Forward-thinking companies are turning to immersive technologies like virtual reality (VR) to bring effective, engaging learning experiences to their employees. Many instructional designers and other learning and development (L&D) professionals have already sharpened their instructional design skills for classroom and eLearning programs. However, instructional design for VR-enhanced learning can seem like a whole new ball game.

After all, VR learners are already engaged and free from distractions — up to four times more focused than their eLearning peers. How can instructional designers leverage this advantage to deliver impactful learning experiences?

We spoke with Mwannesi Wade, senior instructional designer at Intuit, and Niti Lawas, manager of instructional technology development at TD, to learn more about instructional design strategies for VR. Both Wade and Lawas are experts in VR instructional design with experience facilitating courses for fellow L&D professionals on best practices for developing VR-enhanced educational programs.

Let’s talk about instructional design and tips for developing impactful VR learning experiences.

What Is Instructional Design?

Instructional design is the design, development and delivery of learning materials and experiences. Instructional designers are vital members of L&D teams — responsible for building effective training experiences to help individuals achieve their learning goals.

Today, instructional designers face unique and exciting challenges as technology advances and remote work becomes the norm. With the emergence of immersive technologies and the metaverse, a new opportunity reveals itself to give employees more engaging, safe and life-like learning experiences.

Tips for Designing VR Learning Experiences

Create a Solid Use Case

Integrating any new technology into your business should be intentional. Using VR just to say you’re using it won’t solve training challenges or bring long-term benefits to the business. Creating a solid use case is critical for your organization to leverage VR to solve problems and become more efficient.

Wade and Lawas tell us to consider what’s missing from traditional learning experiences and identify problems that VR could solve. Let’s say you’re training employees to handle downed power lines.

“Can you do it by eLearning? Sure. Can you do it over Zoom? You could,” Wade says. “Is it as effective as if you get them in the room in VR, and now they’re doing a 360-degree immersive video on what it’s like to experience downed power lines and how to manage them?” VR can help learners understand what this critical situation looks like and how they should react, creating a solid use case.

Consider the Spatial Element and VR Tools

Consider the spatial element of VR and how it will factor into the learning experience. What spatial elements are missing in your organization’s traditional learning experiences that would be useful for learners to have?

In VR, your proximity to other learners and the tools at your disposal are vastly different from traditional learning, so you want to determine how to leverage them within the VR learning experience. These are just some of the questions Lawas and Wade tell us to consider when designing a VR learning experience:

  • What should be in your learners’ line of sight?
  • If you’re designing a VR simulation, what characters or assets do you need?
  • What do you want learners to do or accomplish in VR?
  • What tools do you want learners to use that will make the VR learning experience more effective than other forms of learning?

Conduct Frequent Reviews with SMEs

Lawas tells us that reviews with subject matter experts (SMEs) are even more important when it comes to VR learning design, explaining that “I cannot build the experience and at the end ask, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ It’s always necessary to keep going back to them, share your ideas, prototype first, then create the experience.’”

Even the review process looks different for VR learning design, requiring SMEs to enter VR themselves and go through the learning experience from beginning to end. Scheduling sufficient time for these reviews is critical to ensure you’re on the right track throughout the design process.

The VR Advantage

Engaging Remote Teams

Perhaps the most exciting advantage of VR is the ability to gather team members from across the world in a 3D space. In VR, the spatial element missing from video calls is restored, creating an immersive environment for better collaboration and engagement.

VR learners are 3.75 times more emotionally connected to learning content than e-learners. Higher engagement is not only due to the immersion aspect of VR. Wade says, “People are very motivated, I find. They want to learn this tool; they want to learn how to leverage this technology. And so I think if you incorporate it effectively, it’s something they’ll be happy to participate in.”

Delivering Cost-Effective, Safe Training

Lawas tells us to consider the cost of replicating specific VR training experiences in real life. “If we are trying to train surgeons, I cannot give them real people to operate on, but I can give them a virtual experience of sorts without costing them lives.” VR allows organizations to train employees in a safe environment where they can make mistakes and experiment with different outcomes without real consequences.

Building Soft Skills

Training hard skills in engineering and health care may seem like an obvious use case for VR. However, virtual reality can also benefit soft skills training, such as DEI training, public speaking, customer service and more. The spatial element of VR and the ability to interact with others adds a layer of realism lost in video calls and e-learning experiences.

Measuring Success

As with any training program, you’ll want to measure the success of your VR learning experience to determine whether or not learning goals have been met and how you can make improvements. VR offers exciting new ways to measure learning impact by tracking metrics such as progress, repetition, eye and body movement, voice analysis and more. Lawas reminds us that VR learning metrics can even be integrated into a learning management system (LMS) to track them in real-time.

VR Learning Design: Final Thoughts

Designing and delivering VR-enhanced learning experiences is a significantly different process than traditional learning design. The VR learning design process should be intentional and go beyond traditional learning design to leverage the advantages of VR for delivering impactful, immersive learning experiences. With the right methods in place, VR can propel your L&D initiatives forward and help build a future-ready workforce.