VR Training: The Scalable, Almost Real World Way to Learn

Organizations of all sizes often struggle with a similar problem – how to scale consistent and effective employee training. Traditional classroom learning techniques have proven ineffective in many cases, with a majority of workers reporting a lack of interest and retention. In Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends study, learning is listed as the top priority, with 84% of respondents reporting the need to rethink their workforce experience to improve productivity.

Most people learn best by doing, but most classes don’t offer hands-on experience, especially for hazardous, expensive or complicated workplace situations. That means front-line employees don’t develop the muscle memory they need for real-world, high pressure situations. According to Deloitte, just 36% of new employees feel they’ve been given the skills and knowledge to thrive in their roles.

Maintaining a well-trained workforce is a key challenge for any organization that wants to improve performance, consistency and safety, address morale issues, enhance productivity and innovation, and reduce turnover. In short, a better prepared workforce leads to a healthier bottom line.

Immersive training

Traditionally, the most effective training situations exist in one-on-one learning environments, such as when the employee has a dedicated expert mentor or trainer. However, in large, distributed organizations, scaling this model is unrealistic.

The other end of the spectrum involves training videos, manuals and classroom lectures. While these methods are easy to quickly distribute across a large workforce, they are less effective, as learners retain far less information through these methods than through individualized, more engaging lessons.

Enter immersive learning. Over the past few years, immersive learning has taken hold in companies across industries to fill in the gap and offer a highly engaging, effective, and scalable alternative for learning and development. Immersive learning is an interactive training methodology that uses virtual reality to simulate real-world scenarios in a safe, controlled and engaging environment.

Companies that create immersive learning environments for employee training are at the forefront of a transformative workplace revolution. Immersive technologies like virtual reality are a fundamentally better way to properly equip employees to excel at their roles and prepare for high-stakes situations. Enabled by cutting-edge virtual reality, employees and companies can now reap the same benefits of on-the-job, individualized training, but in a way that is easily accessible and able to scale across the entire organization.

VR is a technology that has been studied for decades, but has only recently been developed for use in employee training. Already, the results have proven fruitful for many elite sports teams and enterprise organizations alike. Major corporations already using the technology include Walmart, Verizon, United Rentals, Fidelity, Tyson Foods and JetBlue.

It’s more real world

When used effectively, virtual reality can be invaluable as a learning tool due to a concept cognitive researchers refer to as “presence.” Presence, in the sense of VR, refers to the notion that in many ways, VR feels so real that the brain responds as if it were an actual experience. Because of this, VR opens up numerous avenues for workplace training to which previous classroom or seminar training models simply cannot compare.

If you really want to experience what it’s like to be on a factory line, or to be dealing with an upset customer, or a dangerous workplace situation, you can’t get any closer to the actual experience than when it takes place in an immersive learning environment. Using a virtual reality headset, one could simulate almost any type of situation – say, lunch rush at a busy deli, a department store during the holiday shopping season, or the inside of an airplane hangar – without ever having to physically leave the room. VR provides safe access to risky, hard to replicate situations in the comfort of a conference room or your desk.

VR training has staying power

Traditional training methods rely on manuals, textbooks, videos and lectures to train workers for these types of situations, but these approaches are often insufficient. VR drives behavioral change by strengthening the brain’s connections to translate learning to real life on the job. A Chinese study showed that the retention rate was a third better when participants acquired new information through an immersive learning environment vs. traditional methods.

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It’s a common adage: practice makes perfect. In fact, neuroscientific literature backs this up. The brain physically changes the more you are able to repeat a task. It’s often critical to get enough repetition before the right connections are sufficiently strengthened. In short, we learn by doing, and VR gives people the opportunity to repeat a practice as many times as necessary at practically no cost.

Mistakes are free

One of the earliest examples of immersive learning in practice – and one that has become common practice industry-wide – is the flight simulator. Edwin Link, inventor of the flight simulator, realized that a mere training manual was not providing enough intelligence for aviators to be fully equipped to fly. Link’s flight simulator allowed aviators to practice their skills in a risk-free environment, and learn from their mistakes in situations where real-world consequences would prove costly or even fatal.

Virtual reality training offers the same sort of immersive learning environment, providing workers the ability to experience high-pressure situations and make mistakes without consequence. Then, because they can repeat the simulation as often as needed, students can learn from their mistakes and ultimately master the tasks.

Data capture

One of the most powerful tools when creating VR-based immersive learning environments is the ability to capture unique data and analyze it to continuously improve the training experience. We can, for example, capture the responses learners make during the experience, track head movements to determine which areas they focus on, and measure the rate at which they progress and complete tasks.

In aggregate, these insights allow for unmatched performance analysis and insights for improvement. The VR experience provides unique and important metrics that provide an unprecedented look into the mind of a learner, enabling educators to see how well trainees are learning, as well as explore where additional training is needed or where lessons should be improved.

The bottom line

Immersive learning proves there’s a new, more effective way to provide engaging, employee training programs at scale. It’s a model that doesn’t force employers to choose between scalable learning and effective learning. Over a million employees are already learning with immersive technology, and it’s driving performance improvement, boosting learning outcomes and elevating the employee experience for organizations of all kinds. VR is transforming the employee journey, from recruitment to on-boarding, upskilling and reskilling.

Dr. Michael Casale is a cognitive neuroscientist whose academic research focused on understanding the biological underpinnings of learning and memory, in particular how to optimize training for a variety of learning situations. He has led multi-million dollar research projects aimed at understanding how virtual technologies can be used to facilitate the effectiveness of behavioral therapy. Dr. Casale has been published dozens of times in notable peer-reviewed journals such as Memory & Cognition and the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

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