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  • Gina Jeneroux, Future Work & Skills Strategist

XR FOR LEARNING

SPARKING NEW SKILLS THROUGH NEW REALITIES


A man standing in a bright, futuristic scene, wearing a virtual reality headset.  <Image by G. Jeneroux. Generated with MidJourney>

Have you ever wished you could teleport into the Amazon rainforest to understand environmental science, or step into a bustling virtual Wall Street to learn stock trading strategies, or even slip into the mind of a robot to comprehend artificial intelligence?


With Extended Reality (XR), scenarios like these are opening new possibilities for learning and future-focused skill development, by letting people explore and interact in ways we could barely imagine only a few years ago.



WHAT IS XR?

XR is an umbrella term for a range of immersive technologies that alter a user’s perception of reality by combining real environments and virtual environments, or replacing the real world entirely.


XR includes

  • Augmented Reality (AR)

  • Augmented Virtuality (AV)

  • Virtual Reality (VR)


Mixed Reality (MR) is a sub-set of XR, encompassing only AR and AV.


Together, the range of real and virtual experiences create a Virtuality Continuum that stretches from ‘what is’ to ‘what could be’:

THE VIRTUALITY CONTINUUM A blue arrow runs from left to right. It is labeled 'Virtuality Continuum'.  The continuum spans 4 types of reality:  • <1st image (far left)> REALITY: An environment consisting only of REAL OBJECTS & PEOPLE <photo image of a lighthouse on a rocky shore>  • <2nd image>  AUGMENTED REALITY (AR): The REAL world, augmented with DIGITAL ELEMENTS <photo image of a lighthouse on a rocky shore. a person is holding an iPhone in the foreground. on the screen, the lighthouse can be seen, with an overlay of a map and navigation arrows.>  • <3rd image>  AUGMENTED VIRTUALITY (AV): The VIRTUAL world, augmented with REAL OBJECTS OR PEOPLE <photo image of a person wearing a VR headset. in the background is a stylized image of a lighthouse on a rocky shore.>  • <4th image (far right)>  VIRTUAL REALITY (VR): An environment consisting only of DIGITAL ELEMENTS <stylized image of a lighthouse on a rocky shore. in the foreground, there is an image of transparent, outstretched hands.>   Reality represents 'what is'.  Virtual reality represents 'what could be'.  EXTENDED REALITY (XR) includes AR, AV and VR.  MIXED REALITY (MR) includes AR and AV.   <Content adapted from IDF, Milgram & Kishino. Images generated by G. Jeneroux using MidJourney, Photoshop (Beta) & Photoshop. Pictures of Map and VR hands from Adobe Stock>

No discussion about XR would be complete without touching on two additional terms in the virtual space: mirror worlds and the Metaverse.



MIRROR WORLDS

Mirror worlds are virtual simulations that provide a ‘digital twin’ of real, physical environments, objects and even expected human behaviors.


THE VIRTUALITY CONTINUUM A blue arrow runs from left to right. It is labeled 'Virtuality Continuum'.  The continuum spans 4 types of reality:  • <1st image (far left)> REALITY: An environment consisting only of REAL OBJECTS & PEOPLE <photo image of a lighthouse on a rocky shore>  • <2nd image>  AUGMENTED REALITY (AR): The REAL world, augmented with DIGITAL ELEMENTS <photo image of a lighthouse on a rocky shore. a person is holding an iPhone in the foreground. on the screen, the lighthouse can be seen, with an overlay of a map and navigation arrows.>  • <3rd image>  AUGMENTED VIRTUALITY (AV): The VIRTUAL world, augmented with REAL OBJECTS OR PEOPLE <photo image of a person wearing a VR headset. in the background is a stylized image of a lighthouse on a rocky shore.>  • <4th image (far right)>  VIRTUAL REALITY (VR): An environment consisting only of DIGITAL ELEMENTS <stylized image of a lighthouse on a rocky shore. in the foreground, there is an image of transparent, outstretched hands.>   Reality represents 'what is'.  Virtual reality represents 'what could be'.  EXTENDED REALITY (XR) includes AR, AV and VR.  MIXED REALITY (MR) includes AR and AV.   <Content adapted from IDF, Milgram & Kishino. Images generated by G. Jeneroux using MidJourney, Photoshop (Beta) & Photoshop. Pictures of Map and VR hands from Adobe Stock>

Mirror worlds encompass a range of immersive experiences, from simple 3D to highly-realistic XR models that use artificial intelligence to provide lifelike, interactive environments.


There are many useful applications.


For example, architects can use mirror worlds to visualize and test building designs before construction, and urban planners can simulate and analyze the impact of different infrastructure projects on the people who live in the area. Mirror worlds can also support remote collaboration, allowing teams to work together in a shared virtual space, regardless of their physical locations. As we saw through the pandemic, virtual collaboration can be an important way to build and nurture feelings of connection and community when people can’t be in the same place.

THE METAVERSE

The Metaverse is a virtual, shared space that integrates AR, AV, VR and other technologies to create an immersive and interactive digital universe.


The Metaverse is still in its infancy, with many of the experiences – and the hype – being driven by a few large players in the industry. To date, examples often focus on mirror worlds like meeting rooms and shopping malls, creating virtual versions of the spaces we see every day in our real lives. However, innovations in XR, blockchain and artificial intelligence are creating new building blocks that could turbo-charge advances in the Metaverse.


The Metaverse holds the potential to revolutionize various aspects of work, social interaction, and entertainment, and it will require a diverse set of skills to develop, navigate and manage effectively.


Pew Research Center did extensive research for their report, The Metaverse in 2040. It looks at what the Metaverse offers today and the promise of what could come.


According to Pew, leading experts from academia, business and technology are split on whether the Metaverse of the future will boil down to ‘hope, hell or hype.’ Yet, there are some points of consensus:

  • Existing issues will be magnified, if the Metaverse continues to be built by those who created today’s most prominent platforms. This could include accelerating ‘surveillance capitalism,’ as the value of personal data continues to grow, as well as heightened cyber risk.

  • XR will continue to offer significant opportunities in the areas of gaming, entertainment, the healthcare industry and learning. However, advances in Mixed Reality applications, enabled by artificial intelligence, may accelerate at a faster rate than VR.

The landscape of XR, including mirror worlds and the Metaverse, is evolving rapidly, and there will be growing pains along the way. What is clear is that the technology is creating opportunities to imagine a whole new world for L&D.

XR OPENS NEW DOORS FOR L&D

XR offers several benefits for learning and skill development:

  • Immersive experiences: XR provides interactive environments where individuals can deeply engage with the content. This heightened immersion encourages learning and boosts retention rates. It can also foster empathy and a more profound grasp of the subject matter. For example, a VR experience might help users understand the impacts of climate change by immersing them in environments affected by it.

  • Learning in context: Through XR, learners can understand and apply knowledge within the same context in which it will be used. This accelerates the transfer of skills to real-world applications.

  • Risk-free practice: XR allows people to ‘learn by doing’ in a safe, controlled environment where they can practice skills and experiment. Whether learning how to complete a surgery, operate heavy machinery or navigate a difficult conversation, mistakes in an XR environment typically have no real-world consequences.

  • In-the-moment feedback: XR platforms can provide real-time, personalized feedback during learning sessions. These insights can accelerate the development of skills by helping learners reinforce good practices and correct mistakes along the way.

  • Accessibility and inclusion: XR experiences can be designed to make learning more accessible. For instance, a student with physical disabilities might participate in a virtual field trip with their classmates, a remote employee could learn a new skill without having to travel to a central location, and a person with vision loss could adjust and control their environment and use spatial sound to navigate a virtual world.


Of course – like all successful learning – XR programs will need to reflect sound pedagogical principles to move beyond novelty and entertainment into impactful skill-building experiences.


But what do effective XR experiences look like?


Here are three examples:

AUGMENTED REALITY (AR) -  The REAL world, augmented with DIGITAL ELEMENTS  <Photo of a person facing a large piece of machinery, and holding up a tablet that shows icons on the screen, on top of the image of the machine>  A SKILL-BUILDING EXAMPLE Provide hands-on guidance in a manufacturing or industrial setting  Project step-by-step instructions, safety protocols or maintenance procedures onto physical equipment or machinery  Benefit: Enable employees to learn and practice new skills directly in the workplace, reducing learning time and minimizing the risk of errors and accidents  <Image generated by G. Jeneroux using MidJourney & PowerPoint>
AUGMENTED VIRTUALITY (AV) -  The VIRTUAL world, augmented with REAL OBJECTS OR PEOPLE  <Photo of a surgeon wearing a visual device that projects a virtual anatomical scene in front of her. She's performing surgery on a virtual heart.>  A SKILL-BUILDING EXAMPLE Provide surgeons with a way to learn and practice surgical procedures, complete with detailed anatomical models and instruments  Offer real-time feedback on their technique, precision, and adherence to best practices  Benefits: Enable learners to manipulate virtual tools and practice techniques in a risk-free environment  Adapt to the learner’s skill level and preferences, providing additional guidance for novices and complex or cutting-edge procedures to challenge experts  <Image generated by G. Jeneroux using MidJourney and Photoshop (Beta)>
VIRTUAL REALITY (VR) -  An environment consisting only of DIGITAL ELEMENTS  <Photo of a man wearing a VR headset, walking through a virtual Chinese market>  <Photo of a woman wearing a VR headset, exploring a jungle village that has been devastated by environmental impacts>  A SKILL-BUILDING EXAMPLE Immerse individuals in situations that help them empathize with diverse identities and experiences Enable them to walk in the shoes of someone from a different race, gender, cultural background, or environmental situation, and navigate challenges and biases outside their own lived experiences  Benefits: Empathy-building:  VR experiences can evoke strong emotions and a sense of presence Personalized learning:  Scenarios can target specific diversity-related issues or biases an individual may have Safe environment for practice: VR provides a safe space to explore sensitive topics, practice inclusive behaviors and make mistakes New perspectives:  VR can challenge preconceived notions and unconscious biases  <IMAGE GENERATED BY G. JENEROUX USING MIDJOURNEY>

XR is not only a tool for learning. It is also a field with a growing demand for skilled professionals. Familiarity with XR technologies and their applications can open doors to careers in a range of sectors, from education and healthcare to gaming and marketing. Key transferrable skills include programming (e.g., C#, Java, JavaScript, Unity, Unreal Engine), 3D modelling, UX design, data analysis and visualization, as well as complex problem-solving and spatial awareness (to name just a few!). Therefore, integrating XR into the learning process can both enhance the learning experience, and equip learners with skills they’ll need to thrive in the future job market.




RISKS & CONSIDERATIONS

While XR offers numerous benefits for learning and skill development, it also comes with risks. Here are some to consider:

  • Health and safety: Extensive use of XR can lead to issues like ‘cybersickness,’ with dizziness, eye strain, headaches and fatigue. It can even lead to physical injuries if users are not aware of their real-world surroundings. Overreliance on virtual interactions could also lead to decreased face-to-face relationships and social isolation, and impact users' mental health, leading to feelings of disorientation, anxiety or addiction.

  • Learning quality: Using XR technology requires a learning curve for both educators and learners. The effectiveness of XR relies on the quality of the content and its alignment with learning objectives. Poorly designed XR experiences could lead to confusion, misinformation or learning gaps. Additionally, not all users will be tech-savvy, making it more challenging for them to navigate XR environments.

  • Lack of standards and best practices: The XR field is relatively new, especially in education. This means there are not yet many established standards or best practices. Although many companies and schools have piloted XR programs, few have included structured evaluations – and for those that have, many focused on identical or similar testing approaches, resulting in duplication of effort and narrow industry insights regarding XR strengths and shortcomings.

  • Privacy and cybersecurity: XR devices can collect a lot of personal data, including biometric information. If not properly managed, this can lead to serious privacy issues. As with any digital tool, there’s a risk of data breaches, which could expose sensitive information.

  • Costs and inequality: XR hardware and software can be expensive and require high-speed internet and technological infrastructure, which may not be available to everyone. This can exacerbate digital divides and lead to inequalities in learning experiences and outcomes. Also, XR applications may not be fully accessible to learners with disabilities, unless they’re thoughtfully designed to be.

  • Technical issues and usability: XR technology is still maturing. The complex nature of the technology can lead to issues, such as software bugs or hardware failures. This can disrupt the learning process and put a strain on L&D teams to provide technical support.

The potential benefits of XR for learning are significant, and a thoughtful, well-planned strategy and plan can help to manage the risks. This includes ensuring health and safety guidelines are in place, good data privacy and security practices are established, and each program is based on clear performance outcomes and is accessible for everyone in your target population. Also, before launching any XR program, it’s important to conduct pilot tests to understand how the technology really works and how effective it is for your specific learning goals – with targeted evaluation and feedback along the way. This will help to identify potential issues and create opportunities for improvement before broader implementations.


LOOKING FORWARD

Imagine a world where your teams can gain experience without years, enhance skills without boundaries, and engage in learning like never before. This isn't just wishful thinking – it's a new paradigm for learning and skills, powered by XR.


How will you take advantage of the opportunities XR offers?

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