Extended Reality (XR) in Learning

Technologies defined as Extended reality, or (XR), comprise technologies that combine human and computer-generated images or graphics that interact. These technologies include Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality(AR) and Mixed Reality (MR).

With the estimated spend on XR projected to reach US $121 billion by 2023 by industry innovations (while consumer spending alone is projected to be US$40 billion), the technology deserves some attention in relation to how it might be used in the learning industry.

Let’s take a look at the definition of each of the aspects of XR technologies. Then we’ll consider some applications of Extended Reality (XR) in learning.

The impact of Extended Reality in Learning

Below we will discuss what applications comprise Extended Reality (XR) and examples of Extended Reality in learning.

 Augmented Reality (AR)

To explain simply, Augmented Reality (AR) takes computer-generated images, and overlays them in the real world. Researchers suggest that AR technologies can be defined so if an applications effects are in 3D and are also applicable in ‘real time’. Some well-known examples include the game ‘Pokemon Go’, as well as the application Snapchat, which uses the front of smartphones lens’ to apply AR features to ‘Selfies’. Another example of widely available AR for anyone to use is Google’s AR display of 3D animals, which can be projected into your immediate surroundings. While some AR applications require AR headsets, such as Microsoft’s Hololens or Google Glass, it is not always necessary to have more than an up to date Smartphone or Tablet to access AR functionality.

AR in Corporate Learning

The corporate learning industry has started using this AR functionality to an extent. In the Aerospace sector, Boeing provides a great example of how the technology can be implemented to support technical training. Boeing used AR to train their technicians in electrical wiring installation on aircraft. They found that using AR in training led to “40% improvements in productivity”, as well as quality improvements.

Virtual Reality (VR)

In comparison to AR, Virtual Reality (VR) gives you the impression that you are somewhere else. VR headsets block out your real surroundings and replaces them with a fully virtual environment. To access Virtual Reality, the user usually needs to be using technology ‘wearables’, such as special headsets – Oculus Rift is perhaps the most familiar type – goggles, gloves or bodysuits. Motion sensors can pick up the wearer’s movements and adjust the view on screen accordingly, to embellish the virtual experience.

Owing to the drop in cost in the last few years, VR has become a far more accessible learning aid.  Some organisations are seeing real gains and Return on Investment (RoI) having implemented VR in their employee training programs.

VR in Corporate learning

For example, Walmart implemented VR when training employees on new technology. They report training time, on one project, significantly decreased from “eight hours to 15 minutes, with no drop in efficacy”.

 VR in public sector learning

There are some interesting examples of how VR can really support training in for real-life risky environments and situations.

In the UK, the Leicestershire Fire Service has implemented VR in its Fire Investigation training. The Fire Service has been using VR for a number of years. It has seen the benefit of reduced cost from using VR instead of having to stage recreations of real-life fire investigation scenarios for training. In 2020, the VR technology has been used to even greater efficiency, where employees need to work remotely it has been possible to train Fire staff for investigations remotely via VR.

Of the many benefits that have been cited from VR training, the Fire Service (in common with other research studies on AR) include longer memory retention than traditional methods of training. This alone, could be a compelling reason for L&D teams to investigate its potential usage. Verizon provide another example of how VR has been used in retail, in call-centres to train its staff in the ‘soft skills’ necessary to de-escalate conflicts.

Mixed Reality  

Mixed Reality (MR) technology is also known as ‘Hybrid Reality’. It is defined as a mix of digital and physical/real environments.  Similar to VR, users can experience MR via the use of headwear or glasses. In addition to accessing MR via headsets (such as the Microsoft Hololens), during the Pandemic a number of companies have released apps that allow Mixed Reality training to take place via smartphones and tablets (particularly in medicine and nursing). This MR training can take place anywhere, particularly useful when considering remote working and the pandemic. In addition, it can also provide teams with a feedback loop to gather information on how the user is performing. This allows L&D teams to review performance and revise training, if need be.

Examples of Mixed Reality (MR) in learning

To illustrate the use of MR in learning, let’s take a look at a Case Study on how Quantas implemented MR in training its engineers. In our example, Engineers are placed into a ‘MR’ simulation of a cockpit. Immediately, this saves resources (resources being both training engineers and heavily in-demand flight simulators). This is all done via Microsoft’s Hololens.

For Quantas, there has been a huge advantage gained in freeing up heavily in-demand flight simulator time. Flight simulators are a crucial training resource for engineers and trainee pilots. However, this is a resource that is very limited in number, as a training tool. The flight simulators have to be free to provide training on a one-to-one basis for all relevant staff. In addition, the learning analytics that can be gleaned from MR technology is far more granular than ever possible before. The Case Study details that:

we can get really fine grain, very specific and sophisticated metrics on what people are doing inside these environments.”.

MR is also being used in Mining, to not only protect the safety of maintenance workers, when dealing with heavy machinery, but also improve productivity time. Training workers with MR improves safety all around. One can see advantages of not having to be hands-on with heavy (and dangerous) equipment, while still in training.

Advantages of Extended Reality in learning

So, now we have discussed some of the applications of Extended Reality(XR) in Learning. Let’s look at some of the some of the common advantages that XR displays across other learning environments.

XR makes training safer

You will note that some of the Case Studies we have included relate to environments where safety is paramount. Eg, Mining, Aerospace, Fire Services, Medicine, etc. XR allows learners to train without the risk of making dangerous mistakes – for themselves or others. This is hugely important, and totally ‘game-changing’ for the sectors we have mentioned. Air-traffic control is a skilled role that is also well-known as one of the most stressful professions to have. The huge implications for public health in making a mistake is immense. Air-traffic control is therefore an area where XR could be utilised to improve safety.

XR is time and resource saving

We have touched on some examples of time and (accordingly) cost savings. In another example from Walmart, and the retail sector, they state that they have saved up to 80% of training time, in using VR to help their Store Managers prepare for ‘Black Friday’.  Boeing state that in one XR implementation project, their production time was reduced by a quarter.

 XR allows learners to train remotely

2020 has accelerated the need to provide training to global colleagues from a distance. As we have already discussed, XR technology supports remote learning. In normal times too, remote learning has its advantages. As we have already discussed, some sectors require access to large machinery to undertake training. Learners can save time by using XR, instead of being taken to the traditional training equipment, which may not be very mobile.

 XR produces increased engagement and better retention

Stanford University and Technical University Denmark discovered that using XR in education improved memory retention by 76%, as students were far more engaged compared to those who were being taught by traditional teaching methods. In addition, many XR technologies isolate the learner from outside disturbances, hence, improve concentration. An example from another Fire Service suggests that the improvement in retention (estimated at about 30% in traditional training methods) is about 80%. There are many other studies – particularly in education – that suggest XR improves learner motivation, and all appear to echo the suggestion that knowledge retention is increased using XR.

XR and the future of learning

We mentioned earlier that spending on XR is projected to rise significantly in the next few years. As the technology becomes more accessible, organisations may see evidence of further improvements in learning. Hence, the advantages of Extended Reality (XR) in learning – as discussed here – will surely only increase further in the years to come.