In fields like health care, manufacturing and law enforcement, mistakes are often not only expensive but life-threatening. Experiential learning technologies, including virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and 3D training simulations give learners a safe place to practice dangerous tasks. After all, “It’s [safe] to make a mistake on a 400-pound crane in virtual reality, but if you were to do that in real life, you might actually injure someone or yourself,” says Bharani Rajakumar, chief executive officer of TRANSFRVR, a simulation training provider. Immersive training simulations also give learners a place to practice having difficult conversations, develop core soft skills and much more.

Although they can certainly make training fun and engaging, learning leaders should use experiential learning technologies “for the right experiences, not for all experiences,” says Ken Parker, co-founder and CEO of NextThought, an online learning solutions company. If training is too expensive, impractical, dangerous or “just plain impossible” to deliver in real life, VR is “probably a good option,” says Anders Gronstedt, CEO at Gronstedt Group, a digital training provider.

Let’s explore some common use cases in which experiential learning makes sense for both learners and the bottom line.

Keeping Pilots Safe

Safety training is critical to reduce workplace accidents and keep employees safe. However, it can be boring and outdated. Intertek Alchemy’s 2021 “State of Workplace Safety Training” study found that safety training is most commonly delivered using printed materials, such as policy manuals and standard operating procedure (SOP) documents, even as “most learning experts agree that asking an employee to passively read lengthy material is the worst way to provide training.”

Experiential learning is an engaging and effective alternative for delivering safety training to learners in high-risk industries. The aviation industry, for example, has long used flight simulators to train pilots in a “much more ideal environment for learning, than that of an actual cockpit,” a Designing Digitally article explains. Pilots can practice dangerous maneuvers, such as water landings, in a digital but realistic environment. “The number of pilots who will ever actually [perform] a water landing is miniscule, but if it happens, hundreds of lives are at stake,” Gronstedt says. Preparing for dangerous situations in VR helps ensure that learners can react in a moment’s notice if they ever encounter them in real life.

Further, John Kearney, CEO of Advanced Training Systems (ATS), a technology and engineering firm that designs and manufactures high-tech simulator systems, says simulations are “extremely valuable and necessary” for teaching learners how to use “anything that has motion.” For instance, training truck drivers can be dangerous, as an accident could potentially kill the driver and/or other people. “You can’t take that risk,” he says. With experiential learning technology, drivers can also watch their recorded simulations to pinpoint their mistakes and receive real-time feedback.

Reducing Risk in Plants and Hospitals

Training plant workers is another key use case for experiential learning, as it often involves high risk and can lead to costly mistakes. Consider the meat packing industry: Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, coronavirus outbreaks plagued meat processing plants across the U.S., driving the demand for increased health and safety training. To tackle the issue, NextThought partnered with Oklahoma’s Department of Career and Technology Education (ODCTE) to deliver a hybrid learning experience combining VR with in-person training. This experience teaches safety protocols, proper tool handling and other meat processing procedures, Parker says. “[Meat processing plants] are dangerous environments, and there’s very few training locations where you can see what meat processing looks like, and so we’re building that out in virtual reality.”

Rajakumar says there’s a “very clear cost savings” to delivering this type of training in a simulated environment; it reduces both costly mistakes and the waste of raw materials used in the training. But the real return on investment (ROI), he says, is reduced time to mastery. After all, stakeholders want to see learners “take off the headset” and perform their job in real life. “That’s the best way to measure whether or not [your training] worked,” he says.

Immersive simulations are also useful for training medical professionals. After all, practicing dangerous operations on humans can put their lives at risk. Kearney says VR is “the only tool” that can accurately replicate advanced medical procedures. Krister Kristiansen, managing director at Attensi, an experiential learning provider, explains that experiential learning can reach learners who are “very practical” and prefer hands-on learning. Coupling VR with gaming technology, he says, can be particularly helpful in enabling these learners to visualize advanced operations and tasks.

Police Training

Police training is another area where experiential learning makes sense. Immersive simulations can recreate intense, often deadly situations, giving officers the chance to practice life-saving skills such as de-escalation, Parker says. They are also effective for implicit bias training, which has become a critical focus in law enforcement training as a disproportionate number of Black people are killed during police encounters.

For example, Apex Officer’s VR training simulator for police implicit bias training is “designed around reducing the likelihood of taking action based on an implicit bias in the heat of the moment,” writes Peyton Bass, a journalist covering public safety and technology trends, in a Police Tech Training News article. “This can help officers to remain confident in the field and reduce the doubt they have in high-pressure situations.”

Soft Skills and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Experiential learning isn’t only useful for training learners in high-risk industries. In fact, immersive simulations give learners across fields the opportunity to safely practice soft skills and to identify and bridge their own bias. Gronstedt even credits VR as “the ultimate empathy machine,” as it allows users to step inside someone else’s shoes and understand their perspective.

For example, in 2019, Stanford’s Zucker School of Medicine and Northwell Health piloted a racial bias VR simulation and found that 94.7% of participants said “VR was an effective tool for enhancing empathy,” 85.5% said “the session enhanced their own empathy for racial minorities,” and 67.1% said they would change their communication approach after the training. With more organizations committing to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training amid heightened awareness of systemic racism, experiential learning will play a key role in delivering impactful DEI training at scale.

Kearney says experiential learning is also beneficial for customer service training. Learners who practice communicating with difficult customers or de-escalating heated situations virtually will be better prepared when those situations arise on the floor. With this goal in mind, Gronstedt Group designed SparkCity, a mobile management game, for Walmart. Available to all 1.4 million associates — and the public — the game helps Walmart employees practice skills like customer service and communication. According to an article published by Gronstedt Group, it also enables learners “visualize a clear path [to] advancement opportunities as they level up from department to department (and eventually to store and district manager).”

​From soft skills to customer service to diversity and inclusion, experiential learning can help L&D tackle critical skills and business priorities.

The Future of Experiential Learning

There are clearly myriad use cases for experiential learning — and learning leaders can expect even more as the technology evolves. In the future, Rajakumar sees experiential learning technologies augmenting human senses like touch and smell and even replicating weight and texture for a more tactical training experience. Experiential learning has come a long way, he says, and “it’s only going to get more real and more immersive.”

Don’t miss our infographic on experiential learning, which shares insights from learning leaders.