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VR in Education

Today I was thinking, when you see a cake it’s the icing that is important. The initial impression of the cake is vital, if it’s badly iced you might reject it. If it’s too plain you might not be interested in eating it at all.

However when you eat a piece of cake it’s what’s inside that counts – if the cake is too dry, undercooked or stale it doesn’t matter how good the icing is you won’t enjoy the experience and you won’t come back for a second piece.  

This is illustrative of one of the problems in the VR/AR industry currently.   Many companies out there are too focused on the frosting. These companies are fixated on having a product that looks cool and enticing on the outside but underneath there’s no substance, particularly in a learning context.  As an industry if we don’t focus on the inside, on providing solutions that successfully meet a learning or training need rather than just looking cool then we won’t ever grow to wide-scale adoption. If our customers start by having a bad experience we may not get a second bite.

At the other end of the scale there is some great work going on in our global universities but that work is often badly marketed and lacking a commercial support mechanism that allows them to move beyond a basic product.

One really good example of what can happen when something looks great and has a strong pedagogical foundation is .  Their gamified Natural Selection experience in VR is a great demonstration of how it doesn’t need to be competition between content and design.  It is possible to underlie great design with educationally valid content. Sadly this is the exception rather than the rule.

So how can we make sure that our products are good on the inside as well as the outside? The good news is that it’s not complicated, in fact it’s simpler than building these technically-demanding products in the first place.  The key thing to bear in mind is keeping the learner’s needs at the heart of what you do. Starting from a needs analysis or a set of learning outcomes and keeping that in mind throughout the process, not just paying lip service by enumerating these at the beginning and then forgetting about them.  

Another important factor to bear in mind is working with subject matter experts on the design.  It’s common to see products where the designers claim to have involved instructors, academics or teachers but it’s clear from a quick demo that these experts have merely had a peripheral role in the process, maybe at the testing stage rather than throughout the design.

A third area of importance is to work with a learning design professional.  Many people fail to see the need for this, after all if you have a subject matter expert and you have a UI or UX designer then what would this third person possibly add except extra expense?   In fact what usually happens in this situation (and this is very common in e-learning projects) is that the subject matter expert does not have time once they’ve provided content, or lacks understanding of the affordances of the technology.  The UX designer on the other hand may have a clear view of how the learner should navigate smoothly through the content but very little background in education and even less in education in the specific context of the product. The role of the learning design professional is to bridge the gap between these two and pull together the expertise of the professionals involved into a coherent product.

Lastly of course user testing is of primary importance: –  in context. In context in this case means in the environment in which the learning is going to take place.  User testing in software is part of an established process, but in immersive software more than any other, testing in the environment is crucial.  The best use of the features of immersive technology is where the experience allows situated learning, so where that is the case, the testing needs to be in those actual locations.  Alongside this is the issue of the still basic infrastructure that is in place in many educational institutions and even many companies and it’s very easy to get carried away with ideas as to how well a product will work without actually testing these assumptions.

None of the issues raised here are unique to immersive technology design, but all too often they are being missed in the rush to create something that looks good as a proof of concept or an online video (and thereby secure commercial interest)  but will never have the depth to actually improve learning or training. Let’s take a little more time to ensure that the inside is just as good as the outside.