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Immersive learning 101: Benefits and best practices

Immersive learning creates an interactive environment in which learners have the power to customize their experience. 
Immersive Learning
Credit: Elena Poritskaya; mychadre77, frantisek hojdysz / Adobe Stock; Ibrahim Mohamed / Unsplash

Immersive learning engages the senses, allowing employees to watch, listen, and interact within the learning experience — and research shows that it can increase knowledge retention by up to 75%

Training Industry states that immersive learning “places individuals in an interactive learning environment, either physically or virtually, to replicate possible scenarios or to teach particular skills or techniques.”

Here are a few ways well-known brands are taking advantage of this learning strategy, using virtual reality:

  • BP and Maersk have developed a virtual environment for the immersive training of oil rig workers. The Texas training facility features cyber-drilling simulators to provide risk-free, hands-on experience.
  • Airbus uses a variety of immersive learning methods, such as cloud-based 3D cockpit simulations, for flight crew and maintenance training. 
  • Walmart uses VR training to prepare employees for Black Friday. The technology is also used to evaluate employee responses in customer-facing situations and assess those aspiring to middle-management positions.
  • Hilton Immersion is the hospitality chain’s virtual program for training room service, housekeeping, and front desk personnel with an emphasis on fostering empathy in customer interactions. 
  • DHL uses immersive learning to train its global workforce in proper loading of shipments and has introduced interactive, gamified VR training for a variety of purposes.

The benefits of immersive learning 

Engaging employees is one of the biggest challenges for learning and development professionals. Immersive learning helps overcome this obstacle by creating an environment with minimal distractions in which learners have the power to customize their experience. 

And empirical evidence suggests that it works. For example, a study involving 160 students from Stanford University and Technical University in Denmark showed that immersive learning through VR resulted in a 76% increase in learning effectiveness over traditional instructional methods.

Below are some additional benefits of immersive learning. 

Enhanced comprehension and retention 

Decades ago, Motorola introduced factory workers to robotic guidance concepts by blindfolding them and having them navigate a classroom obstacle course following positional data and movement instructions called out by classmates. Learners received feedback from bumping into physical obstacles in the classroom, and had the opportunity to try again while taking into consideration what they learned from the previous experience.

The superior outcomes resulting from immersive experiences like these reflect a basic tenet of adult learning theory — that adults learn best and retain information the most under conditions that approximate real-world performance. 

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Better learner data

Technology-based immersive learning tools offer the added advantage of providing instant analytics reports to learning and development staff. Immersive learning technologies can collect usage statistics (ie. frequency of training, duration, completion), performance data (tasks performed or questions answered correctly), and engagement levels (measured in terms of eye tracking, head movement, clicks, and other learner interactions). 

This unprecedented level of real-time data provides insights on individual progress and aggregate performance to support both individual development and the continuous improvement of immersive learning programs. 

A safe learning environment 

Immersive learning makes it easier to practice skills that, in the real world, carry a high degree of risk whether to people or costly equipment. 

For more than three decades, the FBI has carried out tactical training for its agents and other law enforcement personnel in Hogan’s Alley — a simulated “hot bed of terrorist and criminal activity” built in conjunction with Hollywood set designers and populated by actors posing as “mobsters, drug dealers, and international terrorists.” And at the high end of the technology continuum, the Federal Aviation Administration relies on multi-million dollar simulators to train air traffic control specialists. 

While safety is certainly a top priority for training on tasks that are physically dangerous, it’s also a concern in soft skills training. For example, immersive learning creates a place to practice crisis management skills where failure doesn’t have detrimental impacts on stakeholder relationships.

Economies of scale

Although the cost of acquiring the technology needed to implement virtual immersive learning may be high, using it to train large numbers of people over multiple training cycles can be very cost-effective in the long run, as demonstrated by a 2019 study.

The researchers compared the cost of training intensive care workers in hospital evacuation procedures using mannequins to the cost of providing the same training virtually. The initial cost of virtual training was higher, but within three years it became the more cost-effective option. 

The live simulation required repeated cycles of planning, setup, and execution, and costs increased when the number of participants increased. On the flip side, the per-participant cost of virtual training remained consistent.

How to begin implementing immersive learning

With all the buzz about training in virtual environments, it’s easy to assume that immersive learning requires the use of high-end technology. While virtual and augmented reality are very effective forms of immersive learning, they’re not the only ways to create a deeply engaging learning experience.

Many of the benefits of immersive learning can be achieved without that level of investment, which is good news for organizations with budget constraints. Below are several less costly techniques that have long been a mainstay of soft skills and technical training.

  • Simulations that include branching determined by the actions and decisions of learners
  • On-the-job training with the opportunity for hands-on practice
  • Role playing with a coach or mentor who offers actionable feedback
  • Job shadowing while observing real-world interactions with clients

Absent the resources for a major investment in technology, L&D teams can still begin introducing immersive learning in these ways while developing a business case for building future immersive technology capacity.

If there are resources for implementing virtual reality, augmented reality, 360-degree video, or other technology to provide immersive experiences, explore the opportunities that are most closely aligned with business objectives and training needs. 

Using any of these techniques in tandem with traditional learning modalities can bolster a comprehensive blended learning approach that accommodates a variety of learning needs, styles, and preferences.

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