On January 20, 2011, I co-presented a session for the E-Learning Guild on the topic of immersive learning environments. My co-presenter is a long-time client and friend, Claudia Viveros, Director, Global Organizational Development + Effectiveness at Quintiles. The session highlighted examples and lessons learned from several ILE programs that we’ve designed in the last few years. This article is a summary of that session.
Why would I want to apply an immersive learning environment (ILE)?
We defined an immersive learning environment as an instructional strategy that allows the learner to practice making real-life decisions in an authentic environment. We’ve probably all seen the National Training Labs learning pyramid that says that we remember 5-10% of what we see or hear after three days, and we remember 75% of what we practice.
We learn best by doing and since our goals are to change or enforce the correct behaviors, ILEs are beneficial. Mock scenarios allow the learner to practice making critical business decisions and then receive feedback that imitates what might happen in the real world.
We polled the group of attendees to find out if there were any topics that would not be appropriate for an ILE design. The response from the group was that purely informational content is the only area that would not benefit from this strategy. Clark Aldrich tells us that ILEs work especially well when there is a need to drive competence (apply the right skill) and commitment (how people behave when no one is watching) and learners gain comfort when they have achieved both.
You’ve selected an ILE design—now what?
Once you’ve confirmed that your training content requires both competence and conviction, you’ll want to write a design document. The design document can be used to build support for the simulation and make sure that all stakeholders share a common vision for the program before development begins. I like to include the following sections in the WeejeeLearning design documents:
Program goals: Program goals can be thought of as organizational goals for the program and may include desired cost per student, access methods, time to launch, aesthetic goals, audience reactions, engagement metrics, etc.
Target audience: The target audience includes the job functions that will be taking the course, or who the course is designed for. It is essential to include this group throughout your design process.
Performance objectives: Performance objectives are what you want the user to be able to do following the course, or the observable behavior change that you expect to see.
Context: Each ILE should have a storyline that grabs the user’s attention and is authentic. Keep in mind that in an ILE you can visualize the invisible system, or the flow of events that people can’t normally see.
Challenge: What problem is the learner challenged to solve in the program? In addition to the typical scenarios that learners encounter on a day-to-day basis, we want to put students into novel situations that require improvising. This will help the learner progress from novice to expert (applying knowledge to new situations).
Activity: Describe what the learner actually does, step-by-step, and the proposed functionality. A developer once told me that it isn’t enough to say “in this section, the learner will make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We need to spell out that first the user picks up a piece of bread by clicking on the loaf on a shelf on the right-hand side of the screen, and then click “close” to return the bag of bread to the shelf…and so on.” Describe these specific actions in the activity section. Make sure to allow the students to repeat the scenarios (can’t be too long or too linear).
Feedback approach: Include little feedback signs to teach learners signs in the real world that might indicate risky behavior. Also present tailored, after-action reviews/debriefings and scoring where necessary.
Program outline/architecture: In the outline, map out the branching treatment for the ILEs as well as the flow of the navigation.
Privacy Awareness Basic Training Course–Take a look at some of the ILEs that we’ve designed with Quintiles. This first example is a course on Privacy Awareness. The course was converted from a paper-based self-study course. The course was designed for all Quintiles employees with the objectives of recognizing privacy incidents and identifying whether or not to report them. In the module, learners play the role of the Quintiles Global Chief Privacy Officer who is responsible for preventing privacy violations.
The challenge was to walk around the Quintiles environment, identify privacy incidents and describe why they are in violation of Quintiles’ policies. The learners reviewed Quintiles’ policies in this realistic cubicle environment before progressing to the office floor.
Once they enter the office floor, they review and respond to 15 scenarios, which are scored. We chose scenarios that are likely to occur in the real world or could be the most costly. Feedback was provided at the end of each of three rounds.
Fundamentals of Adaptive Clinical Trials (ACTs)–This course was converted from classroom training to asynchronous e-learning.
The objectives of the module were for Quintiles representatives to be able to accurately discuss Quintiles’ ACT services and to identify the ACT experts within the organization. We place the learner into a situation where they are asked to interact with colleagues and potential clients at an industry trade show and answer questions about ACTs. Learners select a person on the trade show floor and respond to three questions. When they successfully answer all three questions, their score improves and the customer avatar moves to the Quintiles booth. If a learner does not correctly answer the questions, they are referred to a microlearning module on the virtual Blackberry.
Bloodborne Pathogens and Chemical Safety–This course was designed for all Quintiles employees who come into contact with blood or chemicals. Learners are presented with six scenarios and are asked to respond by selecting objects in the environment or answering questions. Multiple versions have been created of this module since regulations vary by geographic region. Sound effects were added, but the module does not include any narration or video.
Customer Simulations–ILEs may focus on practicing soft skills like building rapport, sales, or customer communications. In these scenarios, we’ve often videotaped a professional actor against a greenscreen and placed them into a 3D environment. Users can interact with the character by responding to prompts. These may have complex branching architectures. Feedback can be provided through verbal and non-verbal signals as well as coach comments, customer satisfaction meters, and score.
How do I fit an ILE into my budget?
ILE programs have the perception of being very costly, but there are a number of steps that you can take to keep the costs in line.
- Minimal audio and video assets–Most of the programs that we’ve designed for Quintiles contain minimal narration or no narration. Video is also used sparingly.
- Simple navigation via minimal branching–The more complex the branching scenarios, the longer the development time. One way to keep branching minimal is to loop learners back onto the “right” path after receiving coaching feedback on an incorrect choice.
- Reusable assets–It is helpful to build a library of reusable assets, particularly 3D graphics, when possible.
- Simulation engines–Use an existing engine like SimWriter by NexLearn to save significant development time.
- Outsourcing–Some e-learning vendors specialize in simulations and immersive learning environments. Leverage this expertise when working within a budget constraint.
Keys to success
Some keys to success when developing ILEs include:
- Using professional talent
- Making environment authentic
- Intuitive navigation
- Making learning FUN
- Validating with target audience/SMEs throughout design/development process