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Who should be in the driving seat?


One big issue in learning design for Immersive is whether to build learner- or instructor-led products. Very often in the rush to build products I’ve seen that this question has not even been considered.  Let’s explore why learner-led is not the only way.

Why so many apps are learner-led

In many cases VR and AR apps are built just like other mobile apps by companies who are comfortable in that space.  They follow the philosophy that apps belong to an individual and therefore the interaction is between the individual and the app.  If you project this view onto Education, it’s easy to get carried away with excitement over a brave new world where there will no-longer be a need for teachers or instructors and the learner will achieve some kind of self-teaching nirvana. This is exacerbated where AI comes into play because now we can see that the learner can be ‘taught’ without needing teachers or the learning can ‘adapt’ to learners’ needs.

There is nothing essentially wrong with these approaches in the right context. what I’m making a plea for here, is to take a breath when designing for immersive and reflect on whether learner-led or AI-led apps are better than instructor-led tools in the relevant context.

Key use-cases for instructor-led apps

Let’s look at a few contexts where instructor-led might work better because either the learner themselves, or the type of content, require intervention and collaboration.

1) Where the knowledge or curriculum is complex.

If the learner can’t guide themselves through the curriculum, then the learning will fail, unless there is support to find the journey. This is often apparent in mobile language learning apps where you can easily learn a series of vocabulary words by spaced repetition but you can’t learn to actually speak the language because that learning has not been undertaken in a planned and structured way. In this type of learning the instructor is a guide helping you find a way through the material. Similarly in training, an app that teaches you how to diagnose an illness such as Pearson’s HoloHuman product requires an instructor to help the learner make sense of the content. In immersive then, if we want to place the learner in an environment, we need to ensure that where there is no instructor, the student is properly supported.

2) Where the learning takes place through reflection.

If the main goal of the learning is to enable the learners to reflect on their work or practice then an instructor-led approach is key.  Even in traditional digital learning, designers have struggled to come up with a satisfactory way for students to reflect without external support and the ubiquitous learning journal frequently relies on the intervention of an online tutor or peer review.    In VR training this is even more the case.  As a learner you are cut-off from your environment, but we have a natural human need to discuss what we’re seeing and experiencing.  Secondly, in a learning context, we know there are enormous benefits from reflecting on practical activities.  This Harvard Business School paper looked at the value of  reflection vs doing practical training and found a clear benefit from investing time in codifying the knowledge gained from practical training rather than just doing the practical training alone.

As VR technology evolves we’re going to see more and more ways in which we can bring a social element into immersive apps and this will under-pin the reflective element either by allowing peer-interaction, or interaction between the student and instructor.  For now there are still ways to integrate instructor support into apps on various platforms but many current designs aren’t looking at the learning in that way.

3) Where the learner is in the zone.

Without going into the learning theory too much, some educationalists believe that the instructor can best scaffold or support the learner at the point where they have some confidence in a subject but need support to reach the next level.   Let’s think of this in an immersive context, for example a VR app that trains people to drive a crane.  The app might provide initial support to master the basic controls without much instructor interaction.  Once the learner needs to move onto using the crane in different ways in different scenarios the presence of the instructor can help to reflect on those scenarios and give feedback on the situations they might have encountered in their own experience.  Some of this support could be provided by an embedded AI capability but the most effective learning is going to require human interaction, whether that be instructor to learner or peer-to-peer.

How to choose an approach

Choosing whether to design a learner-led or instructor-led app, like any other design decision, should be driven by the learning outcomes that you are trying to achieve.  Sometimes commercial decisions or resource constraints are going to force you down one path or another but effective learning depends on keeping the learner at the heart of the design.  Where you can’t do that, then try to use other ways through the software to provide the scaffolding that the learner needs by simulating feedback.  In the case of 360 video for example interactive hotspots can allow learners to make selections and receive feedback on those selections in a branching scenario.  In more complex apps, explore how learners can network together or a live feed might be integrated from a virtual tutor.  Above all test thoroughly with learners and instructors at all levels to make sure that whatever approach you’ve chosen it produces measurable learning gains.