Real Learning in a Virtual World: How VR Can Improve Learning and Training Outcomes

​How can corporate trainers prepare employees for dangerous or extraordinary workplace scenarios? Virtual-reality (VR) technology offers immersive learning opportunities for an increasingly broad range of experiences.

Total Immersion
At the oil refinery, emergency sirens begin to wail. A shift supervisor races to the scene of the emergency and sees smoke already billowing from the roof of a distillation unit. He needs to get the fire under control, but, when he opens the door to the control room, a wall of flame greets him. The situation is worse than anything in his training manual. How can he locate the shutoff button when he can’t see through the flames? He hesitates—and, in that moment, the pressure built up in the distillation tower releases in a massive explosion, ripping apart the building and scattering debris across the whole refinery.

A red message flashes before the supervisor’s eyes: "simulation failed." A voice comes over the intercom and says, “All right—let’s take 2 minutes, and then we’ll reset from the beginning.” He is covered in sweat as he takes off the headset. It had been a VR simulation, but the stress was real; more importantly, the lessons on how to respond to a crisis had been real.

For decades, trainers have faced a difficult tradeoff: How can you adequately prepare learners to make good decisions when facing dangerous or extraordinary situations? You can provide simple learning materials such as books and classes, but these are likely inadequate preparation for stressful and highly complex situations. Or you can expose the learners to those situations in live training, but this can be extremely costly—not to mention hazardous. For many jobs and situations, training has long offered an unappealing choice between easy but ineffective or effective but expensive and risky.

VR promises a third way: a method of training that can break this tradeoff of learning and provide effective training in a safe, cost-effective environment. Certainly, the technology is not optimal for every learning activity. But VR has been shown to offer measurable improvement in a wide array of immersive learning outcomes, in tasks that include such diverse topics as flying advanced jets or making a chicken sandwich or handling dangerous chemicals.

This article is intended to help trainers identify whether VR is right for their particular learning needs and chart a path toward successful adoption of the technology. Ultimately, learning-focused VR can turn novices into experts more swiftly, effectively, and smoothly than ever before.

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