The digital transformation of learning is well underway, and some of the most exciting innovations are in extended reality (XR). Extended reality, the umbrella term for all types of augmented, mixed, and virtual reality, offers new opportunities for immersive learning experiences and improved outcomes in all types of settings. From preschool classrooms to the operating room, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have approached the mainstream tipping point.

Across industries, XR is enhancing learning opportunities for a broad range of needs. In both research and practical experience, people are finding that this new technology can accelerate and improve learning, and in many cases, save money in the long run. There’s still more research needed, but early studies are showing that the multi-modal, experiential learning of extended reality could prove to be a more effective way to learn than traditional training methods.

Of course, XR is not a one-size-fits-all solution for learning and training. Now that it’s hit the mainstream, it’s time to take a closer look at what this technology really means for how we teach and train. What are the main benefits of learning with extended reality? What are some practical examples of XR training programs that really work? And what are the early stats telling us about learning with XR? 

With more educational possibilities than ever, here’s what you need to know about learning and training with XR.

A safer approach to experiential training

Training is a heavy lift in any industry, but in some, it’s downright terrifying. Consider high-consequence industries like healthcare, aerospace, and manufacturing, where mistakes can be deadly. In an ideal world, classroom training would sufficiently prepare workers to safely and effectively perform their job duties. In reality, most workers are practical learners, acquiring 70 percent of their skills and knowledge from experiential learning

Until recently, that left many organizations scrambling for quality on-the-job training solutions that prepared their workforce and protected consumers. Enter: XR.

Simulate real-world environments

The two most mainstream forms of XR are virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). While VR immerses learners into a completely virtual environment, AR overlays digital information onto the existing physical environment for the learner to interact with and manipulate. With new developer platforms from both Apple (ARkit) and Google (ARCore) , it’s easier than ever to create high-quality, innovative AR apps and other XR experiences that simulate and manipulate real-world environments.

For high-consequence industries, XR training is a new way to prepare learners for complex and dangerous situations without the usual risks and costs involved in live training. Research from Brandon Hall Group reported unprecedented interest in using AR/VR simulations as training tools, with 30% identifying it as a top learning priority for the next 2 years; a 66% increase from 2016. Likewise, 45% of those surveyed consider VR and simulation tools either important or critical to achieving their business goals over the next 18 to 24 months. Particularly in high-stakes environments, XR is opening up new possibilities for providing lower risk and more affordable experiential learning.

Practice by doing

There’s good reason for the spike in interest around AR/VR training—The National Training Laboratory rates ‘practice by doing’ as the second most effective way to retain information, outranking lectures, reading, and demonstrations. Think of it this way: scenario-based, XR simulations allow learners to test their skills, learn from their mistakes, and record their work—all within a no-consequence environment. For industries that deal with matters of life and death, the technology is a game-changer. And even in those that don’t, XR is usually a more efficient, effective learning experience.

Consider the use of immersive reality in construction safety training. A study published in Construction Management and Economics took 66 participants and tested their safety knowledge prior to the training, after the training, and one month later. Half of the participants were given traditional training, including lectures and visual aids, while the other half were provided with a 3D, immersive VR power-wall.

Surprise! VR training stole the show. The study is confirmation of what so many industries are discovering for themselves about XR: immersive technology often does a better job engaging our attention and concentration, and proves more reliable in long-term effectiveness. Combine that with the magic of a mistake-proof environment, and you’ve got a new leading solution for safe on-the-job training.

Better learning comprehension and retention

No two learners are created equal, yet traditional teaching methods often take a uniform approach to learning. Studies around extended reality are showing that when classrooms use XR to employ immersive learning techniques, students demonstrate improved comprehension and retention. Even better, the technology offers a new way to reach students who learn differently and face cognitive challenges. Let’s take a look at two examples of XR in the classroom.

Boosting student potential

Research conducted in a Beijing classroom put XR learning to the test against traditional methods. In a classroom of 40 students, half were taught course material through VR technology while the other half were given traditional methods. They tested student comprehension and retention immediately following the course, and again two weeks later. Students with VR learning scored an average 27.4% better on the initial test and 32.4% better on the second test. 

The study also identified students who were underperforming in traditional classrooms and exposed them to hands-on, VR learning. The new methodology made a big difference—those students ended up scoring 15.8% better on average than the top students in the traditional environment. This is big news for learning professionals across industries; offering an enhanced teaching model to improve learning and reach different types of learners at every level of education.

Improving technical skills

In the digital age, simulation is now a major part of how medical students gain clinical skills. As technology advances, more institutions are looking to XR as the most innovative iteration of the medical learning experience. But researchers at Queensland University of Technology set out to find empirical evidence that VR improves the technical skills of students. 

The 2017 study found that virtual reality simulation did in fact improve the technical skills of undergraduate imaging students. The study compared the technical proficiency of students after learning two specific protocols. One group had a traditional learning experience, and the other group participated in a VR simulation. The study found that the VR simulation provided students with equal to or slightly better technical skill acquisition than traditional training. In academic settings and beyond, the medical industry is embracing extended reality as a cost-effective, low-risk way to train and prepare clinicians of all skill levels.

Skill-building in enterprise training

In most companies, experiential learning is in high demand, but difficult to deliver. XR is creating a new pathway for skills-based training in the workplace. Learners can use XR to become familiar with complex products, test how they’ll react in stressful situations, and practice and repeat challenging scenarios. Here’s a quick look at XR in enterprise training.

Enhanced training support

For enterprise training, there are two key advantages that are worth noting. First, new research shows that participants learn better when they can see themselves perform. VR allows learners to see themselves from a variety of angles as they move, all while capturing their performance for further review. Trainers and supervisors can invite learners to interact with their own behavior, learning from their mistakes in real time. 

Second, companies can use AR to provide real-time instructions to employees, closing the gap between when workers learn information and when they actually need to use it. Because AR superimposes information—like maps and manuals—over our physical environment, companies use AR to provide real-time instructions to employees as an added training support.

Simulated employee assessments

Here’s your fun fact of the day—did you know that Walmart uses VR to interview and train employees? As the nation’s largest employer, this experimental approach is bound to inspire other companies to follow suit. The program uses Oculus, a popular VR headset, to immerse employees and managers into simulated environments and put their skills to the test. 

The tool drops employees into real-world scenarios, testing how they react and training them for common situations, like navigating the aisles during the holiday rush or motivating a disengaged team member. Walmart rolled out the program to every training center in 2017, inspired by a University of California study that concluded VR training led to higher retention than video training for learning physical tasks. 

Extended reality is tapping into a world of educational innovation and breaking new ground at every turn. As XR is adopted across industries at breakneck pace, we’re still realizing the impacts. But one thing is certain: our virtual world is more dynamic and accessible than ever, and it’s extending what’s possible for learners everywhere.

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