If you view the modern learning environment through the lens of an experience designer, you’ve been delighted in advances that we’ve seen over the past several years. As a community, we have begun to embrace humanizing strategies – like design thinking – and moved away from ineffective and exhausting teach-by-telling strategies. We’ve embraced technologies such as virtual reality that demand learn-by-doing approaches and have moved away from waterfall processes that shut down feedback and remove iteration. All in all, this means we’re headed in the right direction and that learners today are better off than their predecessors. Still, many companies shy away from the single most important ingredient in an effective learning experience: emotion.

This is strange. When you look back on your life, the memories that burn brightest are those that were formed in the presence of extreme emotions – a first kiss, the death of a loved one, a career setback, graduation from university. Almost without exception, the memories that spring forth are those that are fundamentally emotional. So, why don’t we harness this obviously powerful memory mechanism for adult learning?

In large part, it may be because we don’t understand how emotion impacts learning. We’re uncomfortable acknowledging the full range of the human experience, particularly in the professional sphere, and it may be that we’re not sure we know how to make authentically emotional content. However, current trends are lining up to make 2021 the year we finally embrace truly human-centric learning design and – in so doing – fully harness the power of emotion for more effective and efficient learning. Here are the trends that will fuel the transformation:

1. Increased focus on diversity, equity and inclusion training
Companies want better ideas, stronger talent and increased innovation. To accomplish this, they are increasingly focused on ensuring that all voices are heard, all perspectives are understood and all employees are respected. Serious efforts require building deep levels of empathy in the employee population, which necessitate that corporations begin taking seriously the need to address and provide emotional context.

Prediction: Based on this, 2021 is the year we will see the best diversity, equity and inclusion courses of all time. They will be great, because they will fully embrace and demonstrate the emotional reality of employees.

2. Improved adoption rates of virtual reality (VR) technologies

2020 saw a rapid increase in the number of companies incorporating VR technology in training. The trend was driven by multiple factors, including cheaper yet higher-quality headsets, more accessible development tools and an explosion of use cases that have proven the value of immersive technologies. Unsurprisingly, the use cases that generated the most noteworthy headlines were those that represented the full spectrum of the employee experience, including powerful emotional content.

Prediction: The adoption of virtual reality technology in training will continue its rapid growth, and we will routinize the use of emotional context as a key success factor for the medium.

3. Increased adoption of learn-by-doing strategies
Ineffective teach-by-telling approaches are being replaced by more effective experiential learning approaches in which learners encounter realistic challenges, make decisions, experience consequences and receive coaching on their performance. This is especially true of virtual reality, where the main draw is the ability to simulate a range of situations that were previously either too costly or dangerous to allow employees to practice in. Because these technologies produce such rich data, we have seen a wave of evidence supporting both VR and experiential learning opportunities that underpin it.

Prediction: In 2021, learning and development (L&D) will begin to generalize the learning approaches that make virtual reality so impactful and apply those lessons to humbler solutions, such as scenario-based learning and virtual role-plays in ways that rely on true-to-life, emotionally relevant content.

4. Focus on reducing seat time and increasing the efficiency of training through microlearning strategies

In 2020, we’ve seen a shift to shorter, chunked learning opportunities in learning and development efforts. The focus has, to date, largely led learning teams to provide explainer, refresher and TED-style videos to leverage the brevity and engagement of microlearning.

Prediction: Due to the increased adoption of micro and immersive learning experiences coupled with the focus on learn-by-doing strategies, organizations will pivot to provide microlearning scenarios and other short-form, experiential learning content that necessitates dramatic, engaging contexts with emotional appeal.

5. Designing learning experiences rather than courses
This past year, the corporate learning market has seen an explosion of entrants into the learning experience platform space. At the same time, learning organizations have become more determined to offer learners individualized learning paths that span multiple modalities over an extended period of time.

Prediction: Over the coming year, we will see learning experience platforms expand to include deeply immersive microlearning, as well as support for virtual reality, augmented reality, games and interactive simulations that are deeply emotionally engaging.

With these trends and predictions in mind, 2021 looks like the year L&D finally cracks some of the historically largest barriers we’ve experienced to learner engagement. However, doing so requires our collective willingness to address the full range of our own and our colleagues’ lived experiences, including the emotional highs and lows of our innermost selves.