Virtual Learning: Driving Learner Engagement

What Was Just A Gleam In A Software Developer’s Eye 15 Years Ago Is Now Reality — Virtual Reality. Perhaps the first popular reference to things “virtual” was the 1994 book “Disclosure” by Michael Crichton. That same year, a motion picture based on the book was released in which actor Michael Douglas entertained his company’s most important clients by allowing them access to its then-futuristic virtual environment using a weight-sensitive foot pad, tactile gloves and 3-D goggles. Today, virtual technology is becoming an important part of the e-learning space. “I’m running into HR managers who understand the value of virtual learning, but they’re skeptical about its true impact on the training world,” says industry consultant Nov Omana, CEO of Collective HR. “We believe that the value of virtual training comes in setting up environments that allow people to explore and interact and try risk-free solutions. That’s how they play games today, anyway. Students learn combinations of thinking: they can experiment, they can take a little bit of risk.” “I’m sure that virtual will become the preferred learning platform in the very near future.” Virtual Environments ProtonMedia describes virtual learning environments (VLEs) as “comprehensive training platforms that allow organizations to deliver engaging training at a fraction of the price of most in-person events” and “immersive learning platforms that enable individuals to meet, collaborate, engage and truly learn without the hassle of travel or the time lost in-transit to and from training sessions.” A research paper from Accenture — a company that specializes in business technology — focuses on the high end of virtual learning: “Distributed virtual reality systems use sophisticated immersive projection equipment and advanced input/output device (tactile gloves, touch screens, location sensors, etc.). These systems are used for collaboration on projects, such as architectural or product design and scientific data exploration. These systems could be used for training, but high expenses for maintenance and high initial cost of equipment and supporting software limits their usage. A less expensive set of equipment includes a head-mounted stereoscopic display with tracking sensors, surroundsound speakers or a headphone [and] input devices with position tracking for navigating the world (for example, 3Ball device). These hardware and software allows creating immersive multi- sensorial 3-D learning environments using the visual, auditory and haptic senses.” ProtonMedia CEO Ron Burns sees VLEs as being the nexus of learning and collaboration: “They are the same thing: they’re about knowledge transfer. The really forwardlooking designs in knowledge-oriented enterprises are built around collaborative strategies. How do we imbed learning into workflow? How do we imbed subsequent collaboration into the outcomes of instructional design and learning process?” In VLEs, organizations can bring their people and content together in visually appealing 3-D virtual spaces. Learners can talk, send instant messages, view and interact with presentation and media content, record notes, and access the Web — all at the same time, from anywhere. Content can remain persistent, allowing for on-going collaboration after scheduled training is complete. “The elephant in the room is knowledge transfer,” Burns adds. “The learning people are touching the tail; the collaboration people are touching the trunk. We want the unified communications folks, the collaboration folks, and the learning people to sit down in that room and come up with a dynamic design that leads to better collaboration and learning as part of a unified program.” With VLEs, you can customize online rooms that allow training to be tailored to specific needs and improve retention versus in-person events. “The idea is that you can create a number of different scenarios within the construct of a virtual world,” notes Omana, who is also chairman of the International Association for Human Research Information Management (IHRIM). “The environment allows you to test better than paper-based testing or online testing.” Good examples are (1) training a security force in emergency protocols, like introducing a gunman on campus to test campus police; (2) creatingpersonnel and business scenarios that managers can react to; and (3) setting up corporate recruiting scenarios in a game like environment. “VLEs go beyond anything you can show in even an extensive video. And it’s 1/10th the cost of what most online training or a custom-made video game would cost.” Virtual Classrooms Many organizations are now using virtual classrooms, in order to synchronously teach employees around the globe while avoiding expensive travel. Because the classrooms can be recorded, they can also be archived for use as needed and when needed by employees. “There are tons of advantages from a corporate perspective: there’s little to no travel involved; companies can re-use materials; and, in the case of asynchronous learning, students can access the materials on their own time,” says Dr. Lisa M. Plantamura, an associate professor of Instructional Design at Centenary College. “But it’s really important that there be some evaluation ofinstructors from the perspective of being online. I don’t believe that if you can teach in the classroom, you can teach online. You have to change and adapt  your methods to the mode of instruction.” Emma King, a vice president at Inxpo, says that virtual classrooms started becoming popular in 2008. “We’ve seen a wide adoption of using virtual for learning, especially in the last four years,” she observes. “Learning’s really changed from pushing out to more of a performance support where people consume what they need, how they need it. Some may choose content live, and their learning style may be more  applicable to that learning activity. Virtual classroom technology enables you to lock in either synchronous or asynchronous training with the same content.” Though designing platforms for mobile users is a knotty problem, the proliferation of smartphones and tablets has opened up a new world in virtual classroom training. “It’s about reaching more people, reducing the expense of reaching more people,” notes King. “New platform capabilities must include smartphone, Android, tablet, desktop, any time, anyplace, anywhere. Because some platforms enable the use of video cameras, we’re also seeing subject matter experts utilizing video chatrooms for a more conversational learning process rather than trying to push specific theoretical content at people. Randah McKinnie, a principal product manager for Adobe, further notes: “For that type of learning, you have to have a great instructor and instructional design. There are lots of very skilled, creative instructional designers, but the bigger challenge is that they are really crunched for time. They need to have both the skill and the tools to enable them to bring it to learners as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, instructional designers are really excited about the virtual-classroom type of learning.” Adoption has come quickly, McKinnie adds: “The challenges were so hardware based 10 and 15 years ago that you had to first identify learners who had the hardware. It took a long time to get various platform environments to be common place. But how quickly it’s moved into mobile is amazing. Now we’re talking about learners having the expectation of seeing video with one click — that it’s that easy to do.” CONCLUSIONS

So whether you’re planning on going lower- tech with virtual classrooms or higher tech with complete virtual environments, you are on the leading edge of learning philosophy and technology. A philosophy and use of technology that will doubtless pay off — for both your organization and your employees. “We want to empower the instructor and the instructional designer, and bring humanity back to corporate learning, so it’s not just about pass-fail,” concludes Proton- Media’s Burns. “It’s about imbedding learning into collaborative processes to improve performances and extending corporate culture. Our product category brings to light the dawn of a new age in e-learning that moves from fear-based LMS to hope-based collaboration.”

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