Wednesday, 29 March 2017

VR in Learning Research – Our Summary & Lessons Learned

After our three month discovery Odyssey exploring Virtual (and Augmented) Reality, its potential impacts and possible applications, Rachel and I feel much more informed about VR and how it is currently being - and could in the future be used in Learning and Development.  In no way do we consider ourselves experts and, of course, the field continues to change and evolve at pace, but we find ourselves much better informed and alert to the possibilities and also to some of the risks

We’d like to share our current thinking with you here. Rachel is also publishing this same blog on her blog site.

1.    Virtual – and Augmented - Reality is the shiny new kid on the block in the consumer world, in education, in business and latterly, in Learning & Development. As has tended to be the case with the increasing consumerisation of technology (think smartphones, think Siri, think Pokemon GO, think Amazon Echo…), the people who will show up looking for learning and performance support in the workplace – and looking to L&D to demonstrate leadership, expertise and potential solutions – will have an expectation that VR may be part of the mix.

2.    VR, with its immersive experience, has tremendous potential as a tool for use in Learning & Development.  There are some very exciting ways in which it can be applied to create powerful, engaging and effective learning experiences.  And this can be done within all price ranges.

3.    VR is not a magical tool that will once and forever transform L&D.  It is potentially a great tool – but like all L&D tools, only when it is used in the right place, for the right need and in the right context.  Consider carefully if the VR experience is adding to the learning, beyond that which can be gained from another approach.

4.    Consider where on the scale of VR immersion (passive <> some interaction <> total immersion) would be the most effective approach to meet the need.  If the requirement is for less than total immersion, then go for the cheaper option, with less investment in kit and skills development and which uses technology already familiar to employees.

5.    As an L&D professional, it is important to build your own awareness and familiarity with new tools such as VR, so that you can spot where and when it can be used in your own organisation or to support your own clients effectively (and also where and when it would be inappropriate to use it). So make sure that within your network you have people who are working with VR and are sharing what they have learned about it.

6.    If you do decide that there is some potential for using VR in your own organisation, start small.  Consider a small pilot using equipment and VR software at the low/no cost end of the spectrum.  And then review, learn and experiment again.

7.    Where you need a bespoke, rather than an off-the-peg, solution make sure that you use an experienced and reputable provider.  Ask around first, compare and contrast.  Speak to other clients that they’ve worked with.

8.    Consider how accessible to the intended learner a VR option would be.  Think especially about those with disabilities, those who wear glasses and/or those with conditions such as vertigo.  How robust is your proposed solution for these individuals?  We had a mixed experience, in most cases with no problems at all, but some VR options did not meet our needs and, indeed, proved to be ineffective and unproductive.

9.    Keep an eye on developments in AR – Augmented Reality.  This is a related field, which is developing rapidly and could have even more applications to improving performance than VR. The principle of overlaying ‘real life’ (as seen through the smartphone or tablet camera and/or a headset or tech-enhanced glasses) with other imagery and or text, has huge potential in engineering training, medical training, safety training, asset management and location/geographically sensitive experiences. The recent news from Apple (conspicuous by its absence in the VR arena thus far) that it sees AR as the next big thing – as big as the smartphone, according to CEO Tim Cook - suggests that AR may be the ‘killer app’ here. Expect some interesting ideas and applications here from the tech giant.

10.  We have compiled a Resource Sheet to complement this blog and video series, with curated links to other research, blogs, webinars, podcasts, video, reports and other resources and is published separately here. Inevitably, in this fast changing and evolving landscape, this will shortly be (indeed, probably is already) out of date.

Finally, we would love to hear about your experiences in using VR. Tell us your stories. Have you used it? How and where have you used it? Are you now thinking about using it or have you decided not to use it - and why? Let’s keep the conversation and the learning going in the rapidly evolving and dynamic field in Learning and Development. Use the Twitter hashtag #VRinLearning.

Rachel Burnham and Niall Gavin

March 2017

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

VR in Learning - Some of my experiences

Having set off on our Virtual Reality in Learning Odyssey, both Rachel and I have had different, but complementary, experiences. Here are some of mine...

My first venture into the subject was to buy myself the basic, entry-level kit, a Google Cardboard headset. With no prior knowledge, I assumed that it would as simple as ordering one via Amazon. I wasn’t prepared for, nor could I distinguish any apparent big differences between, the various models of GC with which I was presented. Digging deeper, I could see different manufacturers of the basic folded card device, offering minor enhancements, all around the £6.00 - £10.00 mark. There also seemed to be some lack of clarity with regards to whether or not they could all accommodate my iPhone 6 plus smartphone.

Eventually I ordered what seemed to be an appropriate model but, unusually for, was informed that it was being despatched late, and a week later was further informed that that model was not available. Some confused messages there. I ordered a replacement model - "Splaks Google Cardboard 3D VR Glasses" (Amazon Site) - and it was duly delivered the following day. Pre-assembled and boxed nicely, all I had to do was insert my phone and get started.

But wait a minute, what was I going to experience? Of course, I would need some VR software or apps on my phone which would deliver the content that I wanted to access via the headset. More research needed here – what apps are out there and, more importantly, are available on the Apple iPhone platform?

Because here’s another thing that became apparent very quickly. Most VR experiences, apps and devices seem to be built for the Android platform, not Apple. Indeed, Apple seem to be suspiciously and conspicuously absent from all the flutter of debate and discussion about VR. More on that later.

So, it was back to web searching for advice/curation of suitable VR apps for my iPhone and Google Cardboard. Fortunately, there was lots of info available here (see our curated resources links doc). So, apps downloaded, I loaded the introductory Google Cardboard app, inserted my iPhone according to the instructions and donned my headset (this one came with a headstrap).

Imagine my disappointment, when the 3D images I saw were blurry, out-of-focus and indistinct. Irrespective of which direction I looked in, everything was fuzzy. From cartoonish, 3D rendered apps, to 3D/360 films, everything I tried – including wearing/not wearing my spectacles in the headset – was out of focus.

And yet, despite that, I was entranced by the immersive feel, looking around, up, down, swivelling around on my desk chair, transported. Apps such as Google Street View, Within, AutismTMI*, each presented me with new wonders – albeit out of focus - which, if enhanced by using my iPhone earphones for the added 3D surround soundscapes, put me into different worlds whilst sitting at my desk. Quite impressive.
But I would have been even more impressed if the visuals had been crystal clear! 

* That said, the AutismTMI experience, designed so that the visitor can experience how
overwhelmed autistic people can become in everyday situations, was even more disorientating when viewed and experienced out of focus!

A quick exchange with my Personal Learning Network (PLN) on Twitter revealed that others had had a similar experience with Google Cardboard and that, generally, experience results were patchy. Advice seemed to be that I needed to go to the next level phone headset, such as the Samsung Gear VR (around £60.00).

I never got that far, as my next experience was at the Learning Technologies Show at Olympia in London on 3rd February. I was busy at the Conference, having been asked to Chair a couple of sessions, so I didn’t get onto the Exhibition floor until Day 2, when Rachel and I met up for a coffee and to compare our research notes to date. Rachel had visited one of the other supplier stands and shared her experience with me – and the world apparently - with this tweet.

We teamed up to visit the Immerse Learning stand, where we took turns to experience their fully immersive VR kit and environment via the HTC Vive headset, linked to a laptop PC, which enabled us to explore and manipulate a 3D pill press machine (see their own blog on the LT Exhibition, here

Indeed, so all-encompassing was my experience here, that, goggled and ear-phoned up, with two paddles in my hand to simulate lifting and moving virtual objects, when instructed to ‘open the door on the machine’, I ‘pulled’ on its handle, expecting it to slide upwards, but ducked – and swore loudly – as the door swung open and up ‘in my face’. I actually physically ducked to avoid being struck, so real was the simulation. Judging from the laughter from the bystanders awaiting their turn, no-one was overly offended by my outburst and the comedic (and learning) value of me doing so in empty space was evidently sufficient to excuse my language.

I could immediately see the value of this environment as a learning tool. Not only could I manipulate the machine itself as an operator, I could - and this was kinda freaky - actually walk into the machine and view its inner workings and mechanics. As operator and/or engineer, anyone's understanding of the machine and their ability to play with, examine, diagnose and repair it in virtual detail, without having to take an expensive bit of kit apart in a workshop - and repeat the exercise as required - is very clear to me. A great example of and introduction to the real-world potential applications of VR in Learning.

Now please follow these links to our first YouTube video conversation about our research and Rachel's blog to read about her experiences with VR in Learning thus far

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

VR in Learning - A collaborative Research Project

Welcome! This is the first of a blog and video series which will be published over the next two weeks, by myself and fellow L&D consultant, Rachel Burnham (@BurnhamLandD). Our purpose is to share our learning journey (our 'Odyssey', as Rachel has called it), as independent L&D Consultants, into the world of Virtual - and Augmented - Reality, to better understand the technology and its potential application in learning. We do not present ourselves as experts here, but as curious professionals, keen to understand the subject but also willing to share our experiences and insights with others who may have a similar interest.

This first blog is a combination of mine and Rachel's initial blogs on the subject, which Rachel is also posting on her blog page at We will also post some videos on YouTube and blog individually later in the series.

Why Did We Do This Research? (Niall)

Stimulated by a Learning & Performance Institute (@yourLPI) Webinar on 13 Dec 2016 “Go Virtual!” with Ron Edwards from Serious Games International, both Rachel and I realised independently that Virtual Reality (and Augmented Reality – more on that later) was a subject area and practice about which we knew very little but wanted to understand more. For myself, my reasoning was that, as an independent L&D & Learning Technologies Consultant, VR was an area which was gaining more and more attention and interest both within the L&D world, but more importantly, outwith L&D, in the real world! And I needed to be able to experience it, play with it, understand its capabilities and limitations, so that I could, as a minimum, discuss intelligently and with confidence both within my L&D/HR and OD network, but much more importantly, in conversation with potential and existing clients who may have expressed interest in its potential to support their learning programmes. 

We had a brief discussion after the webinar and decided that we would collaborate on some research on VR for Learning, to increase our own knowledge & understanding, but with the added benefit of being able, perhaps, to share that learning for others’ benefit later.

As has become the norm with so much these days, the consumer/domestic uptake of easily accessible and easily grasped technologies has the potential to leave L&D out in the cold without the necessary knowledge and skills to be able to understand, discuss and/or apply them appropriately. Often, what people do and use in their private lives becomes their norm and their expectation elsewhere, especially in the workplace.

Now, it’s not just down to L&D to be responsible for the adoption and integration of relevant technologies into the workplace. Often, corporate policy and/or cultural practice mitigates against rapid inquiry, experimentation, refinement and adoption of such tools. But Rachel and I feel that L&D has an opportunity to show some leadership here, to be seen as a bridge-builder and a trusted partner to business and its people by offering advice about and practical experience of using such tools in the support of performance improvement.

What follows in this series is our individual and joint journey in Virtual Reality discovery to date, some personal insights, a curation of further analysis, thinking and resources, and an invitation/call to action to others to engage and share their virtual journeys with us.

What is VR? (Rachel)

VR or Virtual Reality is a technology that is widely used in gaming to create a 360 degree/3 dimensional experience that immerses participants.  The degree of immersion can vary from simply being able to look around you 360 degrees, at either an image or video of the real world or some kind of simulation, through to being able to interact with this ‘world’ by picking up and working with objects.  Increasingly, people in L&D are working out how to use this technology to enable effective learning for individuals and organisations.

A closely related, though different technology is AR or Augmented Reality.  This is where technology, utilizing a smartphone or tablet, is used to project additional information or images into the real world, as an overlay.  One of the big hits of the summer of 2016 was the game ‘Pokemon GO’ which used AR technology, through mainly mobile phones, to enable people to see and collect ‘cartoon-like’ creatures whilst out and about.  AR technology for use in L&D is not as advanced, at the time of writing (February 2017) as for VR, but some authors believe that there is even more potential to use AR in the workplace eg as part of performance support.

VR is often thought synonymous with the use of expensive headsets, but there are different ways of accessing VR to suit a range of budgets.  At the cheap and cheerful end, you can purchase a ‘Google Cardboard’ headset for under a tenner and use this to view VR apps through a mobile phone.  The quality is not as good as with the more expensive sets, particularly if you already wear glasses and they can only be used for VR apps which involve no interaction. With this equipment some sound is possible, either broadcast through the mobile phone or via the earphones for your mobile phone, though the quality may not be great. It is worth searching online for access to free apps to use with this type of equipment and this is an easy way to get a flavour of what is possible with VR.

At the next level of expense are a range of headsets which not only include glasses, but also more substantial earphones.  These also use mobile phones to play the software, but the addition of the earphones means that they can incorporate sound much more effectively alongside the visual images.  They also can incorporate some options for interaction within the VR programme, so that the participant can make limited choices between options for action eg to see some tips or to jump straight in or to choose between answers.  This makes the whole experience much more engaging for the learner.   Some programmes will also build in feedback for the learner on their performance in the activity and this also enhances the experience.

With this middle range equipment, you can continue to use the free apps, but there are also a good range of developers offering off-the-shelf VR experiences that could be used.  However, for many learning and performance needs you may find that you need to commission a bespoke VR solution.  Whilst it is possible to create VR solutions in-house, it is much harder to produce interactive solutions without external specialist support at this stage in the development of the technology. 

At the top end of the market a much fuller immersive and participatory experience can be gained using a combination of headsets, with earphones plus handheld devices which allow you to interact with the environment.   This means that you can pick up objects, turn handles or levers, open doors and manipulate objects in other ways – leading to a much fuller experience and vital for VR software that is about becoming familiar with servicing equipment for example.   It also means that it is possible to have a much more interactive experience in VR, which of course can contribute to more effective learning. These sets are much more likely to be used with bespoke designs for the VR environment, created to meet the specific needs of an organisation and a specialist provider will be needed to support this.

For details of equipment please take a look at the accompanying curated resources list, which will appear at the end of this series.

We hope you enjoy this journey, and will follow and join in the discussion here in blog comments, on Twitter (hashtag #VRinLearning), LinkedIn, YouTube and facebook. We hope to set up an online 'further resources' Google Document, with links to curated blogs, articles, infographics etc, and hope that - in this most dynamic and quickly-changing environment - you will add your own thoughts and links as the subject develops. 

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Igniting Conversations

Yesterday (Tuesday 14th March), I presented an Ignite Talk to the CIPD Sussex Branch L&D Forum at Brighton & Hove City College, at the invitation of Janet Webb, of Janet Webb Consulting (@ JWebbConsulting), who was facilitating the event.

After the opening half-hour 'network and grab-a-sandwich' bit, a full evening programme on the future of L&D, using new formats, kicked off with 'Open Space' discussions around four provocative statement/questions:
  • "For learning events, content is more important than delivery."
  • "Do coaching and mentoring programmes deliver value for money?"
  • "What is the future role of L & OD?"
  • "Classroom based learning is now largely irrelevant."
Facilitated by Janet, our mixed group of some 20 participants, exercising the 'rule of two feet' (move on if and when you have had enough of any of the group conversations) shared their views and opinions and then came together to review the session.

I was a little surprised to hear one to two people question the value of the exercise without predefined 'outcomes', and concerns expressed about how we were supposed to remember/retain any personal learning points. This led to a useful discussion about how to develop and maintain reflective practice as part of our toolkit, with references made to blogging as being helpful here.

Incidentally, it's always good to see the Twitter community show up from outside the room in these discussions, as Janet tweeted out the questions and a couple of tweeps commented in. As it happens, only a few of us in the room last night are regular tweeters, so we encouraged the room attendees to consider joining in to the regular Friday morning #LDInsight tweetchat and I'm looking forward to seeing who shows up on Friday.

All too soon, it was my turn to share my Ignite talk. For those who don't know, Ignite is an internationally-recognised templated speaking format, designed to encourage speakers to share topics and ideas quickly and concisely, using 20 slides, auto-timed to display for 15 seconds each, which makes an Ignite talk just 5 minutes!

This was to be my second-ever attempt at delivering an Ignite talk; the first being at the CIPD Annual Conference in Manchester in 2015, as part of Andy Lancaster's first "Ignite Lab". Those of you who were 'fortunate' enough to have attended that session might just remember the paper trail I left all over the stage, reflecting the fact that I was under-rehearsed and under-confident on that occasion - but people (well, Sarah Harvey anyway) still remember my performance, if not the content, two years later.

In contrast, for last night's event, I was very well-rehearsed, having learned my lesson in 2015! I spent most of the day practicing, editing, practicing, and repeating, to get the script, the flow and the timing as smooth as I could, whilst still delivering a coherent and well-paced talk - no easy task, believe me!

And it's just as well that I did, because when it came to loading my slide deck and switching to 'presentation' mode, I was unable to see my notes on my own screen and had to rely only on what the audience could see on the big screen. (And no, I hadn't thought to print them out as a fall-back!) Janet was delighted! "That'll make it look even more spontaneous and authentic" were her last words to me as she introduced me to the room...!

Well, I got away with it. Having rehearsed it so often, I was only caught out by one slide appearing where my mind went blank and I had absolutely no idea what I was meant to say at that point. I managed something vaguely relevant and that got me back on track. And then, it was over. And the audience grilling began...!

What's an Ignite talk for? Why would you do it? Where does it fit? When would you do it?  Does it have to be 15 seconds per slide? Is this the future of learning - rapid fire content delivery? 

So here are some of my reflections and learning points that emerged out of the Ignite Talk exercise and the discussion afterwards:
  • Be clear what your message or idea is
  • Be sure that an Ignite Talk is the appropriate medium to share the story, and that it's appropriate for your audience
  • Be brief / Be clear / Be concise - it's not a race to the finish line
  • Rehearse, tweak, rehearse, tweak, repeat, repeat, repeat...
  • Be prepared to discuss afterwards
  • Prepare and share support material/handouts etc to add context and detail which couldn't be covered in the 5 minute talk
  • Consider if and where Ignite Talks might fit into a larger programme or event - Setup? Opposing viewpoints? Summary and Calls to Action?
  • Think of Ignite Talks as the presentational equivalent of a 5-minute tweet or indeed, a series of 20 15-second tweets. If you can't say/illustrate your story or message within that framework, it may not be the right tool for the job - on that occasion.
The final session of the evening was facilitated by Sarah Harvey (@ SavvySarahSPM), who is also the Chair of the CIPD Sussex Branch, wherein we explored the 'Goldfish Bowl' technique of observed conversation, in this case a manager/team meeting, whereby the participants sit in the middle of a larger circle of observers and have their conversation. Particular character attributes are assigned to each participant, which they are required to enact during the discussion, whilst the observers are told to look specifically for Non-Verbal Communication, Tone of Voice, Words Used and Presence.

A really enjoyable session and much respect to the four volunteers who stepped into the circle and played their parts so convincingly. Again, a valuable discussion followed regarding the usefulness of this technique, the case for using professional actors and the need for cultural understanding and fit in deploying it back in the workplace.

Thanks to Janet and Sarah for keeping us on track and on time, and for a very engaging and participative session that got us walking, talking, sharing and learning together. And of course, this blog is my reflective work, which I will refer back to when I am doing another Ignite Talk, at this year's CIPD L&D Show 'Ignite Lab' on Wednesday 10th May. Come along and see a few talks so you can get a broader idea of their impact and usefulness.