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Should you believe the hype? How L&D could use virtual reality

Were you at Learning Technologies 2017? If so,VR-Headset you probably noticed it was dripping with headsets, goggles and demonstrations of VR. It looks like virtual technology is set to dominate discussions of the future of L&D, with Goldman Sachs predicting the virtual industry will be worth $80bn as an industry by 2025. Despite the hype, however, only 2% of L&D professionals have actually used it to deliver learning. Why?

The problem is rooted in the same reasons that people find VR exciting: it’s a new, novel, and completely immersive technology but this can be difficult to successfully implement within effective blended learning. Add to this the considerable expense of hardware and developing VR solutions, and the actual pace of VR’s integration into L&D may be both slower and very different than the hype suggests. So, here are my three main suggestions for how VR may be used in learning in coming months and years.

Staying specialist

It may have seemed strange that VR demonstrations at Learning Technologies were dominated by specialist fields including firefighting and surgery. In reality, Virtual Reality Learning Solutions (VRLS) are currently mainly deployed in high-risk industries, with NASA using VR to simulate spacewalks since the 1980s and widespread use of VR in medical scenarios and training. Given the potentially dreadful consequences of learners’ making ‘real life’ mistakes in these industries, VR is a much lower risk and lower cost alternative!

The same isn’t true for most workplace learning. VR is likely to only be viable in specialist niches in the near future, funded by large organisations who can afford it. In reality, in order to justify the investment, there must be a clear business strategy and explanation of the value VR adds to explain why this solution would work (and meet organisational objectives) more than alternatives.

Becoming blended

VRLS have previously existed in an ‘idea bubble’, marketed as a self-contained learning solution in which learners can enter, learn, and withdraw. As with other delivery methods, however, this is simply not the case! Many applications of VR use the virtual experience in the place of face-to-face training or forum theatre, with one prominent example being the NFL’s diversity training.

In doing so, L&D has to appreciate that VR is only effective as part of a blend. You need to allow learners to discuss and reflect on their learning, as well as give them other resources to pull learning from, to reinforce their VR experience.

Becoming accessible

Whilst traditional ‘tethered’ headsets such as the Oculus Rift remain tricky to implement and potentially challenging to develop for, the VR landscape is changing gradually. New products like the £15 Google Cardboard give users a simple headset ‘frame’ within which their smartphone handles all of the graphical and technical requirements to experience simple virtual reality.

Such devices, combined with advances in smartphone technology, have made a limited form of virtual hardware accessible to a far wider audience, even if the costs of development continue to restrict effective VR learning to specialist fields. Of course, for L&D to implement this successfully, all users will need to have a suitable mobile phone provided to them.

Future change?

Discussions about virtual reality certainly aren’t going anywhere, but the way we think of VR could be about to change rapidly. When Facebook forked out over $2 billion to purchase VR headset manufacturer Oculus in 2014, the social media giant was sending a clear message:

“Virtual reality is going to be an accessible social experience.”

How? On the surface, VR still appears to help people isolate themselves from reality, but initial steps to create ‘rooms’, where people can collaborate remotely to problem solve, suggest these spaces may be used compliment the ongoing popularity of agile working in the future.

Whilst not necessarily affordable at the moment or viable due to internet limitations, the roll-out of new development software on android means that more and more people could be able to develop their own VR in the near future.

As such, VR could be an exciting and useful addition to your blended learning toolkit, but the expense and complexity of VRLS means their scope is relatively narrow at the moment. That said, the speed of change affecting the VR industry suggests that the technology could be reaching more learners in the near future as part of their blend.


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