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Immersive learning technologies are having a significant impact across educational institutions and organisations. We spoke with Daisy Christodoulou, Author and Director of Education at No More Marking, and Ed Grieg, Chief Disruptor at Deloitte about the significance of this learning method and how it can be used to develop skills of the future.
The importance of lifelong learning
Learning in the flow of life was the Number 1 global trend in the 2019 Deloitte Human Capital Trends report. It’s a trend that has many people talking, both in corporate settings and in the classroom.
The skills that people are using in the work they do are changing rapidly and there is a need to be learning continuously throughout our lives. However, it is increasingly difficult to take a couple of months or even weeks out to update our skills. Instead, people are finding a need to learn much more regularly, which in turn creates a shift away there being a divide between modes of learning and working.
In fact, the world’s most popular online course is called “Learning How to Learn”, and is about finding the most effective way to learn. It is a sign that both younger students in education, and adults in their careers, are realising that they have to keep learning throughout their lifetime.
Types of immersive learning experiences: virtual reality
Immersive learning experiences are being enabled and delivered in many innovative ways. One of the powers of immersive learning is being able to put people in situations virtually – situations which would historically have been too expensive or resource-heavy to recreate.
Virtual reality originally began with more technical use cases, for roles and situations that were regarded as dangerous. For example, trainees at an engineering plant could be put into a virtual situation where the plant is going to blow up. This gives employees more experience in very rare scenarios which they normally wouldn’t be able to practice.
More recently, however, organisations have started realising that VR doesn’t only have to apply to big pieces of machinery and dangerous scenarios. It can also be useful for practicing soft skills, like helping employees deal with customers, or placing teachers in a simulation that allows them to experience a hostile classroom environment.
Another key benefit of virtual reality is that it not only helps people practice a scenario, but it also allows them to break it down. The technology allows employees to practice the scenario part by part, or focus on a particular aspect again and again. In the coming years, the ability to put people in these immersive simulations will better help both educators and organisations prepare for the future.
Adaptive learning platforms
Another form of immersive learning that is gaining momentum is the use of adaptive learning platforms. These platforms can respond to a user’s questions and their understanding of the content they’re learning, and based of this information will adapt what the user sees as they learn.
For example, if a user answers a bunch of questions correctly on a particular topic, the adaptive learning platform can adjust to give the user harder questions on the same topic, or move them on to a new topic. On the flip side, if the user answers lots of questions incorrectly, the platform will present the questions again or give them additional videos and texts to read, before following up with easier questions.
Adaptive learning platforms are all about having richer data sources to create a more personalised form of education. These data sources help the system and teachers make better decisions about learning, and as these platforms advance, we expect to see a lot of potential benefits for both students and adults.
New learning technologies can also change people’s assumptions and the way they work. A technique called comparative judgement was developed in the 1920s, but more recently it has been put into software for open-ended tasks that involve making open ended judgements. It is ideal for tasks that have no right or wrong answers, but require a level of quality.
For instance, schools use comparative judgement technology to assess children’s writing. Organisations use it as well, to do things like sift through personal statements or CVs, or for making a judgement about a new logo and branding.
This is a tool that, once people start using it, begins to change the way they think about assessment and can change people’s workflow. Comparative judgement is great for giving new perspectives about things, and will often change institutional ways of working for the better.
Avoiding learning fads
Given all of this new learning technology, why do we sometimes not see the advances and changes in productivity that we would expect? As with most emerging technologies, immersive learning can be susceptible to fads.
Companies are very quickly investing in developing immersive learning, so we can expect to see people pushing their solutions as a magic bullet that will solve all problems. Specifically, the pace of change in learning technology means that people are more prone to falling in love with solutions, so it is important to ground these investments in real research when bringing them into new environments. If institutions don’t understand how their people learn, they won’t be able to get the full benefit from their investments.
Not only do we see these fads in corporate learning, but also in a school context. There are many examples of big investments in laptops, tablets, interactive whiteboards and other hardware, that end up not having the learning benefits that people hoped for. This can happen when institutions don’t think about what they are going to do with their new hardware, how it is going to be used, and what software or content will pair with it.
For these investments to pay off, organisations need to think about what problems they want their immersive learning technology to solve, and how this particular piece of technology can enhance the way people learn.
The challenging shift to new ways of learning
As with the adoption any new technology, there are challenges organisations face when trying to shift to new ways of learning. The key to this is to improve people’s understanding of the science behind learning and how people think. Making these messages clearer within the workplace and the classroom will go a long way to ensure that people can focus on lifelong learning and adapt to the changes they need.
Often, if someone wants to learn a complex skill, they have to isolate it into its most basic components. As they get better at the individual components, the next challenge is putting the pieces back together. In this way, learning needs to be seen as a sequence, where the end goal is often taking small components, practicing each of them individually and building them up into a more complex skill. If we look at the way elite athletes practice, they are isolating individual components of their sport and once they excel in them, put them back together to improve their overall gameplay.
This is where the real challenge lies. What is the right sequence that takes people from practicing those small pieces to putting them all together as a whole? Immersive learning technologies could potentially have a role to play in helping people put in the component parts, practice them together, and become fluent with them.
In order to avoid barriers to entry of new learning technology, organisations must think big, start small, and test often. How organisations and institutions manage learning change is also important, even when that change is positive. At the end of the day, everything is a cultural change project, and although most changes are now enabled by technology, it all comes down to the people that are impacted by it.
Learning remotely – now more important than ever
With the current global pandemic and the majority of in-person events being cancelled, we have seen a lot of rapid changes that are forcing people to think about things that have otherwise been on the backburner, learning included.
For instance, a typical in-person class is all about feedback, with the teacher responding to their students’ learning needs. How can this happen if the class is not all in the same room together? With teachers not regularly seeing their students, how can they make the most of the data from independent study that students are doing when they aren’t there? Clearly, there is going to be a big role for learning programmes that offer intuitive data analysis for teachers.
Sometimes it isn’t necessarily about cutting edge technology, but about institutional change and reimagining the way people work. For many, their first solution is it jump to video conferencing, but there is something to be said for thinking more deeply about what the learning involves, it’s purpose, and how technology can help achieve that.
Though we do have to be aware of the importance of physical presence when it comes to learning, there are aspects of an in-person experience that can be recreated virtually, and immersive learning is the key to unlocking this. These possibilities are only just starting to present themselves, and are going to become much more salient over the coming months.
Will is the UK Human Capital Consulting Leader and leads the UK CHRO Transition and Development programme. He advises private sector clients, specialising in the Technology, Media and Telecoms industry, in the areas of organisation transformation, employee engagement and HR effectiveness. Will also leads Deloitte's Digital Leadership research and founded a professional community for digital leaders and talent across the UK. His work has contributed to industry recognition, winning the MCA HR Consulting and CBI Human Capital awards.