The flurry of new gaming experiences being released for virtual reality in 2016 has made me notice an existing correlation between effective VR and eLearning design.

The VR industry in the North East has been steadily growing over the past few years, with companies like HammerheadVR based in Gateshead and Spearhead Interactive of Middlesbrough leading the way in showcasing the potential of properly constructed VR experiences for the purposes of marketing and entertainment.

In the educational space, VR has yet to find its killer app. I was extremely fortunate back in 2014 to be working with Jisc as an eLearning advisor, and was actively encouraged to experiment with upcoming technologies to better serve our regional partners with new ideas and technology.

I requested that we bought an Oculus Rift in order to explore its potential uses in the world of simulated learning, because the natural interface between learner and device that VR offers creates many new opportunities for learners who struggle with the traditional keyboard and mouse setup.

What I found most enjoyable about having the Oculus Rift was not so much trying the immersive experiences that I could find out for myself, but rather I enjoyed giving other people the chance to try the technology and to gauge their reaction from the outside.

At first, the impact on a person new to VR can be quite comical and surreal to witness. However, when it starts to really capture the imagination of the wearer – especially industry insiders – the ideas for its uses created many inspiring conversations for integration into teaching and learning in the future.

Of course no institution was going to jump into early investment in the technology back then, no matter how apparent the enthusiasm of the staff members was towards the hardware.

Even the first generation of consumer products in VR released this year are priced very high, and when it comes to the education sector technology always has to prove its worth.  This is why we are only recently starting to see the real benefits of the 1:1 tablet classroom starting to take hold in many schools and colleges thanks to the array of choice and sustainable device management options now available in the market.

VR will eventually work its way into training and development. The impact of virtual simulated learning could prove to be revolutionary in many different areas, but a lesson that will be learned for VR education developers of the future will come from what is happening right now in gaming.

Many established developers are testing the waters with VR by using their existing brands in order to market and sell new games specifically for virtual reality. What is interesting to me is that a lot of these developers have clearly spent a good amount of time considering what the overall user experience should be based on the technology, and not rely on simply taking their existing gameplay and graphics and transferring this as a carbon copy into VR.

Jed Ashforth, senior game designer at Sony Computer Entertainment’s Worldwide Studios Tech Group explains this very well when he said that developers must “reboot their thinking” when it comes to VR. I really like that he goes on to discuss how while game designers may see themselves as creating interactive movies, a more an appropriate approximation for VR is that developers are “imagineering playable theme park rides”.

It is true that with this level of immersive technology we can play with the emotional responses of the user much more with the experiences that we create, and it is for this reason why I strongly believe that VR will make serious headway in the world of education. The more we can talk to the learner’s emotions during a learning journey, the more it will resonate with them and remain in their memory for years to come.

In many ways, the design of effective VR experiences does correlate to the SAMR model, which is one of my go-to philosophies for learning design. It teaches us that if we are simply using new technology for the sake of it and achieving a result that we are already achieving now, then we are not utilising that technology to its full potential. The learning experience will suffer as a result, especially if the learning process is highly tutor-centric.

The overall success of simulation games today that are based on the existing ‘raw material’ of their own gaming brand comes from transforming what users might expect from the VR experience, and surprising them with new and inventive ways of interacting and playing with the game.

An example of this can be seen in the newly re-imagined release of Fruit Ninja on Steam, which uses motion controls to introduce new ways of interacting with objects to do surprising actions like juggling and skewering fruit onto a sword.

As learning designers, we must push the expectations of what can be done in eLearning. Sadly, we typically have to serve an audience that has become disengaged and disenchanted with online learning due to the initial boom of what was produced in the ‘CD-Rom Era’ which can now be analysed as a dry and poorly paced experience for learners.

I strongly believe in the benefits of game based learning as an approach to creating more effective and meaningful online learning experiences no matter the subject. However, as we start to experiment with even more new technology and ways of connecting with our audience, we should remember the importance of SAMR and take tips from our game development counterparts who show us that an audience is always going to be demanding more from us every single year.

Chris Hodgson

Chris Hodgson

Chris Hodgson is a Digital learning Solutions Developer and Director of Discover eLearning Ltd. He supports SMEs and large firms through the process of integrating eLearning into their organisation. Chris has over 10 years experience working in Higher Education, Independent Training Provider Sector and Charity Sector learning and development.

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