Tech News: Virtual reality immersion best for soft skills training, Newsline

By Louis Fourie

JOHANNEBSURG – The impact of Covid-19 on business is much greater than we imagine. Many employers are currently facing a real dilemma.

Due to the changed environment of business or the so-called “new normal”, employees need to learn new skills, upgrade existing capabilities and competencies, or undertake compliance training. Unfortunately, due to the current situation caused by Covid-19, many employees are still working from home.

However, training is more important now, with many employees keen to acquire new skills. This need will become more crucial when workers start returning to a changed workplace after isolation. Digital upskilling is an integral part of the digital journey of the future to improve the way in which we work.

One solution to this challenge comes from a technology that is already well established in the world of games and training, namely Virtual Reality (VR). VR is about immersion and places a person in a virtual world disconnected from reality.

VR has already proven itself as very successful in the teaching of hard skills and the simulations of skills for a specific position, such as the well-known flight simulators used to train pilots to fly, or the simulation of safety procedures or equipment operation and maintenance. However, many employees also need to learn soft skills, such as leadership, resilience, emotional intelligence, critical thinking, and managing change.

A comparison of VR training

In June 2020 PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) published the results of a study to determine the success of VR as a training tool for soft skills by comparing the outcomes of a training course on inclusive leadership between three different modalities, namely the physical classroom, e-learning, and virtual learning (VR).

The outcome of the survey was that VR could be the preferred tool for the skill improvement of employees in a business at a time when training budgets have been cut and in-person training is not yet possible.

The five most important findings of the PwC survey were:

• Employees train faster with VR than in the classroom

What takes employees two hours to learn in a physical classroom and 45 minutes with e-learning, took a mere 29 minutes using VR. VR is thus four times faster than classroom training. Even when employees are new to VR technology and need to be taught how to use the VR headset, the VR learners still complete the training three times faster than the traditional classroom learners. In the business world where time is money, and training time is under tremendous pressure, VR can be a great tool to ensure the most productive use of time. If the additional time needed to travel to the training venue is included, the benefit of VR is even more obvious.

The faster learning can probably partly be attributed to the fact that learners enjoy immersive V-learning more than traditional methods and experience it as more flexible and effective, which build employee satisfaction and lead to better employee retention.

• VR learners are more confident in applying what they learned

It is widely acknowledged that confidence is a key driver of success when learning soft skills. In challenging circumstances, such as with the possibility of failure and negative feedback to a learner, learners usually appreciate it if they could practice handling the situation and try different paths to achieve better results in a safe environment. Learning something new often involves being embarassed, making mistakes, correcting mistakes and trying again. Repetition and practice build confidence.

VR makes this possible with its immersive and low-stress environment and results in higher confidence levels and an enhanced ability to employ the new learning in the workplace. A typical example is a VR soft skills course that enables employees to practice new sales approaches by making a pitch to a virtual CEO. If they rely on traditional techniques, the virtual chief executive reacts negatively, but if they apply new skills to create value to the company, they get a virtual contract.

Learners that trained with VR were 275 percent more confident to use the new skills they learned, which entails a 40 percent improvement over classroom and a 35 percent improvement over e-learning training. This is significant because, when it comes to soft skills, confidence is an important determinant of success. Believing in themselves and having confidence assists learners to connect better with other people, while simultaneously feeling more satisfied with the time invested in training.

• Employees are more emotionally connected to VR content

It is well-known that emotion has a significant influence on the cognitive processes in humans, such as perception, attention, learning, memory, reasoning and problem solving. When the emotions of people are involved in the learning process, they connect, understand and remember things much better. The emotional impact of a photo of the tragic aftermath of a war compared to a fact-filled analysis has a much greater effect on a person.

This is precisely what simulation-based training in VR achieves since it gives people the opportunity to feel as if they have had a meaningful experience such as the Barry Demo (by Talespin Reality Labs) where a human resource professional is trained via an avatar how to legally and empathetically terminate a worker’s employment.

The Barry Demo provides an immersive, engaging and emotional experience in which the trainee needs to fire Barry, a virtual fellow employee. The simulation includes the dialogue, deep emotions and heavy stress normally found in this type of situation, resulting in users actually feeling emotional and physical responses while communicating and responding to Barry’s reactions. Other real-life simulations entail the hiring of an employee, a virtual office meeting, the discussion of an ethical problem, a medical procedure, construction, product design, merchandising, or a hazardous, difficult or cost-prohibitive situation.

VR leaners felt 2.3 times more emotionally connected to the content than e-learners and 3.75 times more connected than classroom learners. 75 percent experienced something similar to a wake-up-call moment during VR training. These deeper emotional connections improved retention of the information learned, while higher retention means less retraining.

• VR learners are more focused

With the current abundance of technology and devices, people are easily becoming distracted. Especially the younger generation will not watch a video until its end and are easily distracted or interrupted by their smartphones or other devices.

With VR learning, users are much less distracted and multitask less than with traditional methods since the experience is much more immersive and commands the full vision and attention of the individual. With a VR headset there are no interruptions or options to multitask. PwC found that VR-trainees were up to four times more focused during training than their e-learning peers and 1.5 times more focused than their classroom colleagues. The outcomes of VR training were better, and the training had a higher overall value.

• VR learning can be more cost-effective at scale

Previously VR training was very expensive due to the costs of the headsets, but the costs have come down significantly. Fascinating content is now widely available, as well as software that makes the developing of inhouse content easy and affordable. Some of the major and well-known Learning Management Systems (LMSs) are making the integration of VR into their platforms easy. Due to the initial investment in VR equipment, it becomes more cost-effective with larger groups of learners.

The future

The future would probably entail a multimodal approach to training. Unlike the linear methods of current learning, V-learning is interactive, immersive and places the learner in a new scenario and give them the ability to act and make choices, whether right or wrong. It is, therefore, very useful for the training of certain specific types of skills but is not appropriate for every type of training. VR is preferred in practice parts of the training, for example where certain soft skills need to be performed in specialised environments with specialised actions.

Due to the initial costs, VR will not replace classroom or e-learning training soon but should be part of companies’ portfolio of training due to the human-centred experience and immersive quality of the training. It allows learners to practice skills that help them relate to different perspectives in the real world.

The technology is also simple to manage. It would be quite easy to issue every employee with a headset, along with their laptop, to enable regular training as part of the culture of the organisation.

V-learning will most likely be an important role-player in the enterprise training and education of the future due to its cost-effective, immersive and efficient training of hard and soft skills.

Professor Louis C H Fourie is a futurist and technology strategist.