Long reads

The future of L&D is virtual

27 Sep 2017 By Marianne Calnan

How virtual reality is changing classroom learning as we know it

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I’ve barely had a chance to buckle up before the countdown begins. Within five seconds we’re off, and I’m nervously turning to my companion to see if it’s just me who’s feeling uneasy. In minutes, we are accelerating past stars, and the Earth, a glance to the left confirms, is becoming a speck.

It’s disorienting to come back down to terra firma. And even more discomforting to take the glasses off and realise I am not the first HR journalist in space; instead, I’ve been using a virtual reality (VR) tool designed to boost understanding of interstellar travel, both among potential astronauts and curious executives taking part in the FT IE Corporate Learning Alliance.

It’s a spectacular use of workplace technology, but it’s far from the only one. While virtual reality – essentially, immersive and interactive computer simulations generally experienced via a headset – has been around for decades and has been popularised in everything from flight simulators to The Matrix, its potential as an L&D tool is finally being realised, thanks to economies of scale that have brought prices to more accessible levels, and increasing interest from learners and trainers.

With the lack of visual ‘fidelity’ that once made VR a novelty experience at best also banished by slicker technology, there is a sense that this is a watershed moment that could see it move from certain niche settings (the technology is already common among trainee surgeons and in the oil and gas industry, where working offshore can be dangerous and expensive) to the mainstream.

And, of course, millennials love it; 77 per cent would like to use VR in the workplace and 52 per cent think it would make them more productive, according to the 2016 Dell & Intel Future Workforce Study Global Report. As Marco Faccini, strategic consultant for VR supplier Immerse, says: “We live our lives in 3D but conduct training in 2D. It’s a contradiction, and immersive technologies can change that.”

For Andy Lancaster, head of learning and development content at the CIPD, the time is right for VR – within reason. “As it stands, VR lives and falls on how accurate and compelling it is; it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it needs to be believable enough that users feel like they’re interacting in the ‘real’ world,” he says. “It doesn’t work when it’s an ill-thought through design concept, because if it isn’t giving you a realistic experience then the technology gets in the way.”

Safety-critical work is, naturally, a major beneficiary of VR training. Faccini says it allows employers to put people into pressurised situations, without making them feel uncomfortable or actually unsafe. For example, selecting the correct fire extinguisher on a health and safety course is a more straightforward experience if nothing’s actually on fire: “I’ve created a scenario in VR to reflect something blowing up next to users, so they can see the consequences. I would argue, and have had learners tell me, that if you’ve experienced it once in VR you won’t easily forget it.”

Katharine Jewitt, educational technology consultant at The Open University, says VR taps into some of the most fundamental aspects of how we learn. “In comparison with traditional training such as classroom-based learning, VR generates immersive, high-impact, engaging training that encourages people to learn by doing,” she says, while also pointing to its remote potential, which is ideal for blended learning programmes.

“It makes learning faster and more comprehensive because learners fail quicker, and without incurring unnecessary costs or putting employees through instructor-led ‘death by PowerPoint’ that’s difficult to absorb. The digital world blending with the real world has the power to be revolutionary.”

It’s these factors that are opening L&D professionals’ eyes to the possibilities of VR. Already, companies are using it in leadership training – where users can give virtual presentations or conference speeches – and to play out tricky scenarios in diversity programmes. Much of the recent uptake in corporate VR has been among retailers and hospitality businesses that see the benefit in building virtual shop floors to train their employees.

Nissan is working with a games manufacturer to create a digital version of its Sunderland factory so that processes can be learned, practised and perfected virtually via HTC Vive headsets. One of the main benefits, says the car giant, is the positive impact on the level of musculoskeletal injuries.

The FT’s alliance, like other suppliers, is looking to use game-based technologies to put users into meetings or conferences in other parts of the world, which moves the idea of telecommuting beyond being the ‘box in the corner’ on a videoconference and into a new, virtual dimension. “It can bring organisations together without doing so geographically, with the travel and accommodation costs required to physically be together,” says FT learning designer Ian Shakeshaft.

There are also potential applications in the recruitment process or during onboarding. Faccini highlights what VR could deliver for prison officers as an example. “There’s a huge turnover from induction to actually working because whatever they’re shown during the learning process isn’t what they actually experience,” he says. “If someone can use VR to ‘walk’ through a gangway with prisoners confronting them, it will give employers a good idea of how they will cope in a prison.”

Despite the huge potential, it is wise to tread carefully. Jewitt says it is crucial to introduce VR with a thought-through induction process that recognises the technology is likely to be unfamiliar to many. There are also practical issues around motion sickness among some users that need to be addressed.

“It’s important that organisations have their own processes for adopting technology like this,” Lancaster points out. “It has to be part of a wider strategy, and it has to be properly inducted. Some of these lessons are already being learned in the gamification space; people are more used to using VR technology, but for many it still seems peculiar to put on a headset and interact in a virtual scenario, so they will require support.”

And then there is the question of cost. VR can be experienced through a projector screen for larger groups, but most users require a headset or glasses, which start at around £100 each. Having software built for your business can cost anything from a few thousand pounds to well into six figures, which is why Lancaster advises companies to outsource to providers that will offer full support on a trial basis first.

And while there are plenty who feel VR could be revolutionary, there are others who point to the concept of ‘cognitive dissonance’: the neuroscientific principle that our brains do not learn as effectively when they are removed from the environment where they will apply the learning. There is no evidence yet that VR overcomes this barrier, and few studies showing its long-term effectiveness as a learning tool.

That’s probably a reason not to blow the L&D budget on VR just yet. But it won’t dent the enthusiasm among technologists for VR’s learning potential, or stop people being captivated when they first experience it. Most importantly, says Shakeshaft, VR can encourage us to rediscover how to fail.

“As adults, we’re very keen to avoid embarrassment,” he says. “VR provides fully immersive yet safe spaces where there are no real consequences for our mistakes. And mistakes offer great learning opportunities.” Plus, if you’re going to pull the wrong lever at 300,000 feet, you’ll be glad that you haven’t actually left the atmosphere.

Discover how technology is changing L&D with the CIPD Award in Designing Digital & Blended Solutions: bit.ly/CIPDLDAward

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