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How VR Can Be Leveraged for Workforce Development

“The starting point should be identifying areas where VR can address challenges or enhance learning, rather than merely replicating existing approaches with a different technology. Immersive technology becomes one of the potential solutions for areas where traditional methods fall short.”

Eileen McGivney, PhD, Assistant Professor, College of Arts, Media and Design, Northeastern University

The power of VR lies in providing users the chance to do something hands-on that might not be possible in the real or the remote world. With this in mind, leveraging virtual reality to provide immersive education experiences is increasingly used by companies to complement traditional workforce development and educational tools.

However, given nascent stages of the tools there is still evolving understanding of best practices and application of the technologies. Harvard University’s Next Level Lab recently unveiled its “Opening the Black Box of VR for Workforce Development” report at the International Conference of Immersive Learning Research Network. spoke with Northeastern University Assistant Professor for Arts Media and Design, Eileen McGivney, about the report, findings and how VR can best be leveraged for workforce development by companies and institutions interested in using this technology as a tool to support employee learning.

Meet the Expert: Eileen McGivney

Eileen McGivney

Eileen McGivney, PhD Assistant Professor, College of Arts, Media and Design, Northeastern University

Dr. Eileen McGivney is an assistant professor at Northeastern University. She studies learning in immersive virtual reality environments, including how virtual field trips impact students’ learning, motivation, and identity exploration. She is also a member of Harvard University’s Next Level Lab where she researches immersive technologies for workforce development.

Through her work, she has studied how various technologies can be implemented in education environments, including the impact virtual reality has on learners’ emotions, beliefs, and sense of agency. Prior to Northeastern and Harvard, she worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC and the Educational Reform Initiative in Istanbul, Turkey.

Q&A with Eileen McGivney Can you walk us through what virtual reality (VR) is, and the types of technologies this includes?

Dr. McGivney: There is a spectrum of immersive technologies, which helps us understand the context of where virtual reality sits.

The spectrum includes augmented reality, where you’re looking at the physical world with some digital information overlaid on it. This could be something through your mobile phone, like Pokemon Go.

Then, there’s also something called mixed reality where you’re also still looking at the physical world and digital objects at the same time, but they can kind of interact with each other more. This is usually accessed through a headset or a head-mounted display, something like Microsoft HoloLens.

And then there’s virtual reality, which is on the other side of the spectrum where it replaces the entire physical world with a virtual world. This is typically done by wearing a VR headset, and there are different types of VR headsets out there now.

The older ones and some of the more basic and affordable ones are ones that allow you to look around the scene, and they respond to your head movement. Something like Google Cardboard or the old Oculus Go can do this. So you can watch a movie or look around Google Street View from a 360-degree perspective.

But a lot of the newer devices allow for more interactivity. Something like the Oculus Quest, you can not only move your head around the scene, but you can also walk around—it responds to your body; it responds to your hand movements and your whole body.

As for the devices, what I see is that many of the upcoming devices will allow for the use of virtual reality as well as mixed reality. Something like Oculus Quest Pro allows this, and I think the new Apple device, from what I’ve seen, is going to allow for different modes of functionality. So you can either use it where you’re using it with both the physical world and digital information or you’re kind of blocking it out entirely to be in a virtual world.

Just as there are various types of these technologies, there are also many different ways to use them. Regarding the question of how they’re being leveraged and in what industry, I would say that there’s probably somebody using VR in every industry out there. But at the same time, I don’t think that means that it is widespread or at scale in most industries.

However, some of the places that have been early to adopt it are something like architecture, where it’s really helpful for architects to put their 3D model in a VR environment. People can actually walk through it and they can feel, how tall is the ceiling? Or where is the store going to be? That kind of thing.

I also see a lot of VR being used in industries for training, like being able to wear a HoloLens and look at lab equipment or an HVAC system and get information about how to service that, like a personalized user manual or things like that.

I think they’re being used in lots of different industries, but it’s variable how they’re using them, for what purpose, and how many people are using them, too. Do you have any examples you can share of being leveraged by any companies and in what ways?

Dr. McGivney: We collaborated extensively with Accenture, a prominent consulting company that has also embraced VR for its own workforce. For instance, they distributed VR headsets to many of their employees, revolutionizing their onboarding process.

Now, new hires can engage in orientation activities within a virtual world, eliminating the need for everyone to travel to the headquarters or a specific office. Additionally, these VR platforms facilitate social interactions and team-building activities.

Accenture’s involvement extends to partnering with various clients, including the Goodwill Foundation, where I conducted a study on job training initiatives. They also collaborate with other clients who harness VR for diverse purposes. One intriguing case involves the use of VR simulations to train Department of Child and Family Services caseworkers. These simulations help them develop the skills to navigate chaotic environments, identify family issues, and make crucial assessments.

Notably, Striver is a major player in designing VR solutions for corporate applications. I’ve had conversations with individuals who have leveraged Striver’s technology. For example, Bank of America employs VR to enhance leadership development programs within the organization. Similarly, Walmart utilizes VR to train its employees when introducing new equipment into their stores. These instances illustrate the wide range of industries and training applications that VR technology can support. It’s impressive to see it applied across so many industries. Even so, this technology is in its nascent stages which led to your recent report. What were the major findings of your research on “opening the black box” of VR’s use for workforce development?

Dr. McGivney: A lot of research in learning and workforce development with VR typically involves comparing learning using a VR headset to learning the same content on a computer screen. These studies often administer paper-and-pencil tests before and after using these different applications.

However, across these studies, there isn’t a clear answer. Sometimes, those learning with VR perform better, while other times, they perform worse. I believe this variability is due to the design of the learning experience and how it’s utilized, rather than the device itself. Learning is a complex process, and these pre-post content assessments might not always capture what we want people to learn.

As I delved into the literature, it became apparent that while these studies contribute to our understanding, they don’t fully explore what VR can be powerful for.

In my research with Goodwill, we particularly focused on what some might call the “affective dimensions of learning.” This involves examining how VR simulations affect users’ emotions, motivations, and attitudes. In the context of our job interview training simulation, the most significant impact was on users’ confidence and emotions. It specifically reduced their negative emotions, making them feel less anxious and nervous about interviewing. They described feeling relaxed and at ease while practicing job interviews in the VR environment.

Additionally, we emphasized the importance of “opening the black box,” not only considering which device was used but also how it was used. We thoroughly explored specific ways to characterize program usage, including how people answered questions in the interview simulation. We found that certain aspects of program usage and ratings depended on participants’ past experiences and even their racial identity. This highlights that individual characteristics play a significant role in how people use and feel in these environments. Every learner is unique.

Furthermore, concerning the point you just made about opening the “black box,” it’s crucial to grasp not only which device was employed but also how it was used during the VR simulation. We thoroughly delved into this aspect, exploring specific approaches to characterize various program usages. We closely examined how individuals responded to questions in the interview simulation.

Notably, we found that some aspects of program usage and user evaluations were contingent on participants’ prior experiences and even their racial identity. This highlights that people’s utilization and emotional experiences within these environments are influenced by their unique individual characteristics. In essence, not all learners are alike.

These findings, while not definitive or prescriptive, do raise pertinent questions. They prompt us to consider the inquiries that should be posed when evaluating the potential benefits of these devices for learning. How do people learn in immersive environments? Does this differ from traditional learning environments, and if so how? Is VR technology better for some learning goals versus others?

Dr. McGivney: On one hand, the principles of how we learn and effective learning design are quite similar in VR as they are with other forms of media. There’s a lot we can glean about designing experiences to facilitate learning. Typically, it involves a blend of various activities. So, we shouldn’t simply assume that VR is a magic solution. It’s about combining different learning approaches. In this sense, it’s not fundamentally different from how we approach learning design with videos, media, field trips, and the like.

However, on the other hand, there are distinct aspects to the VR experience and the design of VR environments. One significant aspect that research often highlights is the highly stimulating nature of VR. Unlike reading a book, which involves interacting solely with text, or listening to a podcast, which relies solely on audio, VR inundates your senses with stimuli from multiple channels simultaneously. There’s audio, there’s text, there are events happening all around you—in front, behind, and above. Simultaneously, you’re navigating a technological system, often using controllers, and wearing a headset that can be somewhat uncomfortable. Moreover, you’re still aware of your physical environment.

This confluence of information channels in VR can significantly enhance the experience for certain learning outcomes. This is why emotions play a substantial role. The richness of stimuli can help elicit emotions that are often absent when simply listening to a lecture. Emotions are pivotal for cognition and the learning process. They can invoke feelings of awe, wonder, confidence, and accomplishment—all essential for learning. Additionally, people tend to derive more enjoyment from VR compared to other learning experiences.

However, there’s a flip side. The heightened arousal and the plethora of stimuli can make it challenging to process basic information. This is one of the reasons why studies on whether VR is more effective for learning certain types of information yield mixed results. Remembering facts or grasping straightforward concepts can sometimes be more effective through conventional methods like reading from a book or listening to a lecture. Even a straightforward PowerPoint presentation might be more efficient.

It’s important to recognize that while VR leverages existing knowledge about how people learn with media, this technology has unique attributes that are well-suited to specific learning goals but not necessarily ideal for others.

Emotions and motivation play a pivotal role in immersive media, consistently proving their value across various studies. These technologies excel in supporting these aspects. Moreover, VR is particularly beneficial when the learning goals involve spatial understanding and scale comprehension. For example, it becomes a powerful tool for teaching geometry, allowing students to visualize three-dimensional shapes. It can also provide insights into complex structures like human cells by allowing users to “shrink” themselves down for a closer look.

In the context of workforce development, VR finds a natural fit in training for procedural skills. Its advantage lies in the ability to engage the entire body, making embodied learning an effective approach. Tasks such as working with new equipment or mastering procedures that involve hands-on actions are better suited for VR compared to traditional two-dimensional methods.

There are numerous ways to leverage VR technology, but the key lies in aligning the specific learning goals with the capabilities it offers. Whether it’s embodied experiences, perspective-taking abilities, or manipulating scale, choosing the right approach is essential for harnessing VR’s full potential. What are some of the most exciting opportunities you see on the horizon for VR and workforce development?

Dr. McGivney: I anticipate a growing trend towards more creative and exciting applications of VR. People will likely recognize that VR can serve purposes beyond procedural skills training. While I didn’t initially mention it, fields like medical education, especially surgical training, have immediate applications in VR. However, as people become more comfortable with the technology, their creativity in using it will likely expand.

For example, consider the potential for educators to practice teaching entire classrooms of students within VR environments. As technology advances, we’ll create environments where you can interact with highly realistic characters and engage in meaningful interactions. This opens up opportunities for various forms of social skills training, be it classroom management, leadership development, or communication skills.

Another exciting aspect is the integration of AI, with new AI tools enhancing VR experiences. Additionally, as computing power advances, we can expect better multiplayer applications. Representing multiple individuals convincingly in VR without it feeling unsettling has been a technical challenge. Achieving high-quality avatars and facilitating seamless interactions among numerous participants requires substantial computing power. As devices improve and better software solutions emerge, collaborative activities in VR will become more common, providing insights into optimizing collaboration within virtual spaces.

Lastly, the prospect of user-friendly tools for creating immersive content is promising. This shift from relying on specialized VR development teams to more accessible methods will democratize content creation. Both educators and students will have the opportunity to design their virtual worlds and training experiences. This inclusivity will enable more people to contribute to the exciting field of immersive media. How would you advise corporations and organizations to improve their use of these technologies for employee skill development?

Dr. McGivney: I believe it comes back to what I mentioned earlier, which is focusing on learning goals rather than fixating on the technology. Instead of immediately exploring the possibilities of VR, we should first examine what our employees struggle to learn, what’s challenging to teach, or where we lack proficiency. Then, we should consider effective methods for developing these skills and whether VR can contribute to these solutions.

Thus, the starting point should be identifying areas where VR can address challenges or enhance learning, rather than merely replicating existing approaches with a different technology. Immersive technology becomes one of the potential solutions for areas where traditional methods fall short.

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.