Can Virtual Reality transform professional development?


Many businesses are looking for new ways to push themselves forward and achieve more with the support of emerging technology.

For many, virtual reality is seem as the next step in this journey, from both a personal and professional perspective. However, it cannot be denied that despite the initial excitement about VR, it hasn’t taken off as explosively as experts first anticipated.

Failure to launch

The recent developments in virtual reality have been remarkable, allowing people to watch concerts while sat at home, play video games that are alarmingly realistic, and learn new skills in an immersive environment. The technology has evolved to such a point that there are few areas or industries where it could not enable an enhanced experience for users.

Yet, despite this, virtual reality is still not widely adopted. The growth of the industry has not accelerated quite as expected; even in the commercial arena, sales of VR headsets, such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have been painfully slow. It appears that although interest in VR is peaking, actual adoption is taking much longer to occur.

Though this is obviously frustrating for the organisations behind these products and the relevant technology, from an L&D standpoint, this failure to launch presents an incredible opportunity.

In a surgical setting, surgeons performed 29% faster in gallbladder dissections if trained using VR

As the technology is still in its infancy, L&D has the chance to get ahead of the game, and become pioneers. Because it’s still new, there’s a lot of scope for moulding it to fit around the needs of the industry. If approached in a proactive way, L&D can influence the design and evolution of VR in a way that ensure it suits the needs of learners, instead of having to retrofit for those needs later.

As with any learning tool it still needs to be designed with the users and objectives in mind, and although it’s not a silver bullet and needs to complement other approaches, there is huge potential for it to have a powerful impact on learning, if done right.

The challenge then becomes, how should it be used, and where would it be most appropriate?

VR in L&D today

Even though VR isn’t currently as popular as expected, that’s certainly not to say it isn’t being used. Individuals, organisations and even L&D departments are using VR to great effect in a range of different ways, but because it’s occurring on a relatively small scale, few are aware it’s happening.

In the L&D space there are several high profile examples of where VR is being successfully incorporated into the learning offer. The military is probably the most well-known example, having employed VR tools in a variety of settings, allowing military personnel to train for dangerous situations in a safe, controlled environment, at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods. VR is used in the military for a multitude of topics including flight simulation, medical training, battlefield simulations and combat training.

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Other examples of VR’s use in an L&D context include training for medical staff, with research showing that in a surgical setting, surgeons performed 29% faster in gallbladder dissections if trained using VR, and there are also examples of firearm training for police forces in America.

But even outside of the sectors that include high-risk activities, virtual reality is making its presence known in the training sphere. AGL Energy Limited in Australia are reportedly using VR for the on-boarding of new staff, and a recent announcement revealed that retail giant Walmart will be rolling out VR in its training programme.

It will be used to enable staff to experience simulated situations they are likely to encounter in the real world, in an immersive way, allowing employees to prepare for and develop the skills required to deal with these situations effectively. This technology is even being used by the NFL in America, to train quarterbacks to handle potential game scenarios without the risk of injury that comes from traditional, contact-based training.

The diversity of organisations employing this technology, and the wide range of skills being developed via VR training, help demonstrate just how versatile a tool it is.

There is huge scope to expand this even further, to incorporate more mundane situations. Topics such as presentation skills, problem solving and even sales training could easily fit into the remit of VR. In such examples it would be necessary to consider the relevant cost and benefits, and it must be acknowledge that VR may not always be the most appropriate approach, depending on the needs of the users and the objectives to be achieved.

However as VR is becoming more accessible both in terms of cost and ease of use, it is certainly not implausible to imagine a corporate world where employees learn about and practice their presentation skills (and many others) to a simulated audience, instead of in a face to face setting.

What’s holding L&D back from adopting VR?

As with many things, cost is one of the major sticking points.

While big conglomerates such as Walmart and the NFL may have the resources to invest in these technologies, not all companies do, and even those that have the funds, are naturally wary about investing in unproven technology.

95% of L&D professional surveyed stated they felt VR would be useful to enhance learning

Yet despite the prohibitive costs of the initial outlay, if it were a programme that trained hundreds or thousands of employees overs its lifetime, it could feasibly be that VR will become the more cost-effective approach. A virtual reality session could decrease the amount of time employees need to spend away from the office, reduce the costs associated with having to hire and send trainers to deliver interventions, and cut travels costs.

As a result VR could lead to significant savings, in the same way that eLearning does, but with a much higher level of impact, leading to improved outcomes as well as cost savings.

Aside from costs, there are several other concerns that are contributing to the on-going resistance against VR in L&D.

The most significant of these at present is probably a widespread misunderstanding, and high level of discomfort with the actual technology. As it’s something that is not that common arguably few people, either in L&D or the general population, are particularly familiar with the technology. This inevitability leads to a lack of confidence and high levels of unease when the topic of VR implementation is discussed.

Research from Kallidus found that although 95% of L&D professional surveyed stated they felt VR would be useful to enhance learning, 73% also acknowledge that a lack of knowledge on how to use VR could hold back its implementation. This shows that while the appetite is certainly there, people are still wary of how it will work.

By acting now, L&D can place itself at the forefront of the VR revolution

Ironically, it is for this reason that L&D functions would benefit from making the most of the current lull in VR uptake, and working to develop their confidence and competence in its use, before it inevitably becomes more mainstream.

However, L&D needs to move swiftly to maximise this opportunity; as slow as the growth may be at the moment, it is growth nonetheless, and we are gradually reaching a tipping point. While few are using the more sophisticated kit such as the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, individuals are already using VR on a smaller, personal level, via apps and ‘low tech’ versions such as Google Cardboard headset.

This shows that the appetite is there, but people are wary of investing, until they are sure it is worth it. But once adoption finally occurs on a large scale, sales of more advanced tech will grow exponentially, and will become commonplace at home and work, resulting in L&D losing its advantage. By acting now, L&D can place itself at the forefront of the VR revolution, and demonstrate to those it serves that it can anticipate the future of learning, pushing the tools the fit around learning and development, and not the other way round.

Enhance Magazine

This article was featured in Issue 18 of Enhance Magazine

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