Insights from LT16: The Real and Virtual Success


It’s been a little over a week since the punters left Olympia and Learning Technologies 2016 drew to a close. I thought - now the dust has settled and our illuminated giant K has been dismantled - I’d share a few reflections on what I found interesting at this year’s show.

Key Take-Aways from Learning Technologies

I think one of the highlights for me was catching Geoff Stead’s conference slot on mobile learning. Geoff, now at the University of Cambridge, shared the approach to mobile learning that he and his colleagues adopted when he was employed by Qualcomm.

Reassuringly from my perspective, the Qualcomm team had successfully adopted many of the approaches that I and my colleagues at City & Guilds Kineo are keen to explore with our own clients. Ideas such as content curation, augmented reality, Bluetooth beacons, the use of 360 and interactive video to increase immersion, making learning voluntary and easier to access (and moving the LMS into the background where possible) and finally, a change in what data is captured and what it’s used for.

Content curation

Chances are your learners are already using content outside of the LMS to help them do their job, whether it's documents stored on their hard drive, videos from YouTube, Wiki pages or other websites they have bookmarked. Fundamentally, this in itself isn’t a problem. In fact, it's a great thing - there’s lots of really good, useful content out there on the web. Yet there are a few challenges to overcome. How do you go about:

  • sifting the good content from the bad
  • structuring the content so it flows and makes some kind of sense
  • sharing it with others
  • integrating the external content with your in-house materials
  • tailoring the content so it’s relevant to who’s viewing it
  • motivating people to share their personal ‘finds’ and get involved?

Companies like Degreed and Pathfinder believe they have the answer with their take on learning portals. Unlike LMSs which are great at managing learners and tracking progress, these platforms go a long way to solving the problems I list above; allowing users to curate curriculums of content which can be shared, searched, discussed, rated and compared against other groupings of content.

To me, it seems like a great way of leveraging existing expertise within the business, but where does it leave us vendors? I’m imagining a future where vendors are plugging the gaps, creating the specialist in-house content much as we do now, but the more generic materials will be collated from ‘out there’ on the web.

Virtual reality

Virtual reality really is coming of age. We asked some friends of ours who specialise in both Virtual and Augmented Reality - Jim and Sam from Make Real - to come and join us on our stand at Learning Technologies and demo some of the work that they’re doing at the moment.

One of the immersive environments that Jim and Sam shared was created for one of Europe’s largest energy companies. Designed for Oculus Rift, the learner has to construct a nuclear reactor out of its constituent parts and when it’s complete the model scales up to full size. It’s a fantastic way of communicating the basic principles of how one of these things is ‘plumbed’ together and also gets across the sheer size of it.

It’s not hard to see that Oculus Rift (and similar offerings from the likes of Samsung, Sony and others) is going to be of real interest for any organisation where the training of staff carries risks of injury, where there is prohibitively high costs to providing ‘real-life’ training or where immersion is absolutely vital in the quality and effectiveness of the experience. That said, I’m sure that VR’s appeal will extend further and we’ll see it being used in more commonplace subjects and sectors. There is no getting away from the fact that you need a powerful PC and the hardware to experience this high-end VR, but that said, if you haven’t tried one, do. It’s truly impressive and costs will come down.

Google Cardboard

At the other end of the VR scale is Google Cardboard. This is also something we’ve been keeping an eye on and it’s something which I encountered at Learning Technologies, although not as much as I’d imagined.

It’s a technology that has lots of scope for providing really interesting training solutions and all you need is an app, a smartphone and, well, a bit of folded cardboard. You make a cardboard ‘headset’, you start the app, insert your phone into the headset, plug your earphones in and away you go.

Of course, 360 video isn’t new, the ability to change the viewer’s perspective from within a movie has been around a while now, but Cardboard takes it to another level. What’s clever is that the smartphone display is split into two distinct views, one for each eye, which creates a stereoscopic or 3D image. Once you’re wearing the cardboard you can look around a 360 virtual world and even interact within this world by using your gaze to trigger events.

The hardware is cheap, and although previously the cost of capturing 360 video was prohibitive, there are now several solutions based on clusters of GoPro video cameras, which have dramatically reduced the cost of capturing the source content. When you start to think about the scope for using this tech it’s really exciting. We can now put learners, literally, into the shoes of other people for equality and diversity training so they can understand first-hand what it’s like to experience discrimination. Or perhaps we’ll be the technology to take them on journeys where they dive down to microscopic size and explore an immersive 360 degree animation that explains some complicated manufacturing process.

The scope for VR in our space is huge, even down at the cheaper end of the spectrum with Google Cardboard.

Augmented reality

Augmented reality, the ability to overlay computer generated content over a real-world item to enhance it some way, is something that I can see almost any organisation being interested in. Imagine being able to fire up an app on your smartphone, point the camera at an item and then see it brought to life with additional digital content. Content might be animations, videos or links to related material.

This can be achieved in a few different ways: for larger scale applications such as helping you navigate around a new environment, your phone’s GPS and compass can be used, but on a smaller scale you need to either scan a marker or point your camera at something and allow the pattern recognition software to go to work and identify enough of the unique features for it to be paired with the corresponding digital content.

This is the one that excites me the most. I can think of tons of uses for this technology. Imagine pointing the camera at a map of a building and then seeing the fire exits all become highlighted, your nearest escape route is then plotted. It then links out to handy quick reference guides as to which fire extinguishers to use in a given situation. What about if you’re tasked with repairing a piece of machinery on a ship or any other isolated location? You can now aim your camera at the machinery and have an overlay presented which labels all the key components, you can view cutaway animations that show you how the machinery works along with points of common failure, access short videos of how to repair the most common faults and, of course, access the deeper dive learning on how to tackle bigger repairs should they be needed.

The potential for AR is really very exciting and you don’t need thousands of pounds of hardware either.

Bluetooth beacons

Bluetooth beacons are another potentially interesting way of triggering additional digital resources at the point of need. Instead of scanning an item with your augmented reality app you just need to be standing in the right place.

Each beacon emits a unique code which can be used to launch corresponding digital resources as long as the learner (or more accurately the learner’s smartphone) is within a predetermined range.

Most commonly Bluetooth beacons are seen in retail to provide shoppers with information about products as they move around the shop, but it’s easy to transpose this functionality into our world. The triggered event might be a short onboarding video that welcomes you and tells you where to report as you walk through your new employer’s office doors for the first time. Perhaps the most common health and safety hazards within a given location within a factory are highlighted to you as you move through this space (paying attention to any trip hazards as you go, mind!).

Data capture and analysis

Many of the most impressive solutions that I saw this year were the ones where large volumes of data were captured and analysed to allow content from lots of different locations to be pulled together, to shine a light on the most relevant content for a given learner or group of learners and to highlight what was most popular with those at the sharp end. It’s worth pointing out that this data capture and analysis was all about improving the user experience, not tracking the individual’s performance as is the norm in most cases right now.

Where an individual’s performance data is analysed and put to good use is when it’s used to create adaptive learning experiences. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see Donald Clark and Andy Wooler’s conference slot on this subject, but I have seen both these gents talk before and it was very thought provoking. In a nutshell, the premise is that algorithms measure learners’ performance and personalise the learning so that the content is constantly being mapped to their changing capability in a given subject. No more ‘one size fits all’ and now, instead of just using the tech to serve up the content it’s being put to work to analyse and assess what learning is required as they develop their knowledge, or just as likely forget parts of it. Colleagues who did see their slot were very impressed so it would be well worth watching this presentation, along with Geoff’s, when this year’s conference videos are made available.

Plenty to ponder for the coming year. Check out this blog post on how City & Guilds Kineo is currently using immersive technology in some of our latest projects. Perhaps at next year’s show we’ll demo some examples of our own work with these exciting new technologies.


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