Immersive technologies offer us a unique set of opportunities and challenges in developing for education and training but currently too many products are focused on a quick return in terms of learner motivation rather than looking at the long-term learning outcomes.
Let’s look first at the opportunities that we are afforded through these technologies.
The key way that these technologies can contribute is by giving us new ways of learning. This will vary depending on the hardware and technology involved, but broadly we know that all the technologies allow us to view in 3D in a way that has never previously been possible. In mixed reality or in VR you can interact in a natural way with 3D content by exploring it at your own pace and in your own way, by walking around it either in an environment of your choice (mixed reality) or in an artificially created environment (virtual reality). Mobile AR has a little way to go on this front as it still largely consists of simulating 3D on a 2D screen but as the number of phones with a depth sensor increases this should start to equal the other technologies. Advances in light field technology will also enable better 3D interaction by producing a sense of depth that seems more natural to our eyes.
Further these technologies provide an augmented or layered way of learning where you can add many different types of learning into the same experience (audio, visual, 2D or 3D video, text) and supply that learning in a heads-up display that the learner selects in their own way.
These technologies can also be important for learner collaboration. HoloLens for example offers the chance to network the devices together so that users can see the same holograms and collaborate on the same material.
Alongside the learning benefits there are also other benefits outside the classroom.
One is the opportunity to save time. Rather than spending time moving trainees around the country you can build collaborative and crucially, interactive experiences for them to undertake virtually. Of course currently you can hold a webinar to disseminate crucial training information or use online learning packages but immersive technologies offer a much more hands-on experience and are therefore most useful in learning practical skills. The key is that by giving the learners these experiences, particularly scenario-based, they can move through material quickly and practice skills without worrying about failure.
Potentially these technologies also offer the opportunity to save money. If you can reduce training time and the need for mobility or if you can replace virtually a training process that involves interaction with a real world object for example an engine, a cadaver or a wind-turbine then although the development of these technologies is still expensive, you can potentially save money at scale.
Lastly there is everyone’s favourite reason for immersive, the opportunity to improve learner motivation. Here we need to be careful. There is undoubtedly an uplift in motivation by using this technology but does it last? Very little research has been done here but analogies with previous technological innovations would suggest that this may not have a permanent effect.
There are many challenges too in designing for immersive.
Firstly one that I frequently come across in new products is the commercial vs pedagogical pressure – is the product educationally valid? Too many products out there are led by commercial interest and have little of substantial benefit for the learner. Clearly commercial success is crucial for our nascent industry but if we put out there too many products that make no difference to the learner then the whole industry will fail.
Understanding of the technology is another barrier. This is on several levels. Understanding of the specific hardware by developers can add time to development. With new hardware coming out on an almost monthly basis it is hard for developers to understand the specific requirements of each. At a customer level too, many issues are caused by lack of understanding of the limitations or costs of the technology. Clear scoping of projects from the beginning is crucial to prevent later disappointment.
Another challenge linked to this is the innate limitations of the technology it is not suitable for every type of learning and until we see major advances in haptic technology it won’t replace training where a sense of touch is a crucial part of the skill acquisition.
Further on the learning front we need to consider whether the additional cognitive load place on the learner adds to or detracts from the learning. In other words is the learner hearing the message or only seeing the medium. This ties in with another issue, the lack of research and user data currently available. We are starting now to have feedback from studies but this area is very much in its infancy and there are still many unknowns in terms of the effectiveness and ethical outcomes of these technologies.
Alongside all of these issues are the equally important questions around cost and adoption of the hardware.
So there are many questions and issues still to be resolved but this doesn’t nullify the benefits and opportunities. Anyone who has tried a HoloLens experience or has felt fully-immersed in a well-designed 360 environment can’t fail to see that these technologies will play a role in the education and training of the future.