Virtual Reality Training – How it affects L&D

Virtual Reality (VR) for business is going mainstream, with many applications across a wide range of industry sectors, as well as becoming the mainstay of video gaming. Its usage will be for all manner of interactions from entertainment, product design, sales and marketing (from retail to buying a home), as well as leisure pursuits and experiences, to skills and training. In fact Goldman Sachs has created 9 use cases to support their contention that the VR and AR markets are set for significant growth. Naturally, the field of learning is one of those use cases.

Virtual Reality (VR) training is, in fact, taking the Learning and Development (L&D) industry by storm. Instructional Designers across the globe are in awe, delighted by the possibilities that VR offers. Each day, more and more learners get to experience strapping on a VR helmet and losing themselves in a memorable virtual environment. Do a quick Google search of “Virtual Reality Training”, and you’ll find dozens of articles calling it “the future of L&D”. It could be argued, however, that this description is not entirely accurate. The fact is, VR training has been a big part of L&D for quite a while, and it’s been changing the field for years.

VR training is transforming the way we develop learning programs and it’s evident in the following 4 areas:

1. VR Immerses Learners In The Training?

VR can be defined as “a technology by which computer-aided stimuli create the immersive illusion of being somewhere else”. That immersive illusion is, perhaps, VR’s greatest strength. No other medium can give users the feeling of “being there” better than VR can, and that makes VR Training such an exciting tool for workplace learning. No other training modality can provide the immersive experience: VR fully captures learners’ attention and, in doing so, boosts their retention of information.

2. VR Teaches Skills Through Simulation?

“VR transports learners to a different world, and it allows people to do something that might be too dangerous, too expensive, or too difficult to repeat in real life”, says Justin Mitchell, a Creative Engineer at SweetRush. And regardless of how “dangerous” or “difficult” the VR Training Scenario is, learners will likely develop physical memory and retain new information through the repetition of practical skills. The more a course mirrors a learner’s work environment, the stronger the recall that course will have. With VR, people can receive first-hand skills training on demand and on location. In this way, VR training can reduce costs and risks for companies and learners.

3. With VR, Learners Acquire Knowledge Through Interaction

Training’s true goal is retention. The brain is hardwired to forget. For training to be retained and guide long-term behavior, it must be stored in long-term memory. Related to this line of thinking is the Cone of Experience theory, developed by Professor Edgar Dale in 1969. Dale argued that the medium in which we learn is intricately related to how much we retain:

We remember 10% of what we read and 20% of what we hear. Yet we remember 90% of what we do.

Consider the following diagram:

90% of students who learned with VR passed their tests vs. 40% of students from other groups. Both short-term retention (+27%) and long-term memorability (+32%) improved. 

As you can probably conclude, VR Training has a huge advantage over other training methods. This modality allows learners to interact with a spatial representation of the information they’re receiving. Instead of just reading about an experience, learners can live that experience in a controlled environment.

4. VR Training Can Alter Behaviors And Create Empathy

Thanks to VR, we can simulate another person’s experience. You can experience what it’s like to do what that person does, or you can see how others interact with that person in any given environment. The service industry has started training retail, customer service, and insurance staff with basic social simulations. SweetRush recently partnered with Hilton to create a VR Training Programme that allows learners to experience working in a hotel and dealing with the physical challenges and complex tasks that Hilton employees face every day. And not only can behavior-altering VR training create empathy for service industry workers, but it also can address larger societal issues, such as discrimination and bias. “Imagine strapping on a VR headset and suddenly not being able to hear all that well while someone interacts with you. That can give you a pretty good idea of what it’s like every day for people with hearing disabilities”, Gannon says. “Imagine a simulation in which you are a person of color, and a police officer approaches you unfairly, thus making you understand firsthand what racial bias is like”. Through simulation, interaction, and immersion, VR can challenge our understanding of the world and make us more empathetic.


1. A premium compliance offer for high risk environments using a mix of bespoke and off-the-shelf VR courses

Compliance is still a major driver for elearning, and there is no doubt that developers have made considerable progress in updating these materials to drive engagement, but VR has the capacity and capability to transform how compliance led elearning is delivered. In this compliance market segment we see a premium compliance sector emerging for critical tasks in high risk environments quite quickly, especially where evidence of learning is required beyond just a post course assessment.

2. A significant market in leadership development and communication skills again using a mixture of bespoke and off-the-shelf VR

With the availability of off-the-shelf VR learning experiences we will see this market grow rapidly. The potential for VR to enter and enhance or disrupt the coaching and personal development training market is huge. If we use Bersin’s training spend allocation by programme figures compliance/mandatory learning is 15-20% of the organisations total expenditure, where management development, interpersonal skills, selling and service represents over 55% of the corporate expenditure (the rest of the expenditure being IT, and professional and specific courses). The US Business Coaching market is valued in excess of $11 billion. This has been the hardest market for the elearning industry to crack, but it is at least double in size to the compliance market, and one that VR is highly suited to. The feedback and freedom to fail cannot be overemphasised and the attraction of such a learning environment that is Visual, Kinaesthetic and Auditory will prove very compelling for talent development programmes including communications and presentations, selling skills and more. The VR experience is compelling in delivering real and immediate feedback that is hugely relevant and will be of immense benefit to the learner. For this reason it will be hugely disruptive in a market that is still largely face to face orientated.

3. High-end bespoke developments in sophisticated skills requirements.

A strong uptake is anticipated in this market in the next 12-24 months as the benefits of this type of learning become increasingly obvious and the VR hardware becomes available at more attractive price points. Off-the-shelf materials will emerge and these will be complemented by very specific bespoke VR courses. High value bespoke courses are set to emerge in several areas:

  1. Selling skills is one as it is well known in many organisations that the sales teams enjoy the largest training budgets and the impact of the training can be measured and learning analytics integrations between LMS –LRS and CRM will quickly emerge to fully leverage the potential of VR based training.
  2. Healthcare training using simulations is not new, but typically the simulation suites and mannequins have been located in purpose-built facilities causing locational issues as well as capacity and scheduling issues. VR solves many of these problems.
  3. Other complex and high risk activities are obvious settings for this type of engaging learning, where each action of each process or procedure can be analysed and evaluated and individuals equipped for experiences that may not be frequently experienced.

Virtual Reality will not replace more traditional forms of elearning; it is believed that video based elearning and interactive elearning is still growing, but VR will rapidly accelerate in usage in premium compliance, where it will play a growing role.

Virtual Reality could represent up to one third of the value of the present e-learning market in the UK, as much as £270 – £320 million if development capacity can meet demand by 2025.

So, as this article began by saying, this development of VR is not new or experimental, it is now ready for mainstreaming and transitioning to become the chosen learning genre for many industries across premium compliance, coaching and soft skills as well as the more obvious high end mission critical training in high risk environments.

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