The traditional way of distance learning is all but over! No longer do learners want to watch animated PowerPoint slides or YouTube videos so they can grasp a subject. Increasingly, instructional designers are being challenged to come up with more relevant, and highly innovative content to not only challenge learners, but to also enhance their learning experiences.
Immersive Technologies – What are they?
Consider this scenario:
You have been hired by a large company, that has staff around the world. The company has just created a prototype of their new electric engine, and you are commissioned to develop a course on how to disassemble and re-assemble the equipment. There’s just one prototype, and there are 300 employees across the globe that need to get “hands on” training on the device before it starts mass production.
How do you train a workforce so dispersed, and with such an obvious challenge?
The answer: By using a combination of immersive technologies to create life-like training content!
Unlike traditional slides and videos, immersive eLearning technologies are designed to address real-world teaching challenges. From brain surgery to the handling of highly explosive and toxic chemical substances, these technologies are being deployed in real-life applications to deliver the most realistic of learning experiences to learners around the globe.
So, what are the characteristics of immersive technologies which can make them so endearing in the learning environment?
- Most importantly, content developed is “immersive” – which means it engages the learner at a much deeper level than traditional learning does
- It creates dynamic teaching materials – which means the content evolves based on a learner’s reaction to a particular learning scenario
- It encourages and reinforces behavioral modification – not just scripted correct/incorrect responses from learners
- The content mimics real-life settings much more closely than videos or slides
- And finally, it is possible to integrate “intelligence” into the learning experience, so the content evolves as learners gain proficiency in the subject matter being taught
Going back to our hypothetical scenario, one way to leverage immersive technologies in solving our training challenge would be to create a course that would let each trainee-employee “access” the prototype engine virtually – perhaps as a hologram:
- The course would allow them to perform designated assembly/re-assembly steps on the projected image – as if it was right there with them
- As the dismantle each section of the engine, they would see the engine come apart – just as though they were on the shop-floor performing the operation
- If a particular sequence of operations was performed incorrectly, the course would force the learner to re-do it (because the incorrectly performed step wouldn’t open up the engine as it would, had the step been done correctly!)
- In specific instances, if the course determined a particular employee is moving too fast – it could deliberately inject “challenges” (like a nut or bolt that just won’t open – despite the learner doing the right thing). Perhaps this will force learners to improvise on the fly – maybe use a different tool, or apply additional force?
The ultimate objective of immersive technologies is to make learning an experience, as opposed to a mundane process. By forcing immersion by the learners, these learning technologies ensure that learners are as real-world ready as the content allows them to be.
Common Immersive Technologies in ELearning
Here are some common immersive technologies that you are sure to encounter more frequently in the eLearning world:
1) Virtual Reality (VR)
VR is a technology that creates computer-generated, 3-dimensional settings that are based on targeted real-life environments. Using devices, such as 3D goggles and surround-sound-enabled headsets, learners get deeply immersed into the lessons being taught.
- If a learner applies too much torque to a nut or bolt (in our hypothetical scenario), the part they are working can start breaking up, or it can start squeaking or cranking, causing immediate reaction from the learner
- A surgeon-in-training can operate on a patient in VR training mode. If he/she cuts into a blood vessel, the virtual patient could start bleeding profusely, causing the learner to respond appropriately
VR allows learners to make mistakes “on the fly”, without too much cost (e.g.: a one-of-a -kind prototype does not break; or a patient doesn’t have to die), while also allowing them to learn from their mistakes.
2) Augmented Reality (AR)
AR takes VR just a step further. It uses the same learning principles of VR, but then super-imposes a specific real-life situation into the mix, forcing learners to function as if they are performing in that reality:
- An aircraft engine technician could be working on the (prototype) engine, not on the shop-floor, but in an augmented reality of a busy airplane repair facility. There might be other distractions injected into the mix – like other technicians working in and around the eLearner – making it much more of a real-life situation than VR
- The trainee surgeon could be performing the VR operation, but in an Emergency Room (ER) setting that’s augmented by busy nurses scrubbing and dabbing in and around the patient. There could be other mas-casualties being rolled into the Operating Room (OR) where the eLearner is performing the operation
By augmenting the learning environment, to mimic closely what the learner will face in real life, AR training content elicits distinct auditory, visual, and sensory responses that learners will likely deal with when they enter their chosen field of specialization.
Mixing It Up a Bit!
More recently, another immersive technology is fast gaining prominence – Mixed Reality (MR). A subset of AR, mixed-reality training sessions actually allow learners to interact with their surroundings, using holographs, headsets and hand-held devices, to augment their learning experiences.
Technologies, such as Microsoft’s HoloLense, use multiple sensors and advanced optics to create highly interactive learning content. For instance, using mixed reality learning content, in our aircraft engine scenario, the learner could use his/her sensors and other devices to spin the engine around, flip it over, or turn it on its sides to get a closer look at various components in it.
The training world of VR, AR, and MR is going to be vastly different from the 2D training world we now know. Not only will these immersive technologies help learners grasp complex content faster; they’ll also allow the technology itself to learn from a learner’s mistakes, thereby offering a much more interactive and productive learning experience.