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Is it time to finally use learning science to improve VR training?

The utilization of VR in training, sales enablement, and recruitment requires organizations to understand the differences between ‘Seductive Details’ and ‘Desirable Difficulties’. Today’s sophisticated headsets and rumors of more entrants to the market, indicates that learning leaders need to upskill their understanding of VR training capabilities and approaches.  

As organizations battled the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, some forward-thinking leaders have begun to accelerate their use of virtual reality to propel various initiatives forward. With more tools, technologies, and deployments happening as we emerge out of a pandemic, leaders are looking for insights to provide guideposts for deployment. The challenge in implementing VR as a tool for technical training or as sales enablement is a lack of solid learning science groundwork, benchmarks, and reliable perspectives on how to develop and scale effective experiences. 

This is a series of insights from: Dr. Christopher David Kaufman doctoral researcher in organizational learning science.  Dr. Kaufman is a certified social behavioral investigator, author, patented software developer, Fortune 100 strategist, learning design consultant, and earned his EdD doctoral on a thesis working with VR organizations including the United Nations World Health Organization, while at the esteemed Peabody College of Human Development at Vanderbilt University.

Many organizations often fall into two traps when deploying augmented or virtual reality training. Thus, learning leaders must be wary of becoming a victim to what I have seen as ‘Authoritative-Replication Beast Mode’ and ‘Angry-birdization’. These two approaches miss the opportunities or affordances that the best VR platforms can provide. The challenge is that most experienced developers in VR are not experts in learning science, and those experienced in learning science do not understand advanced immersive 3D experiences. Therefore, learning leaders must take notice of these issues to deploy VR successfully. 

Authoritative-Replication Beast Mode

So, there are very few VR developers with the knowledge to challenge an HR or Ops Director who has the Authoritative-Replication Beast Mode engaged in which training materials which were never designed for VR are pushed into a 3D space. The VR developers whether in-house or by agency tend to bend to the will of previous training paradigms. The client is always right, right? This results in training that commits such sins as sticking  PDF’s into 3D environments for trainees to read, but not be able to save for later. Or the creation of recorded voice-over of previous training scripts, that would have required the trainee in non-VR settings to take notes, but in VR the trainee is without such tools. Vast research supports that when audio only is provided retention is decreased compared with those who are able to take notes. 

Additionally, the 3D space is generally a replication of the office, warehouse, or objects that the trainee must understand and interact with. This on the face of it seems appropriate. Trainee knowledge transfer demands it. But too often the training does not take advantage of gestures, motions and other key embodiments that can enhance and anchor the training concepts that only VR can provide. The interactive affordances are limitless, yet so often training does not take advantage of simple effects such as changes in color to direct focus, x-ray the object to understand its key components, sound feedback to support real-world operations, spotlights and video ff/rewind controls to repeat content to name a few. Why? Because these gestures, sounds, interactions, cross-sectional views were not in the original training manual! So what is the alternative approach to VR deployment that also fails to meet the objectives? 


Many VR developers have or do work in the video game field. These experiences and knowledge spill into their approaches to the design of VR training. This background generally has developers putting a premium on gamification and immersion over key learning objectives of retention and transfer. Retention is the ability to remember content and transfer is the ability to use that learning content into new contexts or situations. The push to sacrifice content breadth for senseless interactivity. 

Take for instance, while scoring the performance of a trainees’ understanding can be an element of desirable difficulties, which will be described shortly, it is how it is implemented as an angry bird game and not a feedback mechanism for learning that makes the difference. If gaining points is achieved by actions that are not connected to retrieval of the structured knowledge presented, this VR training is angry-birdization. If the score provides feedback to help the trainee understand and connect how the concepts works across multiple contexts, then that is effective use of gamification. 

For example, let’s say you want to train or educate on the genetic theory of evolutionary adaptation. if the VR program rewards points for catching various random evolving butterflies with a virtual net, and the dexterity of the action is a moderating variable for the score, you have angry -birdization. If on the other hand, you create a 3D DNA helix and apply the theory of gradual release in an automated fashion. Gradual release is the concept of I do(you watch), we do(simultaneously), you do it(guided), you do it alone (reflect)[image]. And provide scoring as feedback, where the moving of parts of the 3D DNA changes the butterfly’s outward adaptations, that’s utilizing the affordances of 3D and learning science. 

But this seems like a very fuzzy line of creative intent? 

That’s where the two approaches of seductive details and desirable difficulties come in. Researchers today are just beginning to test and measure how various elements cognitive processing in VR affects learning outcomes. And V3 is at the forefront of those endeavors. 

Seductive Details

Seductive details are elements in instruction that add immersion and engagement but at the sacrifice of retention and transfer. The classic research on this is around the study of the meteorology and lightning. Lighting has stages of positive and negative ions forming and gathering based on changes of atmospheric moisture. In a study to test for seductive details the researchers added stories and pictures about golfers getting electrocuted by lighting and open ocean swimming dangers from thunderstorms. And found any such in pictures and stories, especially if added or front loaded to the beginning of a chapter or lesson, decreased retention and transfer over the key science facts of lighting formation. 

Another example of seductive detail, was when I was a teenager and I went on a teen tour to Europe. In visiting the palace of Versailles, our guide host hired a graduate student in French history to educate us on the French revolution. The palace is an amazing sight with crystal chandeliers, wall height mirrors, amazing gold leaf carved walnut furniture and incredible sculptured gardens and marble fountains everywhere. At the end of the 45 minute tour, our tour guide host thanked the graduate student.  As did we, but when our tour guide asked what did we learn about the French revolution and French history, we looked at each other blankly. We learned practically nothing! We were over-whelmed by the palace. That is seductive details and the power and seduction of using powerful VR renderings, animations, and amazing realistic details that while engaging and immersive fail to achieve learning objectives. I sometimes refer to these kinds of experiences as ‘Virtual Versailles Vices’, just because you have the power to amaze, does not mean that will service the student or the learning objectives. 

Research shows that many elements added to training or textbooks can have deleterious effects on the student’s or trainees’ retention of important content.  Yet, VR developers are eager to immerse and engage the student. And doesn’t engaged students learn more? 

Not necessarily, various studies and research show that while being engaged overall is good, some elements that increase learning, actually decrease immersion and engagement scores. What kinds of elements decrease engagement, but increase retention and transfer? 

Desirable difficulties

There are various techniques that can be used to increase learning but at the expense of engagement. The classic technique is pre-testing, prediction, or simply quizzing. Let’s try a though experiment for a moment. What if the French graduate student had asked each of use a series of questions about the difference of lifestyles that French royalty had versus the peasants? Questions like differences in food, living space, or tools? Then we walked through only a small part of the palace and entered a fairly plain chamber. In the chamber there was two objects in the shadows. A spotlight comes on and shows a peasant rough-hewn stool and then after a brief description and pause , the spotlight hits  a louis the 14th chair. 

If you did this around each of the pre-quiz questions, so that the simple object focused scene answered the questions of comparing the huge disparity in lifestyle, food, work, leisure. Do you think this might be more effective than a long 45 minute lecture while traveling through the an amazing palace? 

And what if there was another quiz after the room with spotlights and objects of both kings and peasants? Studies show that predicting, quizzing, and interleaving content increases retention and transfer but does not increase enjoyment or engagement. Who loves taking quizzes? Who loves being asked questions that you are not sure of the answer? And who loves being given various challenges that mix and match concepts that you may have not mastered yet? Nobody!

But these tools are exactly what researchers know increase retention and learning. These are desirable difficulties. They are desired by the teacher and their objectives, and the student or trainee will find them difficult. 

Next Steps

So, when working with an internal team or outside agency, ask them do they understand how to balance learning objectives with seductive details and desirable difficulties? Are they comfortable with embodied gamification purposively delivered for optimal learning outcomes or are they able to re-imagine standard 2D online material or in-person training materials into reviewable, note-able, module based 3D immersive assessment driven experiences?  If not, then seriously consider speaking to an expert. 

These issues are important and can make or break training, education or recruitment VR programs. 

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