As instructional designers continue to explore virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology, the potential applications are becoming more common and practical. This growth will have a positive effect on the contributions learning and development (L&D) make to the enterprise.

Immersive learning is disrupting old-school L&D

Clark Aldrich, in his 2009 book Learning Online with Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds, suggested three reasons why highly interactive virtual environments 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, and 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 prime time. In a recent conversation Todd Moran, chief learning strategist at NovoEd, cautioned about this. He said, “My sense is there is still a significant amount of overhyped promise of what AR and VR can deliver. It's not to say that that technology, especially as it progresses purely on the mobile form factor and you don't need a headset or Google Glass or Oculus to execute, doesn't have a huge amount of potential. But I think that we're still years off candidly. On paper you’ve written about what seemed like a noticeable uptick and execution of that training modality for frontline workers. It's back to my original point, the barrier for entry for that right now is too slow, it's far too high, all the other sort of equipment or technology needs. It's not simple enough. And it's not seamless and I think it's neither of those things with the scant amount of time that these frontline workers have to self-educate or be edified, they're not going to turn to that one.”

Pam Hogle has pointed out in a Learning Solutions article that discussed the potential of VR and AR environments to “create opportunities that either do not exist or are difficult or impractical to create in the physical world. This allows learners to practice behaviors that they cannot or would not practice in real-world circumstances.” These may include opportunities to practice coaching, provide feedback, and even deal with harassment or bullying, as well as resolving difficult conflicts. But she is also clear that “only a small number of studies have looked at longer-term effects; additional studies are needed.”

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 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.