3D or not 3D?

We’ve been looking at 3D environments recently. What’s their potential for learning, and when are the right times to use them?

3D environments and virtual worlds have been around for a while now. Various tools and approaches exist to enable you to design first or third person 3D games and environments (think Doom, Second Life and the like) in which you can interact with your surroundings, people and objects. Do they have validity in learning? Absolutely. They provide a great number of advantages over other methods:

  1. More immersive environment – if the environment is convincing and has enough elements, the learner can get lost ( in a good way) in the experience. It’s more difficult to make that happen with your average screen-based approach.
  2. Non linear – we’re all trying to create experiences that approximate real life as much as possible. Life isn’t linear. You have the freedom to explore and take your chances. A well designed 3D learning environment can give learners that freedom.
  3. Event driven – to politely misquote Forrest Gump, stuff happens. In real life you can’t really control or predict what challenges are going to come your way. 3D/virtual world environments can give you the opportunity to make the learning experience a bit more random. Customer service challenges are more interesting and more real if you don’t really know what is going to come at you next.
  4. Able to integrate multiple skills – virtual environments can put the learner in a situation where they may be practising several skills at once – it may be an approximation of a physical skill ('Where should this box go?') with interpersonal skills ('What am I going to say to this customer?') and cognitive skills ('How should I interpret the body language I’m seeing here?').This is a great way to bring together different domain skills into one overall experience.
  5. Score it – good 3D environments will enable you to assign complex scoring, so you can measure performance against the multiple skills and domains; – we’d recommend using several different dimensions for scoring performance in a simulation like this.
  6. Gamer-like – these aren’t full blown games, but you can include features like timed rounds, complex scoring, discrete tasks that you get rewarded for, and mini games that can be launched from within the environment.

When to use them?

As you’d expect, 3D environments take longer and cost moreto create than your typical e-learning. So when is the right time to use them?

  • When understanding a physical environment is important – for example getting to know the layout of a specific hospital or oil rig for evacuation
  • Where developing the ability to deal with random events is an important aspect of your learning objectives. Customer service is a good example of this, as it involves learning to deal with the unpredictability of what will happen next on your shift.
  • Where failure in the real world carries extreme consequence  - it’s not surprising that most of the high end simulations are developed for the military, where the price of performance failure is unacceptable

Some factors to think about when considering 3D approaches:

  • Technology load: A full-blown 3D application requires technology that most private sector corporations cannot easily support. High end CPU, graphics processor and RAM specifications are required. Be sure to check out what your kit’s capable of.
  • Keeping it current: As with any learning approach, you’ll want to keep it up to date with new scenarios and characters. Some 3D environments, like Caspian Learning’s Thinking Worlds tool, make it very easy to keep things up to date. Others are not so easy, so be sure you know what you can maintain.
  • Usability: Gamers will embrace your 3D environment, of course, but what about the rest of your target audience? Make sure that learning to use the environment isn’t a barrier. Early user testing, as always is key.