A buyer’s guide for immersive learning technology – Chief Learning Officer

Immersive learning is on the rise. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, one in three small- and mid-size businesses in the United States reportedly planned to pilot a virtual reality employee training program. Despite the unprecedented economic headwinds of 2020, spending on augmented and virtual reality training systems topped $1.3 billion in 2020 — close to half of all commercial investments in immersive technology.

The COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated the trend as demand for skilled labor has not abated, but the pandemic’s limitations on face-to-face contact threw a wrench into the talent pipeline. However, as adoption has grown, so too has confusion.

As a growing number of employers, schools and government agencies tapping the potential of immersive learning, many are seeking out the rules of the road for successful adoption.

Here are three key benefits prospective buyers — namely chief learning officers and other learning leaders — should be looking for when navigating the complex and growing immersive technology market.

Efficiency in workforce productivity and outcomes. The use of VR for professional learning and development traces its origins to the introduction of the first motion flight simulator called the “pilot maker,” in 1929 —  a mere 26 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight in Kitty Hawk. Flight simulators became a mainstay of military and commercial flight instruction, over time incorporating innovations in VR and AR, artificial intelligence and motion simulations.

Ironically, the cost to build a military-grade flight simulator still runs about the same as the actual aircraft, according to the Department of Defense. So, military flight instructors are now turning to the latest civilian industry-led advances that have made the technology more affordable, agile and light-weight, helping new pilots gain invaluable “stick time” as they wait their turn for a flight instructor and simulator.

As costs decrease and the technology becomes more agile and mobile, it is important to seek out these more efficient approaches to immersive learning technology. By and large, immersive technology should not be as costly and cumbersome as the experience it is simulating. Immersive technology should make reaching training goals easier, providing efficient and cost-effective ways for people to acquire the skills they need for the jobs they want.

A recent study from PwC revealed that employees can, on average, complete VR programs up to four times faster than in-person learning. Indeed, when Honeywell began using a mix of AR and VR tools to train its industrial workers, the conglomerate reduced training time by more than 60 percent.

Meanwhile, UPS uses VR to train its drivers on safety and navigation before they ever get behind the wheel of a delivery truck. In years past, the company’s training program was confined to large — and stationary — brick-and-mortar facilities. The VR program, however, is delivered through kiosks housed in a 53-foot mobile trailer, which allows UPS to easily bring its learning concepts to drivers across the country.

Efficacy in learning and employee development. Of course, efficiency matters very little if the tools aren’t also effective at improving learning outcomes.

For example, Honeywell not only reduced training time with its VR program, it improved employee skills retention by 100 percent. After H&R Block began using VR to help its employees gain important customer service skills, the company saw a 50 percent decrease in dissatisfied customers and a nearly 10 percent decrease in customer handling times among workers who took part in the program.

It’s crucial to understand what kind of outcomes a program aims to achieve with immersive technology and then seek out tools with proven track records related to those goals. Not all immersive technologies are built the same, with tools not only being of varying quality but designed to meet different kinds of needs.

When Hyundai Power Transformers, for example, decided to partner with Alabama’s state workforce development agency to use virtual reality to train more workers in the manufacture of power transformers it needed immersive learning tools built specifically around OSHA standards for lifting heavy equipment.

The program now allows workers to safely gain first-hand experience — and, importantly, certifications — required to operate machinery and equipment weighing up to 400 tons. With so many wildly different uses for immersive technology, the “why” becomes very important in ensuring any tool meets the needs of learners.

Employers should research companies that not only offer tools designed around their needs but are open and transparent about outcomes. The best immersive learning companies will back up their rhetoric with case studies and other resources demonstrating their efficacy. 

Advancing toward equity goals. Some have branded VR as the “rich white kid of technology.” But the truth is, immersive learning tools are increasingly being used in ways that promote equity. But done well, they can help to advance equity by removing many of the system barriers of awareness, accessibility and representation that too often reinforce bias in the workplace.

They can help to build classroom-to-career pathways, addressing the pain points faced by both employers unable to find job-ready candidates and potential employees unaware of existing opportunities. Through immersive learning technology, workers are able to experience and explore jobs they may have never imagined for themselves, and then gain the learning they need to unlock new career paths.

Additionally, students and workers with autism spectrum disorder also greatly benefit from using VR to learn critical career skills, including how to interview for a job and communicate and interact with co-workers and customers.

And, major companies like Amazon, Google and Target are also using virtual reality to enhance their diversity training efforts. The idea — and it’s one backed by research — is to increase empathy by allowing users to experience interpersonal interactions they may previously have been unable to even imagine.

These examples are just scratching the surface of the ways immersive technologies can make experiences more accessible to people who might otherwise be shut out due to geographic distance, socioeconomic status or disability.

Prospective immersive technology users should follow the lead of education and workforce nonprofit JFF, which in its immersive learning technology scan, carefully reviewed more than 300 immersive learning technology companies and included impact diversity, equity impacts to identify the most promising solutions in this fast-growing market.

Immersive technology is evolving rapidly, allowing companies and institutions to provide a wide range of learning and training opportunities to employees. By keeping these three benefits in mind, learning leaders can help ensure the investment they make in immersive learning tools for their organizations will be a wise one.

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