Great storytelling is immersive in that it draws readers or listeners in and transports them to a different world. Even low-tech reading can be an immersive experience for an avid reader who’s found a gripping page-turner. In an immersive language class, the target language is the only language used; non-speakers are forced to figure out from context and by building on previous days’ learning. Technology provides new formats for creating immersive experiences, offering the potential to create eLearning experiences that can capture and hold learners’ attention.

The ultimate immersive experience, virtual reality, remains out of reach for many eLearning designers. To bridge that gap and create affordable immersive eLearning, consider 360-degree video. Here’s a guide to what it can—and cannot—accomplish when used as part of an eLearning program.

Put learners at center of action

Using 360-degree video puts the viewer literally in the center of the action. If the space where a story takes place is central to the eLearning, or if examining a location is a component of the eLearning, there’s no better tool. Using 360-degree video is strongly recommended for any scenario in which learners need to see a place, the people and items in a place, or, especially, the juxtaposition of people and items. Two-dimensional photography or video cannot always convey the visual aspects of a place adequately or give viewers a full sense of what it’s like to be there; 360-degree photography or video offers a fuller perspective.

Movement is an important element of 360-degree video. The cameras can move through a space while handheld, on a dolly, or on a drone. This type of movement can be uncomfortable for some viewers to watch, though, causing effects similar to motion sickness. Stabilizing the video during editing can help alleviate the problem.

Alternatively, the videographer can remain stationary and record the movement around a fixed spot, which can bring the space to life for viewers. Instructional designers should choose stories for 360-degree video carefully: Static scenes are poor candidates because learners won’t remain engaged in an immersive story with no action!

Immersive video is not a panacea. Like any technology, it has strengths and drawbacks. In traditional video, the camera has a single focal point and all viewers see the same thing. But when viewing 360-degree video, whether on a laptop or tablet or using a headset like Google Cardboard, learners can turn around, look up, and look down. They control the focal point—which means that they decide what to look at and when. This has several implications:

  • If there is any activity going on that could catch learners’ eyes and distract them, the learners are likely to focus their attention on it.
  • The video is still linear in that it will end. If a learner hasn’t turned or looked at an important element, and the video passes that point, that learner could miss critical information.
  • Learners’ focus might also center on an area or item in the video in ways that the instructional designer did not anticipate.

The lack of control over what learners see and when is a major difference of 360-degree video; if an eLearning course requires that learners focus on a particular area of the video or there are must-see elements, 360-degree video might not be suitable.

Bringing eLearning to life

With learners in the driver’s seat, 360-degree video is uniquely able to bring a scene to life. It is commonly used for virtual tours—of college campuses or real estate properties listed for sale, for example. Advertising and journalism have embraced 360-degree video in some types of storytelling as well, going after the emotional response that a more immersive experience can evoke.

Destery Hildenbrand, a learning specialist at Rockwell Collins, said that it’s possible to record video of an expert speaking about an area or event, then overlay that person’s audio—and even video—onto the 360-degree video for an expertly guided “tour.” At his DevLearn 2016 discussion, Hildenbrand solicited suggestions from attendees for using 360-degree video to enhance eLearning. Ideas included:

  • Narrated tours—of a city, a museum, a national park, or a historical site—where the instructor provides commentary as the learners “participate” in the tour and can look around the site while listening.
  • Using 360-degree video to augment safety training would allow learners to identify and spot problem areas, demonstrating their proficiency in assessment tests. Firefighters could study scenes that can never be re-created by viewing a video over and over.
  • Naturalists and park rangers could use 360-degree video to teach learners about fragile ecosystems and parts of national parks that are inaccessible or closed to the public.
  • Companies with multiple sites could use 360-degree video tours during onboarding to acquaint new employees with their facilities and with colleagues around the world.
An even more economical, and less distracting, option is 360-degree photography. It is still photography, not video. However, providing the full 360-degree view of an environment, even as a one-moment snapshot, delivers a far more immersive experience than a single shot or a photo essay. Both 360-degree video and photography are visually immersive, but neither allows the learner to interact with the environment.