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Layered Learning

I’ve seen the future of learning and it’s layered.

What does this mean?

Immersive technologies offer us an unparalleled opportunity to look into the way that we learn and think differently.

Take an example of a child learning about the Romans.  They can read about a soldier in a book, or watch a video , but via immersive technologies we can create a learning environment where they can first view the soldier and then walk around the soldier and view them from behind. Next though we can layer on top info about the soldier’s equipment, allow the learner to explore at their own pace calling up information about the different elements as their curiosity takes them.  Finally we can add an environmental layer. Where would the soldier have been at that time, in Carthage or later in Roman Britain? We can layer in a timeline to help understand that. Maybe we can layer it further to allow the child to move through a variety of Roman characters or give the child a chance to speak to the soldier and ask questions.

How does this differ from a video?  It’s all in the learner’s control. A video is under the director’s control – once it’s made, the learning path is fixed.  Is this how we learn? Any teacher knows that learning is more organic than that and the best learning is driven by the learner’s enthusiasm.  Of course constructivism has its place too. You can’t write a chinese character properly without learning the stroke order or a complex equation without understanding its individual elements but in no way should these technologies be seen as a replacement for the teacher or instructor.  The curation and ordering of these experiences is a key skill that we will go on having a need for however the technology evolves.

Let’s look at another example in training.  Now we can take someone who wants to learn to assemble an engine and we can take the engine as a whole, layer on top visually the parts of the engine, layer information about each part on the top of that, place the engine in its environment and allow the learner to explore it piece by piece.  

Is this more engaging than taking a real engine apart?  Probably not, but is it cheaper and more accessible? Is it easier to make mistakes and try over and over again? Or you can scale the experience for more learners.   Then there’s the fact that you can prototype an engine that doesn’t exist. You can give work instructions and then assess the response. As an instructor this should help you understand where your instructions fail.  

Of course haptics are still an issue.  We can’t replicate yet the feeling of taking an engine apart and feeling the weight of those parts or cutting into a body with a scalpel.  And there are many types of training where those sensations are an intrinsic part of the learning. But this is a layer that I believe will come in time and experiments are going on in various companies to try to achieve this through vibration, ultrasound and force feedback.

Just because we can do all this layering though,  does it mean that we should? Giving the learner too much information at one time can actually impair learning by providing an overwhelming cognitive load.  If learners experience for example, a simultaneous visual input, a voiceover, a layer of additional information, input from hand controllers and verbal instruction from a live instructor, then there is some evidence to show that they may not fully absorb all of these inputs.

Careful design of the experiences then is crucial. Learners need to be given time to acclimatise to the immersive environment before the learning begins.  In addition the learner needs to be comfortable with any hand gestures. Another way to reduce the cognitive load is to allow the learner more control. This is very easy to illustrate in terms of 360 video experiences.  If you place a learner in an environment how much time should you give them to process the environment before launching further learning layers? Giving them control over when to launch the voiceover as well as when to move to the next scene allows them to process the scene fully before moving to the next piece of information.  This however creates an inherent tension for immersive designers between the need to tell a story within the experience and the need for user control. We know that story-based experiences are more compelling and knowledge acquired in this way is easier to retain. That’s perhaps a debate for a different blogpost. What we do know is that in layered learning it’s something to be aware of.

Our knowledge and ideas around how learning works in immersive technologies are still evolving and use cases that make the most of the capabilities of the technology in this way are still few and far between.  However it’s clear that there are exciting possibilities ahead and new ways to define our learning.