Animoji in the Classroom

At the end of February, Samsung joined Apple in offering its customers Animoji to play with on its Samsung Galaxy S9. I am far less concerned with the question of who got here first and who does it better (Both had to have been working on it for some time and are offering very different experiences.) than I am interested in the fact that both are now offering it in spite of the tech media’s dismissal of Apple’s offering as a gimmick used to show off its facial scanning technology — the kind of thing you play with the first couple of days then never use again.

Now, I am not saying that I have used Animoji after the first couple of days (I do have plans, however, the send more messages to my daughter once the dragon Animoji arrives.). I will say that I think it is too early to count this technology out — especially in the classroom.

Instead of thinking of Animoji as a fully developed feature, it would be better for us to consider it a proof of concept. 

Our smart phones are now capable of reasonably effective motion capture of the kind that used to require a Hollywood studio. No, our students will not be handing us the kind of things we have seen from Andy Serkis or Benedict Cumberbatch on the big screen any time soon. But if you look at the video clip of Serkis I have linked to here, you may notice that Apple’s Animoji are more finished than the first-pass action capture shown of Gollum. That means the iPhone X can do more than the animation studios of Weta, circa 2012, could. 

That is the level of technology now in our students’ pockets.

I could make some of the usual predictions about how students will use this: Adding animated animals and speakers to their presentations, impersonating their friends and members of the faculty and administration; the usual sets of things. But that is seldom the way technology leaps forward. PowerPoint, for example, was initially developed to replace slides for business presentations, not for (sometimes badly designed) classroom lectures. Now, students arrive at university with a working knowledge of how to use PowerPoint to do a class presentation.

The students who will surprise us with how they can use Animoji are probably in middle school now. And before this sounds too far fetched, my daughter, who starts middle school next year, does not have a favorite television show she comes home to. She does, however, follow several Minecraft shows. Her current favorites include Aphmau and Ryguyrocky and his Daycare series. When Markus Persson created Minecraft, I would guess that needing to program options in for people to make animated shows that were available via streaming was not one of the items on his to-do list.

What is predictable, however, is that the potential inherent in Animoji underlines the importance of wrapping our heads around how we approach multimodal communication. If we limit ourselves to the obvious use case of an Animoji-based presentation — say, the Panda and Dragon informing viewers of Chinese ecology, we are looking at helping students learn how to write copy, capture video from appropriate angles, and present verbally and non-verbally. Currently, those are skills taught in different disciplines (Composition — English, Videography — Film, Public Speaking — Communications and/or Acting — Performing Arts) housed in multiple departments. Beginning to work out the practicalities of these kinds of collaborations (Where will the course be housed? Can we afford to have a course like this team taught by three faculty? If not, where will we be able to find someone who can be credentialed to teach it?) now, rather than when the multimodal presentations start arriving and we are already too late, will offer a competitive advantage to both those graduating with the skills and the schools that can offer training in those skills.

Dr. Matthew M. DeForrest is a Professor of English and the Mott University Professor at Johnson C. Smith University. The observations and opinions he expresses here are his own. You are very welcome to follow him on Twitter and can find his academic profile at