Technology-based learning experiences are not new. Some of the earliest learning experiences began as flight simulators, like the Link Trainer of the early to mid-1900s, to help train pilots in a low-risk environment. Yet, learning experiences have come a long way since the days of mechanical simulators. The creation of complex digital learning experiences necessitated serious programming skills and took a long time to build. 

Now, we have accessible tools and technologies that enable learning and development (L&D) professionals to rapidly create immersive learning experiences such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) and games. And, the availability of consumer devices that use these technologies means we can implement them on larger scale than we previously thought possible. 

Experiential Learning 

Some might argue that all experiences are learning experiences, because we interact and respond to whatever is happening around us. We might receive positive or negative feedback in the environment and change our behavior accordingly. However, we can experience and react to the world without learning something useful. 

Experiential learning through technology gives L&D professionals the ability to develop environments or environmental enhancements that are specifically designed for learning. Experiential learning uses available technology and thoughtful instructional design to support real-world changes in attitude, knowledge or behavior. 

Common Types of Experiential Learning Technology 

Most people are now familiar with VR and AR. While these technologies are often grouped together because of their use in experiential learning, they apply different principles and offer different experiences. Your learning strategy will guide you in selecting the right experience for your program. One common theme, however, is that these technologies enhance the learner’s experience. 

VR places learners into a digital world and doesn’t require them to be in one location. It’s also great for training learners on high-risk tasks or when the cost of failure is high, as with flight simulation. Examples of other high-risk training include operating dangerous equipment and medical training. 

Augmented reality adds digital enhancements to the real world. It gives learners information in context and is great for performance support in real time, in the work environment. For example, a smartphone app can use information about the learner’s location and data logged from other apps, such as inventory, to offer just-in-time support. QR codes can open learning experiences that overlay virtual directions onto real objects, such as complex or dangerous equipment. Those instructions can then guide the learner through steps and possible corrections in real time. AR can also provide the L&D team with useful feedback. 

Immersive games often use immersive VR or AR, with the addition of game mechanics. Because games present problems to solve, challenges to overcome, and patterns to learn and apply, well-designed games can provide an excellent experiential learning context for the application of VR and AR technology. In addition, games use learner metrics to provide feedback on performance for both the learner and the L&D team. 

Where We Are Now 

Two major drivers of the current use of experiential learning technologies are the shift toward remote work and the increased accessibility of technology that makes remote work more possible. For instance, when everyone was in an office or worksite together, live training and feedback on day-to-day activities was simple. While VR simulations may have been possible, they weren’t always costeffective, because enough live support existed. Now that we have forced separation, including fewer employees at a single location, VR makes more sense. 

In addition, AR technologies are easier to access now that fast cellular networks and smartphones with highresolution screens, cameras and fast processing are widely available. The prolific use of smartphones supports the development of eLearning and job support apps that bring training to learners in a neat package  where they are and when they need it. 

A third driver of innovation in experiential learning is the improvement of learning experience platforms (LXPs) and data management through technology such as experience API (xAPI) — a way to collect, encode and standardize data both online and offline and among multiple systemsThe WebXR device application programming interface (API) supports enables the development and hosting of online learning experiences for VR and AR devices, making it easier to integrate and experience immersive technologies and interactive environments. 

Where We Are Going  

Given all we can do now, where might we be going in the next one or two years? We will need to continue to reinvent learning to keep up with new challenges. And, we will be able to meet those challenges with affordable and better wearable technology, data management and even, maybe, the emergence of powerful quantum computing technologies. 

What does the future look like? 

Wearables at Work 

Work wardrobes have changed for many remote employees over the last year (perhaps a lovely button-down shirt with sweatpants?). Soon, there may be a work accessory that connects employees to learning and development in a new way. Headsets are becoming easier to wear and less expensive to make. VR and AR glasses aren’t new, but their ease of use, affordability and integration may make them as common as smartphones. 

With this advancement, learning experiences and job support will integrate seamlessly into day-today activities. QR codes on employees computers will instantly provide just-in-time training. And, real-time data analysis of what an employee is experiencing and doing in a remote location can provide feedback to enable better support. 

More Mixed Reality 

Mixed reality enables simultaneous interaction with the digital and the real world and can take advantage of mobile device metrics. Experiential learning in mixed realities will be more accessible with better processors, cameras, batteries and 5G accessibility. Imagine intertwining the real and the virtual so that that learners can 3D print their solution to a challenge from within the digital experience! 

Next-level Social Experiences 

The request to please enter a meeting may develop a new level of interactivity. Social interactions that enable people to work together and communicate can add a new level of live support to virtual training. Now, soft skills practice with avatars can be difficult, because it requires detailed programing and graphics that otherwise lack the nuances of real interaction. But imagine a holographic role-playing experience! While VR can simulate many experiences, what if a live mentor could appear and interact with the learner within the experience to provide guidance or observation? 

The future of experiential learning begins now. VR and AR technologies are becoming more accessible, affordable and necessary in the diverse and dispersed workplace. These new technologies are bringing real and digital worlds together like never before. Are you ready?