The toughest job eLearning creators have these days is just keeping up with change. After that comes learner engagement, and transfer of skills and knowledge. In recent years, practitioners have added a number of design and delivery tools that help address these needs. In many cases, keeping up mainly involves reframing how creators apply those tools and remembering what the tools are called. But that's a good thing.

The result of this reframing and renaming as “buzz words” such as microlearning, serious games, interactive learning, and other techniques can seem confusing. Practitioners are constantly adjusting their design thinking to the realization that each new technique arises in reuse and recombination of a subset of some elements of fundamental skills and knowledge. Each newly added technology, all the way to the latest artificial intelligence tool and the next as-yet-unnamed idea adds to the "keeping up."

A new buzzword?

One of the evolving words that has turned into a defined discipline is “immersive learning.“ Immersive learning mainly involves using virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in artificial environments to run scenarios and simulations. This article will help you to reframe significant parts of your practice along those lines.

In developing this article, I asked expert learning architect Destery Hildenbrand for his thoughts on the evolution of immersive learning. He replied: 

“When it comes to creating interactive learning experiences with immersive technologies such as augmented and virtual reality (AR, VR), it’s a great time to be a learning designer! Advances in no-code development platforms and updates to existing tools in our content development toolbox have provided a much clearer path to creating and integrating AR/VR into our learning. These development tools now work in such a way that integrating AR and, to some extent, VR is like creating other types of media to support learning. Content creators already have experience working with media, variables, timelines, and more to create learning. These same skills, focusing on the immersive medium, are also used in developing AR and VR experiences.”

The modalities of “immersive learning”

Functionally, each of the uses (modalities) of reality in an immersive environment can make a different contribution to the user’s experience. There are three basic reality modalities available to designers for this work: virtual, augmented, and extended

Virtual reality

The significant reason for framing virtual reality as an important modality in immersive learning is that it completely immerses users in an artificial environment, separate from the real world. Within that environment, users can move virtual objects, pick virtual objects up, turn on virtual devices that are inside the environment, take those devices apart, move around in a virtual space, and interact with virtual characters. When you see a photo or representation of someone wearing a VR headset (so that the user cannot see physical objects), chances are that user is immersed in an artificial environment.

Augmented reality

When you see an image of someone wearing a headset that has a transparent lens or other way for the wearer to see physical objects directly in his or her surroundings, chances are that user is viewing AR (augmented reality) as an important way to apparently place virtual objects in real-world space. The user can see them, walk around them, and interact with them. The virtual objects may be interactive labels, images of other people, or images of devices (real or simulated). AR can also present the user with 360-degree video of the environment, further enhancing the ability to interact directly with other people, with simulations, and to experience simulation of dangerous environments.

Extended reality

When the user is able to experience VR and AR simultaneously, the experience is usually referred to as XR (eXtended Reality).

Which modality (VR, AR, or XR) is best for eLearning?

Most people dislike hearing “It all depends” as the answer to this question. It may seem like an evasive reply. However, each modality has its strengths. Sometimes VR is best for the outcome you intend for a learner to achieve, sometimes AR, and sometimes XR. And sometimes, for complex outcomes, the answer may involve blending two of them in your design or even all three. 

Destery Hildenbrand continued: 

“Armed with this knowledge, it makes the conversation about getting started with AR and VR easier. AR software tools run similarly in cost and development time in most cases, depending on the complexity of your project. With VR, it is different. There is still a direct and affordable path to immersive content, starting with 360 media. VR requires a few more steps and investment to get started. 360 media is captured using a specific type of camera for the best effect, and then it can be modified using traditional development tools that most teams already have. 360 media is a starting point for your VR journey. It can be used in browsers, apps, and eLearning modules and provides an immersive experience. These types of VR experiences are accessible to your creators and learners. Advanced VR, CGI VR, requires a different skill set and considerations.”

Why not just pick one modality and do the best you can with it?

VR is useful for more than games! If the best way to support the learning required for a specific task or occupation is to simulate a tour of a facility (for example, in an onboarding program), to interact with typical questions that sales prospects have, or to help learners understand the differences between a variety of products as potential solutions, then a VR simulation may be a good way to go.

If the outcome you want is for technicians to understand how to assemble a device and to select the proper components, AR is a good approach. That would also be true if your outcome is to teach recognition of different components by name and function.

Looking at a wider scope of outcomes, such as supporting an onboarding program, XR offers flexibility and the possibility of greater learner engagement.

Finally, in some programs or curricula, a designer may determine that a blended approach provides the range and depth of cognitive and decision-making activity that learners need. Blending should also support the time needed to help learners practice the various skills to achieve mastery.

Because immersive learning uses immersive technology, it also provides more ways to evaluate the effectiveness of training by giving facilitators and systems more criteria to observe and more teachable moments on which to base coaching.

Immersive learning reduces distractions and helps learners to be more focused on their learning. This is true for all three immersive modalities.

Are there distinct advantages and disadvantages of immersive learning?

Benefits of immersive learning

  • The primary benefit of immersive learning is that it keeps learners engaged and also improves retention.
  • Immersive learning is especially useful in developing interpersonal skills and supports practice in a real-life context.

Disadvantages of immersive learning

  • Immersive learning relies on expensive technology.
  • Immersive learning may take longer to design and execute.
  • Immersive learning can appear to be too much like playing. 

One more thing: The metaverse

It may seem that the metaverse is mainly about immersion. In my opinion, while the metaverse is immersive by design, its use case is about getting things done in a fundamentally different, social context, with a fundamentally different purpose.

The metaverse as envisioned by its originators has a much broader use case than immersive learning. Immersive learning may be part of the metaverse, and there will definitely be an appropriate reason to deliver eLearning within a metaverse, but they are not the same thing.

The challenges for supporting learning in immersive environments

It is still early days and we have much to learn. Here are a few examples.

VR and AR can expand designer options for supporting learning through immersive environments and experiences. This is especially true for supporting learning by doing: we know that simulation is a very effective approach when there are safety and cost issues. There is a lot to learn about exactly what learning in the metaverse will look like. Adopting the metaverse as an environment for learning may raise trust issues due to the marketing behavior of some (not all) providers or thought leaders.

Another achievement that will take time to accomplish is understanding how to create and evaluate high-quality immersive experiences, and to avoid adopting ineffective models. The worst examples of low-quality adoption are virtual classrooms and meeting spaces that clone the worst aspects of physical meeting spaces and classrooms. Other limitations involve low-fidelity simulations of social elements, bad interactive dialog (artificial intelligence – AI – may help us) and awkward participants who have not (yet) developed the skills needed to act and participate naturally in a virtual environment. Designers can also create problems by implementing use of unfamiliar and untested technologies.

Expectations are also tricky things. Some educators, for example, tout the value of virtual learning environments for language learning, based on their experience with children. Sometimes those expectations are not supported by relevant research. At the same time, children have some advantages that adults do not have. Children up to the age of three or so learn language very quickly (it’s a survival thing). Adults are not that malleable.

“Presence” is the final challenge. Presence is a very hard thing to create, develop, and maintain. It takes time to learn how to design virtual experiences that are believable, appropriate, and culturally nuanced.

We designers and creators are lucky to have such an interesting set of challenges!

Level Up! with Learning Guild conferences in 2023

This year the Learning Guild offers multiple opportunities to add to your skill set in live and online conferences. Presenters include the best of the best in the tools, technology, and thinking in key areas of the Learning profession. For example, Destery Hildenbrand (who contributed to this article) is scheduled to present a hands-on session "Getting Started with Augmented Reality" immediately after the opening keynote at Learning Solutions 2023, and that will be followed by six more sessions on AR and VR. DevLearn 2023 will feature incisive sessions and speakers on a range of skills and knowledge including ones that will address topics of interest to designers and developers who are working on solutions for immersive learning. Watch your email and the content areas on the Learning Guild site for details!