Pace Magazine

Avatars for OASIS

Alyssa Cressotti '08, '18
May 27, 2021
woman looking at an open laptop screen

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“Eighty-five percent of graduates with autism nationally, are not gainfully employed within five years of graduation. Those are scary statistics,” says Jennifer Pankowski, EdD, a clinical assistant professor at Pace’s School of Education. “So, I thought we could use the avatars from the School of Ed to address some of hurdles that our OASIS students are facing.”

Designed for students with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders, learning differences, and nonverbal learning differences, Pace’s Ongoing Academic and Social Instructional Support (OASIS) program is one of the most comprehensive support programs in the country. The support OASIS offers students on the autism spectrum doesn’t stop at the classroom doors—it’s now branching out into the professional world.

“So, I was like, here's a wild idea: Can we try avatars?”

For Pankowski, her research into autism brought to light a pattern for folks on the autism spectrum. “What we were seeing was that they do really well in their coursework, they graduate, they graduate with a high GPA, you know, over 3.0,” she explains. “But they're not getting jobs.”

Through her work with kids and young adults on the autism spectrum, Pankowski knew that sometimes it was easier to connect with a non-intrusive, borderline humanistic situation. That’s where the use of immersive virtual reality avatars comes in.

“I started working with Anthony Martino, the Internship and Career Coordinator for the OASIS Program, who explicitly works with OASIS students. Career Services does a great job at coaching and other programs, but there was a disconnect here,” she says. “So, I was like, here's a wild idea: can we try avatars?”

Pankowski and Martino thought they would give it a try and start with the humanistic VR avatars and then work backwards to face-to-face human interaction, all the while preparing the OASIS students for landing a job after graduation.

“The avatars are basically computer-generated people in a virtual setting—in this case, an office—and they are operated by a real human, miles away,” explains Martino. “So, our students would enter the virtual job interview scenario and do a mock interview with the avatar.”

computer generated man in an office
Meet Bennett, the avatar that greets you before your virtual mock-interview.

The mock-interview scenario is thought out to the very last detail—including being invited by a virtual assistant to wait in a virtual lobby until it’s time to go in to meet their virtual interviewer. The sessions are recorded and shared with the students after so that they can get a better sense of how well they did or the things that they need to improve for next time.

“Part of being a member of the Pace Community is getting ready for a career, landing an internship,” says Martino. “This is absolutely supporting that mission.”

“We asked the same questions that they asked in their mock interviews on campus, but with an avatar,” says Pankowski. “And all of a sudden, they came alive. Anthony couldn’t believe it.”

For her, it made perfect sense—an avatar is not threatening, it’s not a human who can stand up in front of a student and say, ‘How could you say that?’ The virtual distance created an opportunity for these students to really open up.

“Part of being a member of the Pace Community is getting ready for a career, landing an internship,” says Martino. “This is absolutely supporting that mission.”

In the interview scenarios, students were able to articulate their needs in the workplace. Students explained that they need clear expectations from their employers, expressed the need for straightforward directions and deadlines, and how they sometimes struggle when those instructions aren’t clear.

“The students are even doing things like self-advocating,” explains Pankowski. “They were saying, ‘Hey, I'm an asset to your company. These are the things that I need as an employee. And if you give these little things to me, I can do really well.’”