Tim Powell-Jones provides his advice for designing effective VR for learning
First published in the Training Journal on 9th July, 2019.
VR training offers learners an unprecedented opportunity to access environments that may previously have been closed to them, explore new ways of doing things, and learn through experience and play. For industry, there is the potential to quickly develop more ‘work-ready’ employees and for colleges, VR can free up capacity and allow trainers more one-on-one time to focus on skills development. There is increasing solid evidence regarding the benefits of immersive learning experiences (University of Maryland: People recall information better through virtual reality, says new UMD study).
But while interest in using VR training is fuelling growing investment in the technology, effective deployment in any training or learning strategy depends on good design as much as buying into the latest tech. For me, there are five key principles:
Establish the need
The starting point for anyone considering VR-based training is to establish whether it is the correct solution.
VR is best used where it would be performing a job that an existing solution cannot, or where it can deliver substantial improvement on the way a particular piece of learning is currently delivered and experienced. For example, if the user needs to learn about an environment to which they have limited access, VR can be an important tool. Likewise, it is also effective when learners need to understand a particular point of view, or when there is need for a high impact experience as part of a blended solution.
The location where the solution is being deployed is also key. Although the hardware is increasingly cheap and accessible, there must be dedicated space in which it can be used and infrastructure to support it. This has historically led to a reluctance to embrace VR training, but the emergence of portable headsets like the Oculus Quest (which we love!) is certainly changing this already.
Establish your outcomes
Once a VR training solution has been agreed upon, as with any piece of learning, it’s vital to have clarity on the expected outcomes and take the time up front to define these.
We have recently been developing a Construction Site Health and Safety Training experience in collaboration with the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) and City College Plymouth. Materials from tutors and questions from a test book were a great starting point, but it was only by visiting a live site that we understood the most pressing issues. These included slips, trips and falls, rather than our preconceived ideas about more dramatic events, such as fires. We could then focus on learning outcomes for the areas which actually cause the most accidents.
Learning outcomes may evolve in development. But try to stay as close as possible to an agreed list to keep the team focused and ensure all developed assets function in support of these objectives.
Work together in design
Once learning outcomes have been agreed, the next stage is planning engaging interactions throughout the experience. Even in a high-fidelity VR training experience, users quickly get bored doing the same thing.
Unfortunately, a lot of digital learning still relies on multiple choice questions to test knowledge, but when in a 3D environment, these can often pull the user out of the immersion. Where possible, try and develop learning interactions which keep the learner contextually and physically in the world portrayed by the experience.
To do this, it is crucial that core teams come together regularly to share progress and ideas throughout the design and development. The learning designer is unlikely to be aware that – for example – climbing a ladder is relatively easy to implement, or that we can buy a plug-in that allows for realistic simulation of cables. Similarly, for the developer, knowing that certain controls (like examining something from a distance and examining something close up) would be reused once implemented allows them to focus effort on things that are most likely to have value.
Collaboratively developing grey boxes to test out environments and mechanics allows learning design teams to create iterative versions of storyboards with the confidence that each time they are getting closer to a true representation of what the experience should be. These prototypes help subject matter experts and potential audiences have input earlier in the process to guarantee a better final training experience.
Consider your channels
Generally, audio is more effective than reading in VR. However, users can easily become overwhelmed by the amount of information and distracted by the environment – especially if they have not been in VR before.
This can be hard to predict on paper, but the iterative storyboarding process outlined above allows designers to ensure they are not delivering key audio information when the learner is performing a complex interaction or trying to orientate themselves in a new environment.
It’s also helpful to develop a taxonomy of information at an early stage in design – what information should be delivered as short text labels, what should be voiceover and what should be incorporated into the UI.
Think outside the headset
An effective VR training experience could be as short as 3 or 4 minutes, but a huge amount of teaching and learning can take place around that time if we think about what happens outside the experience, when the learner takes the headset off.
You may not necessarily be ‘learning’ within the VR experience, but it can be an amazing experiential prompt for a workshop-based face to face session. This Chicago Police Academy example is a powerful example of how even 360 video technology can build empathy and help learners understand and react to a situation when deployed as part of a blended solution.
Similarly, for the construction health and safety VR project we’re working on for CITB, we will tie the experience to assessed coursework by asking the students to explore the site in VR and then produce a health and safety induction presentation or risk assessment.
Some now suggest training, not gaming, is VR technology’s killer app and that VR will become as commonplace as mobile phones within the next 20 years (Toyota Forklift VR Training).
Despite some of the amazing work that has been developed throughout the sector, we must also accept that learning in VR is still at an immature stage and there is still so much to establish about where it can be used most effectively and how it can fit best into a learning environment. Statistics of effectiveness in education are notoriously prone to confirmation bias, so it’s only by taking a clear view of where successes have come and where improvement is needed, that we can continue to develop VR into a vital tool for modern learners.
However, the extent to which this happens will depend on how effectively this exciting technology is deployed. And that will come down to good design.