When we think about immersive or adaptive learning environments, we tend to think of technology. With so many new technologies entering the L&D marketplace, it is easy to think about the technology before thinking about our learners’ needs. When we envision immersive learning, we may go straight to virtual reality (VR) — a (hopefully better) version of Second Life in which learners can go deep into a scenario and practice. Adaptive learning often evokes visions of a complex exam that becomes more challenging as the learner progresses.

While technologies exist to move in that direction, we need to rely on proven instructional design practices and pause to think about what (and who) we are solving for. A simpler solution is often more apparent, more readily available and even more effective.

Why Immersive Learning?

Immersive experiences enable learners to be someone other than themselves and see what it would be like to fail. They also allow learners to be in an environment that is dangerous, rare, expensive or impossible. Here are some common immersion scenarios:

  • Visiting a location that the learners don’t regularly have access to (e.g., a data center or an international base).
  • Entering a confined space or work environment that is challenging to recreate in real life.
  • Being in a situation that is impossible to create (e.g., exploring a running engine, going back in time or traveling inside a human body).
  • Having a difficult or sensitive conversation with an employee or a colleague.

When and How to Immerse

Once you determine that your learning program requires immersion, you can determine the right modality and solution. The most appealing option is VR, where you can build a 360-degree experience where learners use a headset to experience of real choices. It could be following the steps of a safety procedure, having a conversation as a bystander who witnessed harassment or seeing the inside of a brain to understand a particular surgery.

Designing and developing VR experiences is more commercially feasible than ever before due to the reduced cost of headsets and the greater availability of rapid commercial tools. However, it still requires a large team, a decent budget (and possibly a travel budget), and significant effort. The VR experience’s shelf life — or, in many business cases, the lack thereof — is also an important consideration.

You can also build immersion through an interactive scenario — a nuanced experience in which the learner selects from a variety of realistic choices and is then provided with feedback that is actionable and reflective of the real world. Rather than using VR, a simple linear design can still provide a variety of ways to respond in a scenario through an interactive case study that details a situation and provides multiple opportunities to respond. Considering the costs of true immersion and balancing time, resources and shelf life for many use cases, these lower-tech options can deliver similar efficacy.

You can also deploy these experiences outside of your learning management system (LMS) and therefore where you don’t track them, allowing learners more freedom to choose answers that they may gravitate toward but know aren’t “right.” This approach allows the design team not only to use authoring tools that you’re familiar with but also to build an experience that isn’t entirely based on correct or incorrect answers. Compliance training forces a right or wrong, but many immersive scenarios deal with people and, therefore, have a gradient of right and wrong. Hosting the experience on a web server provides psychological safety.

Why Adapt?

You can use adaptive engines to measure the learning speed of a wide population of learners at different starting points and to serve them only the learning content they need. They can also help you understand learners’ knowledge and confidence. The adoption of adaptive learning technologies is somewhat slow, as they rely on strong banks of questions, heavy product knowledge and strong analytics. Working with automotive and pharmaceutical industries can provide great opportunities for adaptive learning, based on the need for strong product knowledge skills (e.g., vehicle features and benefits, physical and physiological responses to medication) across massive, multiple audiences.

When and How to Think About Adaptive Learning

Truly adaptive learning technologies can be powerful solutions. These technologies build confidence measures into their question banks to identify which content areas and objectives require the most reinforcement for each individual learner. They offer a powerful story to build learners’ knowledge and their confidence in sharing that knowledge with others.

What if you don’t have the budget or the ability to coordinate a large development effort to design, build, deploy and maintain adaptive technology? You can apply some elements of adaptive learning in a simpler solution. Think of BuzzFeed quizzes; they are adaptive but focus on a singular, small topic. They use backend logic with an outcome that offers the user insight and specific opportunities to do more and learn more. While these types of quizzes may not be truly adaptive, as there is no adaptive engine serving questions and content, the result is a modified adaptive learning approach.

Now What?

What problem are you solving? Who are you solving it for? When you peel back the layers of technology, you can identify the modalities that meet your need and practical alternatives that help move the needle and prepare you for stakeholder conversations regarding investment, speed to market and shelf life.