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Is AR/VR Technology a Better Way to Learn? Here's the Latest Research

When you think about virtual reality, you might imagine someone wearing a headset, flailing around as they engage in virtual warfare with galactic enemies. You wouldn’t be wrong—the virtual reality gaming market is expected to be worth 22.9 billion by the end of 2020. But as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) approach the mainstream tipping point, people across industries are already talking about AR/VR as the next generation of learning and education.

AR/VR might be the new kid in town, but it’s making big waves in the learning market. That’s because the technology has the potential to accelerate and improve learning and training, whether it’s in the operating room or a preschool classroom. In fact, early stats are showing that because AR/VR offers a mix of multi-modal, experiential learning, it could prove to be a more effective way to learn than traditional training.

The AR/VR trend is catching on, and the technology is more accessible and affordable than ever. That means early stats and research are starting to roll in, giving us a glimpse into what the technology means for learning and training across industries and skillsets. The results are in—here’s what you need to know about learning with augmented and virtual reality.

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 virtual reality. Now organizations can simulate real-world environments, providing lower risk, more affordable experiential learning. AR/VR training is gaining a lot of momentum in high-consequence industries—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 virtual reality and simulation tools either important or critical to achieving their business goals over the next 18 to 24 months.

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 AR/VR 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.

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.

If you haven’t already guessed, VR training stole the show. The study is confirmation of what so many industries intuitively know about learning with VR: 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. Early studies are showing that when classrooms use AR/VR 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.

In 2016, research conducted in a Beijing classroom proved this point—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. A 2017 study from Queensland University of Technology found that virtual reality simulation improved the technical skill of undergraduate imaging students. The study compared the technical proficiency of students after learning two specific protocols, either via the traditional laboratory format or a VR simulation. The study found that the VR simulation provided students with equal to or slightly better technical skill acquisition than traditional training.

Skill-Building in Enterprise Training

Here’s your fun fact of the day—did you know that every new Walmart employee prepares for their job duties using VR training? The technology immerses new hires into real-world scenarios to help them react and train for common situations, like delivering customer service during the holiday rush. 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.

When Walmart jumps on the bandwagon, that’s when you know something’s gone mainstream. But they really are on to something—in most companies, experiential learning is in high demand, but difficult to deliver. AR/VR is creating a new pathway for skills-based training in the workplace. Learners can use virtual reality to test how they’ll react in stressful situations, and work with supervisors to identify and resolve any performance issues that crop up.

For enterprise training, there are two key takeaways 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 augmented reality 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 are using AR to provide real-time instructions to employees as an added training support.

Although it’s too early to call it, all signs point to AR/VR as a safer, more effective way to learn. AR/VR is catching on fast, and there’s a lot more to learn as the technology becomes more widespread.

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