teaching.

This research brings us to ethical questions about using AI in education that are yet to be addressed. What types of generated AI content are suited to which contexts? How transparent is it? How to acknowledge the sources of AI-generated content? It is more important than ever that educators ask these ethical questions of AI use, to better shape the learning experiences of today and tomorrow.

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