Learning in virtual environments: Does it work?

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There is a lot of excitement about the potential of virtual reality. And in terms of virtual reality and its application to workplace training one of the key questions we get asked at Snobal is – does virtual learning or learning in 3D virtual environments work? And if so what’s the evidence?

3D virtual learning is not just about the shiny. It also needs to work. And by ‘work’ we mean achieve the intended learning outcomes.

Currently much workplace learning occurring uses the same teaching methods trainers have used for  a long time – videos, power points, face to face teaching, role-playing etc. Many  teaching methods present too much material, too fast with little or no opportunity for trainee feedback, input or involvement.

As researchers Tichon & Burgess -Limerick noted in their 2011 review of virtual learning for safety training  in the minerals industry –   

“Virtual reality simulation offers the opportunity to develop perceptual expertise, perceptuo-motor skills, and cognitive skills such as problem-solving, and decision-making under stress, without exposing trainees or others to unacceptable risks”.

From a pedagogical point of view, 3D virtual learning environments have unique characteristics. In 2002 Australian researchers  Dalgarno et al looked at the unique learning contributions of virtual environments, which are still applicable today. These include:

  1. Facilitating familiarisation of hard to reach, dangerous, costly or inaccessible environments
  2. Facilitating task mastery through practice of dangerous or expensive to produce tasks
  3. Enhancing learning by situating it in a realistic context
  4. Improving motivation through immersion 
  5.  Reducing trainee cognitive load 
  6. Facilitating understanding of complex environments
  7. Facilitating understanding of complex ideas

You can read the full paper here.

So while the use of virtual reality for training in many sectors is largely at an early stage and that rigorous and systematic evaluations are yet to take place, the signs are exciting for its unique learning benefits.

On a final note recently it was reported that obstetrics and gynecology student doctors at leading Chicago based Rush University Medical Center will no longer practice surgical procedures on pigs but will instead uses virtual training. As  Xavier Pombar, Rush’s OB/GYN residency program director is reported to have said:

 “It [virtual training] also [prompts] residents to keep practicing and receive immediate feedback at the end of the session.”

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