These days it’s easy to achieve social learning in fully online environments. Thanks to a wealth of functions available in Canvas, and its associated plug-ins, it’s possible to create opportunities for learners to share their perspectives and model effective responses and learning practices for one another. Achieving this in a completely asynchronous, self-paced short course, which students have up to 6 months to complete, however, poses its own unique but exciting challenges to learning design teams.  

The courses 

Two new short courses ‘Understanding management accounting for non-accountants’ and ‘Understanding financial accounting for non-accountants’ will soon be made available through UTS Open. They were created as part of a co-design partnership between UTS Business School and the Postgraduate Learning Design Team.

Developed from a microcredential in Accounting, our Subject Matter Expert was Monica Axiak (who had facilitated the original course). During the co-design process it became apparent that there were two distinct kinds of learners that would take and benefit from courses in financial and management accounting: small-to-medium business owners and managers.  

Using virtual course mentors 

Knowing that these kinds of learners would come to courses like this with little to no accounting knowledge, we knew it was important for them to feel supported and socially connected, and to be invested in the relevance of the learning to their unique contexts.  

We came up with the idea of creating two fictional course mentors, each representing both types of learner. Research has shown that use of ‘embodied pedagogical agents’ (virtual characters that support learners through online learning) can enhance engagement, improve knowledge construction, learning outcomes and improve learner motivation (Maya,  2009, 2014 as cited in Clark & Mayer, 2016; Grivokostopoulou et al., 2020). The course mentors we created were:    

  • Talisa – the owner of a chain of women-only gyms in the Central Coast
  • Victor – a Sydney-based Lead Project Manager for a publicly-listed insurance company

We loosely based these characters on real learners who’d taken the microcredential – considering the posts that they had contributed to Canvas discussions and in consult with Monica, who’d facilitated live sessions with them. Applying the personalisation principle, we wanted the course mentor characters to come across as polite and friendly (Clark & Mayer, 2016), and provide students with relatable situations to situate their learning within.  

The fictional course mentors provide authentic models of how business professionals without a background in accounting can apply accounting techniques to level up their careers.

Monica Axiak, Accounting Academic at the UTS Business School

Students were introduced to the learners in the ‘Preparing for learning’ page of a ‘Get started’ module aiming to orient learners to the course, expectations and more. 

Mentor perspectives in the learning content always feature directly before comments boxes where students consider how the learning they are about to do will be relevant to their careers. This mentor dialogue aims to serve as a model response that may not be present from other learners, depending on who has previously taken the course / contributed to the discussion. 

Victor explains how budgeting has been useful in his career. After, learners consider how it applies to their careers.

The character narrative is further developed through scenarios in teaching content and formative activities where students apply their learning and receive immediate feedback: 

Applying inclusive design 

Most of the mentor tasks are presented through Genially interactives. To ensure inclusive design for the range of learners that may take the courses, accessible PDF versions were included in every instance. For equity of experience, it was important that the character narrative was represented similarly in either text or visual mediums. To achieve this, a clear image description of the characters was given as well as the dialogue or scenario text:

Talisa is the owner of a chain of women-only gyms. Talisa is black with cropped dark hair and she wears a yellow blouse with white collar. She is looking straight ahead and smiling.

An accessible heading hierarchy was applied to the PDF in consideration of the reuse of images, and to ensure that learners using screen-reading technology could tab past image descriptions provided in previous interactives and skip straight to new content but still have the equitable opportunity of experiencing the description if preferred.  

The results – and future directions 

The use of fictional course mentors has been a fantastic way to create relevancy for the target learners of this course.

Katt Robertson, Short Forms of Learning (SFL) Project Manager, UTS Business School 

At this stage we are eagerly awaiting student feedback from the upcoming first delivery of the courses. Drawing on the early but promising research on embodiment in online learning, I’m already looking forward to experimenting with the use of spoken voice instead of written text, potentially using an AI tool or actors, to represent more human gestures when using characters in future courses. 


Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. john Wiley & sons. 

Grivokostopoulou, F., Kovas, K., & Perikos, I. (2020). The Effectiveness of Embodied Pedagogical Agents and Their Impact on Students Learning in Virtual Worlds. Applied Sciences, 10(5), 1739-. 

Join the discussion