Instructional designers continue to explore virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology, as the applications become more common and practical. This growth is having a positive effect on the contributions learning and development (L&D) can make to the enterprise.

Immersive learning is disrupting traditional online learning approaches

Clark Aldrich, in his 2009 book Learning Online with Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds, suggested three reasons why highly interactive virtual environments (VR and AR) are effective for learning:

  • They put people “in the flow,” situating learning in the environment where it will be applied
  • They provide context and emotional involvement
  • They engage people through actual participation

Immersive learning eliminates the risk of injury, increases the immediacy of feedback, and makes it easier to track the progress of learning and identification of difficulties. Digital technology has facilitated all of these improvements.

JD Dillon has identified areas where newer technology has disrupted “old-school” L&D practices through improved methods:

  • Relating learning to day-to-day reality
  • Providing consistent, scalable learning and support experience
  • Getting better data and using it to improve solutions
  • Using AI and adaptive technology effectively
  • Showing impact on business results
  • Reducing "time to implementation" compared to traditional training

What are the use cases for immersive learning?

There are current use cases in healthcare, equipment maintenance and repair, and safety, as well as in other areas that have traditionally been challenging for L&D such as compliance training, selling skills, and coaching and personal development.

The most obvious use cases for VR training are applications to the situations Clark Aldrich pointed out long ago: high-stress and emergency procedures; the opportunity to reduce job-related injuries; and to outcomes where training itself could present danger.

Some cautions about expectations

Not everyone agrees that VR training and AR are completely ready for primetime. Some highly respected learning leaders still have reservations about the limitations of VR and AR. However, with each passing year these objections are being overcome. The devices needed to interface with the virtual experience still suffer from two problems.

First, the devices themselves have problems with their form factors and appearance. They are large and odd-looking, and the VR devices require a screen that partially or totally obscures the wearer's vision. The device manufacturers are developing workarounds but the consensus of users is that they are not ready for primetime, let alone for everyday use. Early adopters seem mainly to be curious and gamers.

The second objection is the cost of the devices. Some recent releases are now at a much lower price point for ordinary consumers, but the more advanced choices are still priced for developers. It may be some time before this objection is resolved.

Eventually AR and VR devices will provide opportunities to practice coaching, provide feedback, and even deal with harassment or bullying, as well as resolving difficult conflicts.

The important thing for L&D practitioners is to start learning now about the tools and techniques that support virtual reality and augmented reality, and to begin applying them. To delay this is to delay the benefits.

Realistic longer-term opportunities

When appropriate, virtual reality and augmented reality can be used instead of the didactic approaches to learning that have been the default of L&D. This is one of the opportunities that the evolving understanding of learning engineering may be helping us to see—"continual enterprise feedback and revision."

As Will Thalheimer has pointed out, one of the fundamental shortcomings of the default approaches has to do with assessment of required skills and knowledge. The reason that virtual reality training can improve on the defaults is that people get continuous feedback on how they are doing, and continuous assessment that supports adaptive learning.

Opportunities VR and AR offer

Here are three ways L&D practitioners and leaders can begin to realize the benefits of virtual reality and augmented reality in training:

  • Future-proof investment in eLearning using VR simulations, together with SME-led training within blended learning.
  • Apply the BUILDS framework suggested by Chad Udell and Gary Woodill in The Shock of the New to evaluate the potential uses of virtual reality and augmented reality for best effect.
  • Use virtual reality as a way to capture and deploy the expertise of subject matter experts (SMEs) throughout an enterprise. By doing this, VR and AR can create dramatic change in corporate competency profiles