Throwback Thursday: A whole new world of learning

Just how effective is virtual reality training? Have a read of our feature from one year ago examining the pros and cons of this approach.

Not so long ago, massive online open courses, or MOOCs, were hailed as the next big thing in learning and development.

In 2008, one of the world’s earliest MOOC programmes was introduced by the University of Manitoba in Canada. Aptly titled Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, the course was attended by 25 full-time students of the university, and another 2,200 pairs of curious eyes from around the world, who were able to access the content for free.

Four years later, The New York Times predicted 2012 would be “the year of the MOOC”. Popular online learning platforms like Coursera, Udacity and Khan Academy, emerged alongside the proliferation of single MOOCs around the world.

By 2014 however, the learning tool’s popularity began to wane. Several tertiary institutes and learners alike turned their backs on the medium, as they started looking for the next best thing in online learning.

All MOOC-ed out?

So why did the once-golden child of learning and development lose its clout as fast as it had arrived on the scene?

MOOCs gained prominence because they were flexible and convenient for training providers. In a large organisation, the open nature of MOOCs meant only one set of course content needed to be developed for an entire division. Consequently, it was easy for HR to coordinate training and accommodate various needs: employees located all over the world could log onto the platform at any time they liked, choose a programme, then begin learning.

These factors made MOOCs a lot cheaper to run than traditional face-to-face classes.

But as one 2013 study found, one massive letdown of MOOCs was their very low completion rates.

That study found that only 5% of students undergoing Coursera online open courses offered through the University of Pennsylvania finished the classes they started.

One key reason for this was that the courses did not take into consideration the changing habits and behavioural patterns of learners, caused largely by technological advancements. 

It is not just millennials who are always on the move, have shorter attention spans, and as a result, less patience for irrelevant information. Studies show that even the older generations are experiencing technology-induced cognitive dissonance.

A recent Axonify survey further found that 90% of online learners feel it is important that training is easy to complete and understand, with 85% saying it was “very important” that training was engaging, fun, personalised and relevant to them.

Nearly 90% also maintained that training information had to be available anytime and anywhere.

While MOOCs did cater to some of these peripheral needs, they were poor in capturing the attention of their users, and in achieving the most important goal of educating.

Still, it’s not that MOOCs have completely disappeared from the radar overnight and become irrelevant. The courses remain a useful tool in many industries, such as banking and finance, where self-paced learning is ideal.

So the challenge for online open courses, moving forward, will be to incorporate an element of enjoyment to increase engagement levels. 

Recreating reality

The ideal learning solution is still one that is able to balance all the demands of users: to be easily comprehensible, engaging, fun, personalised, and accessible.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that in the last two years, new solutions are coming to the forefront of learning and development around the world.

One solution, in particular, has a variety of names – scenario training, simulated learning and virtual reality, to name three. But the basic idea is the same: To help employees learn by “doing” through technology-enabled immersion exercises.

This form of training uses haptic (incorporating the sense of touch) computer technology to create a simulated environment of what employees will face in real life. These virtual recreations not only provide a hands-on experience for students, but also a visual context for the information that is being disseminated.

Unlike the preceding two-dimensional simulators, which were unable to capture the true atmosphere and depth of places and situations, the latest virtual realities are 360-degree and three dimensional in scope.

The most important feature of these virtual realities is that employees are immersed right in the middle of a possible future work task that can only be recreated by computer.

By being thrust into scenarios, trainees are able to practice what they have been taught. Training is also more engaging, which further aids the learning process.

Research conducted into scenario training has indeed shown increases in knowledge retention up to 70% higher than traditional programmes, said Dan Riley, managing director at UK-based 3D training software developer Spearhead Interactive.

“Scenario training is a proven and useful way to enable staff to hone their skills. It’s a resource that is used by multiple industries to provide familiarity with processes to aid efficiency, productivity, service or safety,” said Riley.

But the biggest advantage of simulated training lies in the possibilities it has created for dangerous and hazardous industries like healthcare and oil and gas, where hands-on training are impossible due to the risks involved.

In 2014, the oil sector was the first industry to use this method on a wide scale. Oil companies created three-dimensional re-imaginations of the oil extraction process to train rig workers. Prior to this, however, they had to rely on PowerPoint presentations to educate workers about safety guidelines, which was severely inadequate.

Around the same time, hospitals also began to simulate highly dangerous medical procedures like surgery, and even more minor ones like cardiopulmonary resuscitation and Foley catheter insertion.

With three-dimensional simulation, organisations are able to train new employees in crucial job functions without endangering any lives.

Virtues of interactivity

Adding gamification features to this, virtual reality has taken user interactivity to a whole other level for other industries.

That’s because features like points, rewards and leaderboards, build a new element of motivation into scenarios, Laurence Yap, Head of HR at Dexon Electrical Engineering in Malaysia, says.

He believes it was the lack of “true interactivity” in some MOOCs that brought user engagement levels and subsequently completion rates down.

Simulated training, on the other hand, requires participants to put on specialised hardware and accessories built with haptic technology, allowing them to control their virtual world by using motion and touch, just as in real life.

Users are also able to receive feedback in the form of vibration from accessories like data gloves and vests. This added layer of kinesthetic communication thus gives employees an all-around experience, beyond an otherwise visual-only medium.

Yap says these programmes are also able to “ensure that all employees fulfil their training requirements through automated refreshers and restarts” should they fail in the middle of a mission. 

Blind spots

But is virtual reality another case of looking through rose-tinted glasses?

Some have suggested that MOOC developers were so excited by the technological aspects of the platform that they ignored the human factor so important for engagement.  The same blind spot could potentially happen with virtual reality training.

Such programmes supposedly remove the need for trainers, since they should be operated by the user themselves, thereby lowering costs. But how true is this?

Evidently, virtual reality creations are limited by the fact that they only work with highly specialised hardware that comes with haptic technology.

So operating these technical devices might prove to be challenging if a trainer is not around.

These devices can also be physically cumbersome – from headsets that look like oversized space goggles, to bulky transducer-equipped vests, making them a lot less mobile than the creators probably envisioned. 

Overwhelming equipment and set-up costs is another deterrence, says Yap.

With only a few offerings available today, virtual reality devices currently cost upwards of US$4,200 per unit, although Yap says this should drop in the coming years as more providers enter the market.

Furthermore, while there is some data out there suggesting the retention rates of these programmes, Hewlett Packard Singapore’s Training and Employee Engagement Lead Derrick Lim warns that more research still has to be done in other areas.

“In terms of getting people effectively engaged and the outcome of the training, that remains to be seen,” says Lim.

“Right now, there are not enough indicators to really determine if such virtual training programmes are truly effective.” 

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