Learning Gets A Dose Of Reality

(As Appeared in Training Magazine)

Virtual and augmented reality technology has the unmatched ability to simulate the work challenges you are training employees to handle. The question is how to decide which technologies are right for your learners, and how to roll the programs out to them.


Training employees to manage challenging work situations, in which the satisfaction or safety of employees or customers or the financial wellbeing of the company is at stake, is tough. You need to give your workforce a realistic sense of the challenges they will confront, but also need to do so in a safe environment.

Games and simulations have been used for years to accomplish this, but now with more advanced virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology, companies have an enhanced ability to mirror real-life conditions in a safe environment. For Learning and Development (L&D) professionals, the key is figuring out when it makes sense to use these high-tech solutions and how to integrate them into a larger learning program.

RICH LEARNING EXPERIENCES

Virtual reality is the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors. Augmented reality is a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, thus providing a composite view.

Virtual and augmented reality technology may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but it increasingly is becoming the norm, says Harpreet Singh, Ph.D., founder of Expercoin at the Harvard Innovation Launch Lab. “As we build courseware at Expercoin and Experfy in Harvard Innovation Lab, we have Fortune 500 companies demanding richer learning experiences that leverage these emerging technologies,” he says. “The technology has equal application for a plumber who is learning to replace a water boiler and a robotics engineer building the next-generation spaceship to colonize Mars.”

Indeed, according to a recent report from Tractica, the worldwide market for enterprise virtual reality hardware and software will increase from $1 billion in 2018 to $12.6 billion annually by 2025. The market intelligence firm anticipates the top applications for enterprise virtual reality technology will include training and simulation, medical therapy, location-based entertainment, and education.

REALISTIC AND ON-DEMAND

Not only can virtual and augmented reality transport learners realistically into the situations they will have to manage, but help is provided at the moment it is needed most. Verizon currently is working on several augmented and virtual reality initiatives to enhance both classroom training and moment-of-need training for performance support, according to Senior Manager of Learning Technology Fraser Bowie, Associate Director of Learning Technology Riaz Uddin, and Director of Global Learning Technology Pete Beck. “These solutions are scheduled to launch in the next few months. Our approach is to implement solutions that provide a more robust learning experience that is effective and sustainable, not just a solution that uses the newest, coolest technology. Through augmented and virtual reality, we are able to provide our employees with a learning environment that immerses them in the learning content and/or provides just-in-time support on the job.”

For example, the first new Verizon augmented reality program uses in-store collateral materials as marker images to trigger microlearning on company-owned retail employee phones. Applying the technology this way uses the time between customer appointments to deliver learning. This increases both employee product knowledge and time on the sales floor.

The second Verizon program using this technology deploys augmented reality glasses to field technicians, providing them the ability to access the information they need hands-free and at the moment of need. “We will not only be delivering performance support, but also the ability to do video calling with an expert at our technician centers when additional help is needed,” note Bowie, Uddin, and Beck. “With each of these new programs, our goal is to not only improve product knowledge and overall performance but gauge employees’ reactions to the new training approach and its efficacy.”

Each of Verizon’s pilots have ROI associated with it, the Learning professionals say. “We already have some key elements we’re looking to measure for each of our pilots, but we also know we will uncover some new metrics after conducting the trials.” Here are some examples of what Verizon is looking to measure:

In AR in-store training, Verizon is looking at time off the sales floor and how avoiding that could increase productivity. Or perhaps just go after “free” time instead of scheduled training time. “We also expect to see an increase in product knowledge resulting in better sales,” said Bowie, Uddin, and Beck. “This solution has the lowest cost of entry, so proving a positive ROI could be easier.”

For Verizon’s AR glasses experience, the company is looking at increased productivity, perhaps getting more done in a shorter time or increasing jobs completed. “We also are looking at reducing errors and avoiding a second field deployment of our resources,” the Learning professionals say. “Being the most expensive deployment, given the cost of hardware and software, it is crucial we measure both hard and soft costs to understand the ROI.”

The VR experience is perhaps the hardest ROI to identify, Bowie, Uddin, and Beck admits. “Our goal is to create the muscle memory in our employees but hope they never need to use it. Though not cheap, the value of having employees prepared for a potentially threatening situation is well worth the investment. We will track our employee satisfaction and level of confidence in their preparedness. We are likely not going to be able to track any initial monetary value for this particular training; however, the safety of our employees is a far greater investment.”

AID LEARNING RETENTION AND IMPACT

With the ability for powerful simulations and immersion comes the chance to make learning count even more. Visa uses virtual and augmented reality in multiple ways, notes Senior Director, Visa University Shelley Henson. “First is to support our employees’ retention of key concepts taught in our signature Payments Everywhere Certification,” she says. The VR program the company uses for this purpose provides foundational knowledge about how the players in the payments industry interact. The company uses a connected virtual reality group game to reinforce these concepts. “We currently have one game developed and plan to add new games using a similar platform for other programs. We also have several other brand-related virtual and augmented reality experiences that are used to help communicate the spirit of our brand,” Henson says.

For instance, Visa sponsors the Olympics and created a Google Cardboard (https://vr.google.com/cardboard/) experience that Henson says helped to generate excitement about the Sochi Winter Olympics. “We plan to leverage these types of experiences to help new hires around the globe get a sense of our brand. We will continue to invest in these technologies when the experience will support learning and business objectives,” she says.

Henson notes the technology is deployed in a way that connects learners with each other, which also helps to make the lessons more powerful. “We optimize the technology by turning what are traditionally solo experiences (one person in a headset) into group learning experiences,” she says. “Our learning experiences always connect with other mobile devices or with the participants in the room. This allows us to draw on the pedagogical advantages of not only the virtual/ augmented reality but also of collaborative group work. As a result, experiences are richer and more meaningful, they connect our learners, and they are a ton of fun!”

Experiential learning is extremely powerful, and that’s why VR and AR training and education are so popular, believes Dave Beck, managing partner at Foundry 45, an immersive technology company that specializes in creating VR training experiences for enterprise clients. “If you think about it, do you learn more by reading a book about something or by actually doing it? For me, it’s definitely the latter,” says Beck. “Overall, experiential VR training is one of the most effective ways to learn, increasing retention by 75 to 90 percent.”

INCREASING PRODUCTIVITY AND DECREASING COST

Before you make the leap into investment and use of virtual and augmented technology, it’s important to pause and map out a plan. ADP, for example, is thinking strategically about how the technology can be used to achieve its goals. “ADP is not using augmented and virtual reality currently, but we have done research into the technology. Within the corporate learning space, we recognize that augmented and virtual reality have vast potential as methods for teaching associates new skills through embedded photos, videos, audio, and learning experiences that are tactile and fully interactive,” says Matt Pellarin, director of Learning Innovation for Enterprise Learning at ADP. “Regarding augmented reality, the technology readiness level for the training use case is one of the most mature, and as such, we are planning to invest in this technology through a work instructions proof of concept, and possibly through remote expert telepresence.”

ADP is assessing all it has to gain from the use of the technology. “Augmented and virtual reality give us the ability to manipulate functional space in a way that ultimately should result in increased productivity and a reduction in costs. In the case of a work instructions training app, we would have the ability to train associates and clients on our hardware products with just-in-time, step-by-step directions, or remotely troubleshoot hardware issues with the assistance of a real-time augmented overlay,” Pellarin says.

The company is careful to consider the return on investment it is likely to achieve. “For ADP, a large portion of our training is based on our software products, and as such, the use case for augmented and virtual reality is much less defined. We have the ability on our machines to augment the view of the learner through performance support and software overlays, so the main challenge is to leverage this technology in a broad enough capacity to generate a return on the often-steep investment,” Pellarin says.

Understanding and capitalizing on the intended use of the technology is critical to ensure authentic learning needs are met, he notes. “For example, augmented reality is most effective when a learner is required to perform a task on a physical object, whereby training is directly overlaid on an object in the learner’s physical space. Keeping considerations such as this in mind will ensure that training provides an efficient and practical way to perform and assess newly acquired skills.”

You also want to assess whether you have the in-house talent to develop a strong virtual or augmented reality program, or whether the development would need to be outsourced. Phil Cowcill, a senior e-learning specialist and contractor working with a department in the Canadian government, says he currently is exploring how he might use the technology. “I’m looking to use augmented reality within our courses to provide additional information on course content. As an example, we can’t access YouTube within our building. However, using augmented reality, we can provide additional material, including YouTube videos, on learners’ phones,” he explains, noting, however, that there are hurdles that will need to be overcome before the technology can be implemented.

“The challenge is getting the time to build and incorporate it,” he says. “Also, there is a talent issue. Right now, I’m the only one in our department who can develop or create augmented reality. To get more flexibility, we need to look at getting away from using third-party software and start developing our own native apps. That will be a while in coming.”

QUICK TIPS

  • Use virtual and augmented reality technology to provide just-in-time support to employees. They can even use it as a learning boost between customer appointments on the sales floor, for example.
  • Connect other learners to one another with an immersive game that makes the lessons you deliver a collaborative experience.
  • Enhance your learning and company brand. When employees experience virtual and/or augmented reality in your learning program, their perception of the company changes. They will see a forward-thinking company they want to spend a long career with.
  • Create detailed strategic plans. You want to be sure you know specifically how rolling out the technology to your learners will work, and what resources are required.
  • Plan how the use of the technology will be coupled with real-world activities, such as practicing a skill learned virtually by working with a physical object.
  • Determine if you have the resources in-house or whether you will have to outsource development of virtual or augmented reality programs. If outsourced, what support will the outsource partner require to help you meet your goals?

4 Keys to Developing a Successful VR Training Program

By Dave Beck, Managing Partner, Foundry 45

Virtual reality (VR) technology can completely change the way you engage and train employees across your company. While it’s not difficult to create a VR training experience, if you’ve never worked in the medium before, there are a few things you should consider to ensure your experience is both engaging AND effective. Here are four things to consider when developing a VR training program based on what we’ve learned from creating more than 150 unique VR experiences at Foundry 45:

1. Develop a business brief. Having a concise document that outlines key objectives for your training experience is essential—both for internal buy-in and to communicate budget, audience requirements, goals, and objectives to external partners. It should include the basics such as:

  1. Who are you training? Different age brackets have different needs.
  2. What are the objectives? Understanding and prioritizing your training curriculum is vital and can save you time and money.
  3. How are you integrating the VR experience with other training tools? Consider how to include your learning management system (LMS), videos, paper-based testing, etc.
  4. What are your success metrics? Have an actionable goal and identify ways in which you want to track success with this training program.

2. Consult with an expert. There are numerous technology experts who can guide you through your training journey. Make sure you find one who has experience taking complex training concepts and building them into an intuitive VR training interface.

3. What’s your budget? The costs of developing immersive experiences can be on par with developing other training initiatives, but because many companies haven’t used VR for training, additional attention often is focused on the budget. Setting financial expectations early on is important in order to match expectations and properly communicate ROI. Taking a phased approach to integrating VR into your training program also may be an option.

4. What’s your timeline? Timelines can drastically affect the budget of a VR project. Make sure you set realistic timelines for everything from the concept and planning stage through to development and implementation. Finally, launching your new VR training program across your organization will be important. Make sure to give yourself and other teams enough time to raise awareness and build excitement.

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