“What is it like to walk in someone else’s shoes? Books allow us to imagine it, and movies allow us to see it, but VR is the first medium that actually allows us to experience it,” wrote Nick Mokey, managing editor of Digital Trends magazine.

About a decade ago, most of us considered virtual reality (VR) futuristic — fun, interesting, a means of entertainment, but not an element of or even applicable to corporate learning and development. Accessing learning content on a mobile device was challenging enough! Even just three years ago, VR in training and development was highly customized for specific audiences and applications and extremely expensive to build and deliver. While an exciting concept, VR was not even a consideration for most organizations. They kept to the comfortable modalities of classroom (now virtual) training, eLearning and digital assets.

What used to be considered strictly recreational has now evolved into a critical modality used by corporations across the globe to train and engage their employees. VR content libraries with evergreen skills are now available to purchase, “no-code” platforms exist to build 360-degree learning experiences and ready-to-go simulations with avatars stand by for organizations to schedule with their learners.

Just as with the nomenclature shift from training to a learning experience, we are seeing a shift in semantics around VR — specifically with phrases such as “immersive learning” and “simulations.” Words matter, so let’s take the opportunity to define them and clarify how they can work together to effectively develop leaders today.

The Future of Learning is Immersive

Immersive learning utilizes augmented, simulated or purely artificial environments that allow users to experience simulations that replicate real-life settings. Immersive learning is intended to provide distraction-free opportunities to practice skills both technical and human (or “soft” or “power”— which is another semantics discussion for later). Immersive learning allows the individual to interact with the material in a safe environment, whether that’s with a VR headset or glasses, a desktop through simulation software or apps, or a mobile device using augmented reality (AR).

Immersive learning tends to reference the overarching umbrella of scenario-based experiences regardless of the medium and can range from simple to complex. For example, immersive learning can show up as partially immersed, such as a “choose your own adventure”-style branched eLearning course or online business simulation platform that weaves in simple logic. It also can offer a more fully immersed experience where the individual navigates a 360-degree virtual space. Here, they can focus on the task at hand and be offered the opportunity to explore multiple outcomes, no matter the risk in the real world.

On its own, VR represents a means of delivering immersive learning, typically through a head mounted display (HMD) or headset. When wearing the headset, the individual can disconnect from the real world and fully engage with the content, course, or training. When a virtually simulated environment represents what could happen in the real world, the VR learning experience can be highly realistic, allowing the user to feel as if they are actually performing certain tasks.

Compared to other training modalities, using VR to practice skills may have an edge for a few reasons. First, VR is fun: It provides a level of excitement that an eLearning course or online simulation simply cannot. In other words, VR offers an emotive hook and draws people in. Second, VR works: Individuals are able to practice scenarios and make decisions on something that could potentially happen in the future. The memories made from VR are implanted in the user’s brain as something that has happened. In fact, the results for VR learners are quite impressive:

  • They learn four times faster with VR than in classroom settings.
  • They are 275% more confident about applying learned skills after training.
  • They are 3.75 times more emotionally connected to content than classroom learners.
  • They are four times more focused than their eLearning peers.

Immersive Learning in Leadership Development

When it comes to helping leaders build skills so they can accelerate performance, engage employees and build strong relationships, there is no shortage of content, frameworks, microlearning, videos, articles and perspectives. However, the disconnect between learning skills and actually performing those skills on the job (thus generating the desired outcomes) is often due to a lack of meaningful practice. Even in peer-to-peer role plays, self-reported assessments or eLearning branched scenarios, the output can be unreliable. The individual is not put under the same pressure, stress, or uncertainty that may occur during a real-life situation. Selecting one of three options using a mouse is a completely different mental activity than speaking the words aloud and hearing the response from an avatar contained in a 360-degree environment. Immersive learning, especially through using VR, often mimics the unpredictable nature of conversations and offers an opportunity to validate and more accurately assess skills.

Using VR as an integrated technique in leadership development programs offers greater emotional and neuroeducation aspects of learning. Simply put, VR is memorable. When one is placed in the center of the action, such as a conversation in a meeting room with an employee, an episodic memory is created. An episodic memory is one of the nine different types of human memory, and it has the highest level of retention of information and behavior change. The University of Maryland conducted a memory test on two different types of learning groups in which one group was using VR and the other was using a two-dimensional display on their computer. Fully 40% of people who experienced the VR simulation scored at least 10% higher in memory recall compared with those who experienced the computer simulation. The bottom line? VR sticks.

As VR becomes more mainstream in daily life and corporate learning, learning leaders become more open to the possibility of using VR. Cost effectiveness of wireless headsets is allowing VR to go from a fun experiment to more of a mainstream staple for employees. Imagine going through a leadership development learning journey where you have the opportunity to practice with an immersive learning module — whether that’s on your desktop or the headset you gifted your children. More choices, more access and more opportunities to practice mean a more tangible ability to deliver on the outcomes of leadership development. Welcome to the new era of learning.

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