Lead the change in immersive technologies for learning.

By 22nd January 2019Food for thought
VR headsets on a shelf

I’ve noticed a change of late. Things we’ve spoken about for years are finally getting built. Chatbots, AI driven content and branching ‘serious’ games are no longer the stuff of blog posts or aspirational brainstorms. They’re being created, uploaded and arriving in learners’ inboxes, freshly SCORM wrapped.

The eLearning industry is 20 years old this year and it feels like it’s matured. People aren’t just seeing digital training as a vehicle for pushing out content to a large and dispersed learning population anymore. Instead it’s being looked at as a powerful tool that can help people change their behaviour for the better.

I’ve been working in digital learning design for the last eight years and a lot has changed in that time. Although, it’s also fair to say that a lot has stayed the same. When I started at a large eLearning company back in 2011, there was a real buzz around mobile learning. Something of an arms race soon commenced amongst the big firms to down their Flash tools and produce the first HTML responsive course.

I was lucky enough to work on the first fully responsive course we launched. It was an exciting time, but what had we really achieved? It was old content in a new format. It took a long time for the industry to embrace recommendations on creating separate content designed specifically for mobile consumption.

It wasn’t until six years later, in 2017, that I created my first truly ‘mobile first’ course; primarily designed with mobile use in mind and launched with a proper mobile roll out strategy. But things take time. Best practices need to be defined, conventions need to be written and boundaries need to be pushed before broader adoption can pick up pace.

If we’re not careful, we run the risk of the same thing happening within immersive technologies for learning. We need to define our best-practices now, to avoid missing out on years of innovative and impactful learning experiences. But how do we do that?

For me, there are three key questions we need to answer as an industry, over the next few years to give non-linear, immersive learning experiences the traction they really deserve:

  • When does non-linear become non-learning?

There’s a difference between an experience and a learning experience. Trial and error can be a frustrating and time-consuming process that delivers inconsistent results. Building a learning experience allows us to guide and coach learners through a structured journey to meet a pre-defined goal.

But if we build in too much structure, we’ll miss out on a lot of the real-world authenticity immersive technologies has to offer. Making learning experiences as realistic as possible helps us when it comes to replicating our new skill or behaviour in the real-world. Then again, if there’s too much open-world authenticity, we can quickly lose clarity in our messaging and the whole thing becomes confusing.

To find that balance, we need to draw on our experience of established learning theories as a solid starting point and then gather data on what’s really delivering the most impact. In doing that, we’ll be able to refine our designs in order to achieve that perfect balance.

  • How do we design an experience that’s not telling, not showing, but doing?

Over the years we’ve become very good at designing learning that isn’t just pages of text telling learners what they should do. Drama videos, animations, games and interactive screen types have allowed us to show learners why a subject’s important and what they should be doing differently as a result.

But another new mindset shift is required. Designing interactions that let learners perform desired action is still a relatively new field. There’ll be the temptation to fall into old habits – bad habits – of loading experiences with a lot of up-front exposition.  Sometimes, of course, there’ll be a need for initial explanations before an action can be performed. But we need to self-regulate to make sure we’re taking full advantages of every opportunity to learn by doing.

And it’s not just how we design courses with immersive technologies that needs to be reimagined, it’s also about where that course fits within the overall curriculum. If we don’t take a broader look, we run the risk of just replacing a quiz at the end of traditional eLearning with an immersive experience – swapping one medium for another to little effect.

If we take a step back, we might find that it’s much more valuable to position the immersive experience as the learning content itself; or perhaps an initial diagnostic experience that then signposts learners to a personalised list of courses that meets their individual learning need.

The possibilities are endless. But to really get the full value – and therefore the full return on investment – from immersive learning technologies, we need to take a fresh and holistic look at how we’re designing and deploying the whole learning blend.

  • How do you think outside the box when you don’t really know what the box is?!

Being ambition with the application of a new technology, when we’re still learning the full extent of what it can do is a tough nut to crack. But it’s an important one. If we don’t, we could end up being very literal with the learning we produce.

The use case for VR and AR in fields like health and safety, engineering or healthcare are plain to see. Being able to replicate environments that are costly or dangerous to access brings undeniable benefits.

But the most obvious applications of technology aren’t always the most valuable ones. If we narrow our field of vision too much, we’ll miss out on opportunities to explore the potential of immersive technologies for building empathy, improving human interactions and performing better at creative tasks.

More and more academic research is emerging about the value of VR for developing empathy and improving soft skills. Now it’s our job, as an industry, to explore what this could mean for improving the effectiveness of our workplace learning in these areas.

These are not small questions to answer. But for us to start leverage the full power of immersive learning today, we can’t let the industry evolve at its own pace. As trainers, learning designers and L&D professionals we need to seize this opportunity to do things differently. We need to start producing learning that isn’t just a new way of repackaging old content and existing learning strategies; we need to lead the change.

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