Author and education advisor Sir Ken Robinson says that imagination is the foundation of creativity and that applied creativity results in innovation. There is an important lesson to take away from this message when considering new technologies and learning.

We often struggle with launching innovations in digital learning technologies because we have not first properly exercised our imaginations. We leap to focused experiments or even large-scale systemic implementations without much pause to consider the possible. What gets in our way? Often, it’s time and pressure to be on the forefront of new technologies, or external decisions driving the integration of the latest shiny technology. Sometimes, we are the victims of the language we use to describe those technologies and their potential or presumed role in learning.

Consider the early implementations of virtual worlds. The prevailing early designs were centered on re-creating the standard buildings, classrooms and structures of physical learning environments. This approach provides an ease of interpretation: We have a classroom, people in avatar forms can either be the teacher or the student, there is a panel for displaying materials, etc. However, this approach bypassed the “imagination” stage completely, opting for the familiar rather than the possible.

The ancient Chinese model of yin and yang depicts the constant and complementary interplay between two forces – each one affecting the other, together generating and regenerating a whole. We can think of new technologies and learning design in this way. For example, consider 360-degree video. This relatively new technology is now affordable for many institutions and teams. The cameras are fairly simple and can go just about anywhere. The post-production requires a skilled video producer with the right software, and the head-mounted displays are decreasing in price and becoming increasingly untethered from large computers, game consoles and phones. In short, the technology side is set to go. On the other side, we need to consider what is possible – what these kinds of cameras can capture that is unique. Just sticking a VR camera in a location so others can see it is counterproductive. The novelty of the technology wears off quickly, and these experiences are nothing more than annoying.


Let’s go deeper and think differently. For example, one of the big challenges many organizations face is sensitizing their employees to the realities of other people, far away, who have a role in the company’s value chain. Many learning programs have participants spend time in structured exploration of a particular destination, using the local culture and environment to explore a particular theme (e.g., frugal innovation, digital disruption or customer focus) that is of strategic importance to the firm.

What if 360 video VR could allow us to do this from anywhere? With this technology, it’s less about putting an expert in front of the camera to point things out (you can do this in a much more directed way with conventional video) and more about using the small form factor of the camera and positioning it in high-value learning environments that could yield human emotions of connection. In other words, we can drop people into new environments via VR, with the purpose of being explorers, capitalizing on their innate curiosity and letting the reality do the talking.

It’s important to remember that with this form of VR, you are the camera. This is a powerful approach, as it can challenge personal distances and allow “visitors” to experience proximity to other people. This fact reveals a unique design opportunity.

Creativity to Innovation

This new technology and the pedagogical possibility came together last year, when Duke Corporate Education learners visited Mumbai from New York, London, San Jose and Singapore. The participants had close-up encounters with the Dabbawallahs (a lunchbox delivery and return system used in India), children in the narrow alleyways of Dharavi and throngs of people moving through the streets. Many emerged from this experience with stunned expressions. They had never been to India. They had no idea how big Dharavi was. And they felt love for the children who ran up to the camera and tapped on the lens.

That’s just one example. The same approach of matching the capabilities of new technology to imagined pedagogical applications will provide powerful results for your learners.

Here is some advice on how to unleash imagination in deploying new technology in learning:

  1. Experiment: Acquire the technology as soon as you can, and try it out. Having a working knowledge of the features and capabilities of the new technology will feed your imagination as to how those capabilities could be used.
  2. Involve others: Find a few others in your organization who have a penchant for new technology, and include them in your experiments. Organize a brainstorming session to think about all its possible uses. Start your contributions with, “What if…?”
  3. Source providers who understand learning: If the technology you are exploring is provided by third parties, find a provider that understands learning and is ready to help you experiment and, if appropriate, build a first creative proof of concept.
  4. Consider multiple application points: Can the new technology serve a role at the outset of a learning journey? What about during live events? How about performance support back at work?

Let’s continue seeking the pedagogically possible through new technologies, and let the yin and yang awaken our imaginations, creativity and innovation.