Virtual Sanity: VR and what happens next for learning and development

In his first blog for Brightwave, and on the occasion of the Oculus Rift’s long-awaited appearance on the consumer tech market, Learning Designer David Connifey dons his headset and has a look at what the virtual age might have in store for L&D.

“I think there is a world market for about five computers.”

In hindsight, this famous prediction, widely accredited to the then IBM president Thomas J. Watson in 1943, was a little wide of the mark. And, by a little, we’re talking about a good 1,999,999,995 computers wide of the mark, if estimates made in October 2014 are to be believed – computers are, of course, ubiquitous today.

It would have been impossible for Watson to foresee the shape the world would take over the course of the next seventy years. Computer technology has moved forward at an unimaginable rate since his day. Most of us carry a computer more powerful than the aforementioned five put together (cloud stacks notwithstanding) in our pockets on a daily basis, in the form of our mobile phones.

Perhaps the most intriguing and exciting development, though, has been the advancement in the field of Virtual Reality (VR). The hallmark of many a sci-fi film, VR was tipped to be 2016’s big thing. Although its consumer-product standard bearer, the Oculus Rift, finally went on sale this week, it hasn’t quite hit the heights expected just yet, it would be foolish to do a Thomas J Watson and make a bold prediction of such a limited world market. The possibilities of VR, in fact, appear to be endless. Whilst the gaming industry predictably continues to take the headlines with their big-money VR demonstrations, the field of learning and development can also certainly benefit to the same degree. A world market for 2,000,000,000 VR headsets?

I won’t be betting against it.

One area in particular which has tremendous learning potential for use with VR is high-risk, technical training. Being able to make a mistake, without any real life consequences, is game-changing for an organisation. Take a member of the armed forces who wishes to become a Bomb Disposal Engineer, for example. Practising on a real bomb is neither practical nor sensible. Likewise, there is only so much information you can read or be told about bombs in a classroom. VR training offers a compromise, by allowing learners to train without risk to themselves or others. Learners would still like to avoid making a mistake if possible, but they can rest safe in the knowledge that a mistake here would be far less traumatic than in the real world. Learners have time, space and a variable, realistic environment to practice their skills, using a solution which they are really going to be able to learn from

What about other, less-risk areas of L&D though? Compliance training is still a major driver for elearning and could be totally transformed by VR, which can provide an unmatched level of engagement and immersion. Compliance statutes can be so complex they’re often described as a jungle. What if it was a jungle you could walk around in and cut paths to the places you need to go?

Of course, some training lends itself to VR better than others. Something such as fire safety training would be a great, practical fit. To instantly transport a learner into a room teeming with fire hazards through the simple application of a headset is an exciting prospect. This can be taken one step further by placing learners in a (virtual) emergency situation. The old-school fire drill has lost its panache somewhat. Why not put the learner in a burning building and give them 30 seconds to escape? It would certainly be more engaging than reading screen after screen of fire safety guidance followed by a standard assessment.

Not only more engaging, it would prepare learners better should the real thing ever happen. I know which solution I would prefer, and which I would be more likely to learn from.

So, why has VR not yet been widely adopted in learning? Do organisations view it as a realistic alternative to traditional learning approaches? Much like gamified learning, perhaps not. There are currently only around 2% of organisations currently using VR for training. Many organisations possess neither the timescales nor the budget to develop VR learning solutions. Is there an appetite to change this? Maybe there is.

In a recent study, 90% of professionals revealed plans to use VR for learning in their organisation, with a third to do it in the next three years. Does this mean that attitudes are shifting? VR is a learning solution that can make a real difference to the way that any organisation works, so perhaps they should be. However, it’s important to get it right and make sure the solution is appropriately applied to learners’ needs. We don’t want a situation where there is an abundance of superfluous VR learning solutions gathering virtual dust.

VR has a huge role to play in L&D’s future, if used appropriately where it can add clear advantages to the learning need. It is exciting to think where we will be ten years down the line.

I envisage a world where VR is the go-to learning solution, and traditional methods are the exception as opposed to the rule. While face-to-face training still has a place for certain types of skill, one which VR will enhance and expand classrooms will be consigned to the history books, and even history books, ones that you can walk around inside, will be consigned to the headset. ‘Virtual’ classrooms, where you can shake hands with the instructor even though they’re a thousand miles away, will take on a new life of their own. The office ‘VR room’ will be as commonplace as the kitchen (we’ll still need to eat, right?). VR will be ubiquitous and I, for one, will welcome that with open arms – provided they have worked out how to track hand motion properly by then…

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