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Feb 2015

Virtual reality: The future reality of learning?

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Shaping the future of learning

Currently considered by most as ‘consumer goods for gamers’, there is a growing interest from organisations to bring games, video and virtual reality (VR) into their training programmes as they look to new ways of engaging learners.

A few months ago we were fortunate enough to be able to try out some of the latest technology hardware in our Brighton office in the form of Oculus Rift (plus a couple of pairs of Google Glass for good measure), and have a discussion about the application of VR to learning with Donald Clark who’s been doing some interesting work on the subject.

Is there really a place for VR in learning, or is it just hype? Here’s how we got on…

Getting to Grips With Oculus Rift

A man wearing a virtual reality headset and headphones.

First impressions:  “Arrrrgggghhhhh!”

Yes, before we got started with the practical implications for learning, Donald had us do a virtual bungee jump and a rollercoaster ride on the Oculus Rift (OR) so we could get a feel for how far the technology had come in recent years. 

Our team were surprised at how apprehensive they were when it actually came to having a go – despite being excited about using the technology. The OR surrounds you in a full 3D environment, wrapping around you 360 degrees (and with noise-cancelling headphones on it’s totally immersive). You lose yourself in it, not knowing how you’re standing or which way is up.

Some of our team had a bad case of the fear of the unknown, ‘neo-phobia’, but this could have been due to the demos that we were testing.  We’d also watched footage of others’ reacting to these experiences beforehand; with screams, hysterical laughter and nearly falling over.  (If you’ve not yet had a chance to try one, we highly recommend you do!)

After we’d had some experience of using the OR, our design team then had an interesting break-away discussion about the potential moral responsibilities of immersing someone ina situation that feels so real, and the potential impact that could have on them (consciously and unconsciously). 

This was followed by a debate around the philosophy of consciousness and what something like OR might mean to that when it replaces your ‘normal’ empirical feeds with something else… but hey, that’s just the way we roll in our community sessions (Nietzsche eat your heart out), but that’s a whole other article!

So, what's the potential for learning?

Although there was some disagreement on whether people enjoyed the ‘jump’, our team was unanimous in agreeing there was great potential for the successful deployment of VR in learning.

Removing the risk

VR has huge potential, particularly for training situations which involve high risk – where learning from mistakes without real-world consequence is particularly valuable to a company (e.g. oil rig disaster response).

Surgeons already use VR for training as for them learning by mistake could be quite a traumatic experience (though less traumatic than making the mistake on a real person) . You wouldn’t make the same mistake again though, would you?!

We can potentially see VR being used for anything where there is value in learning from mistakes, or where invoking a 'feeling' is valuable, or part of the message. It's a genuine way of 'learning by doing' but creating training using the technology will require a different skillset.

Encourage empathy and emotion

The potential for putting yourself in another person's shoes in a scenario is really interesting – for example, in homecare you can put yourself in the shoes of a visually impaired pensioner. That's something that's hard to pull off in a realistic way without being truly immersed in the experience.

A woman wearing a virtual reality headset and headphones.

As we know, there are many links between emotional engagement and effective learning (and happier employees), and as such, there's a big case for simulations in the effectiveness of learning (as long as it’s within a believable context). 

Not just learning, but skills training too

It’s interesting from an ability-development perspective also.  The England Rugby 7s team use similar technology to work on spatial awareness and peripheral vision; demonstrating that rather than just learning how to do new things, it can be used to improve the things you can already do.

A good example could be training people to have more awareness of dangers by being able to spot them better, rather than just becoming more aware of what a danger is.  Anything with an emergency situation would work well, like for the fire service, entering a burning building etc.

Applying VR to ‘normal’ elearning

When thinking about how their experiences could be applied to existing learning, our designers flagged a couple of obvious points that must be considered.

Less penguin (black and white), more elephant (big and grey)

We are still pretty black and white with the assessments/challenges we give learners, unless we're doing a scored scenario. For virtual reality learning environments we should explore grey areas and multiple or concurrent consequences from one decision, to make things more realistic.

It's worth remembering that there are often multiple or concurrent consequences from one decision. Using VR we can certainly bring more ‘reality’ into online learning, however it’s done.  Often it’s about getting that time investment from learner user groups and SMEs who really know what it’s like on the ground, and how the domino effects occur.

It’s never about one, magic, bullet

The idea of action and reaction adds to the immersion. We can't make people physically try to interact and believe they're in a world, but rather than tell them they're right or wrong, maybe we should try more to detail the consequence of an incorrect choice.

Connecting in with other people is key – using OR felt like something that should be shared with others, for team tasks or friendly competition, or even just to talk about it afterwards. If we think of ourselves as creators of experiences that encourage learning to take place, we should be working to encourage even more discussion, sharing, application etc after the online moment(s) to bring about true learning for the long term.

The key thing is that something like VR, which could be the best learning simulation ever, still needs follow-up, practice, application, and some form of creation…conversation, discussion and collaboration are key to making it transferable.

Barriers to VR adoption in learning

Cost implications

Because VR technology is clearly aimed at – and will be adopted in a big way – by the games/entertainment industry, it could prove difficult to get businesses to take it seriously; much like we often find already with game-based learning.

Similarly, businesses may love the concept of ‘gamifying’ their learning, but don't have the budgets or timescales to make it happen. It's also likely that time spent learning would increase considerably, meaning the cost to the employer would also increase.

Deployment challenges

It's easy to send out a link to elearning that everyone can access on their own PC, but it's not so easy to get everyone through training on a specialised device like the Oculus Rift.

The flipside could be people going “Yeah, I want to try that”, but it's not really appropriately applied to their need; when all that’s needed is for the learner to understand the operating manual to a piece of equipment they use, for example.

VR technology will enter the classroom or guided practice in the field before people's homes or workstations; so a barrier could come from educating traditional F2F trainers… but that’s another debate!

Learning styles

We can also see that some businesses may be sceptical about the age range VR will appeal to - companies with an older workforce may be put off, assuming people won't want to get on board.

It’s also worth noting there is a difference between someone being able to sit on a rollercoaster and actually be able to interact with the VR world in a meaningful way – some will find it more difficult than others.

Authenticity and context are crucial for effective learning so if – and it is a big IF – this can be applied in a way where these are enhanced, then it will be a weapon in the instructional designer’s armoury.

Lack of tracking

Perhaps the biggest of all challenges, however, will be the issue around tracking: it won’t track SCORM, and it won’t run off an LMS.  We therefore see elearning providers working more holistically with clients over longer periods of time rather than making a course, delivering it and that be the end of it. (Though at City & Guilds Kineo we obviously already strive to develop lasting, successful relationships with our clients!)

In conclusion

Virtual Reality is not new, but with devices like Oculus Rift, it’s becoming more affordable and accessible to many more. There’s huge potential within the learning and performance support industry to make more use of VR and these technologies within our blends. It’s incredibly exciting, and they are improving with pace.

In industries where the risks are high – such as military, construction, medical, and oil & gas – the investment in the devices, and of course the software and learning design that goes with it, is likely to make a better business case right now.

Looking to the future, our very own Technical Lead, Matt Leathes, says:

"I can genuinely see a future where this – or something very like it – becomes the standard method of learning, and of attending school virtually”.  

If you’re interested in finding out more, he highly recommends reading "Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline.

Oh, and if you’re thinking of doing a bungee jump…? On the whole the team were more likely to do a real-life jump having had the ‘fear-factor’ removed by their virtual experience! Why not give it a whirl?

So, what are your thoughts? Is VR the next big thing in learning, or will something else come in to play until access to the required hardware becomes more mainstream and affordable for learners?  Let us know in the comments below.



Shaping the future of learning

Kineo helps the world’s leading businesses improve performance through learning and technology. We’re proud of our reputation for being flexible and innovative, and of our award-winning work with clients across the world.