According to the handbook of management games, “There is a world of difference between knowing something is true because one is told it by someone in authority and knowing that it is true because one has experienced it (albeit in a simulated situation) for oneself.” Few people would argue that experience matters greatly and that we learn best when we learn through our own experiences, mistakes and successes. The most successful individuals and organisations are generally those that recognise the importance of reflecting on experiences, examining choices made and using that knowledge to inform better decision making in the future. The reality, however, is that Experiential Learning (also known as immersive learning) is underutilised in learning and training programmes.
Mind the gap
The gap in learning today remains how to integrate online experiential learning alongside existing training programmes and to recognise the value it brings compared to alternative methods. Popular methods have steered towards role play and job shadowing. The challenge is that these approaches can be expensive, tough to scale, and require workers to take time off from work. Additional considerations such as providing consistent experiences, mapping experiences to learning objectives, and assessment of learning have also been an issue.
In light of these challenges, organisations today are increasingly adopting online experiential learning. Interactive digital media simulations expose learners to a variety of workplace environments. These simulations allow learners to understand the consequences of their decisions in safe, low-stakes situations and to reflect on their experiences. In addition, learners can repeat scenarios multiple times and make different decisions based on the lessons they have learned. Authentic assessments integrated into the workflow of these simulations measure how effectively learners apply their skills and knowledge in practical situations.
Engaging with the environment
Experiential learning works across a broad range of subject matters and industry sectors. From speaking with customers, the general feedback has been that it comes into its own when applied in complex situations where standard e-learning or classroom training is not appropriate. A major energy provider, employing more than 40,000 people is now using online experiential learning to help its 5,000 highly skilled engineers improve their critical thinking and problem solving skills. The company’s immersive simulations require engineers to identify root causes of a critical systems failure and make crucial decisions that impact safety, plant performance and costs. This learning tool allows the engineers to experience the emotional stress which accompanies these complex investigations and tough decisions. User feedback was also extremely positive in that users were able to feel the immense pressure of making those critical decisions, but under the safety that lives would not be at risk if mistakes were made.’
In the field of Social Care, Leeds Metropolitan University recently introduced online experiential learning in order to more adequately prepare social workers for Child Protection cases. Leeds Metropolitan University turned to developing online instructional assets specifically to help students to identify subtle clues (visual and spoken) and put them together to provide a holistic assessment to inform decision making. The university felt that those skills could not be delivered simply through learning assets such as case studies, pictures, or videos as mastering essential skills required the student to actively engage with the environment. Practical and behavioural skills needed to be developed through experience that gave students the opportunity to plug that gap through an authentic, virtual environment. For that reason, the University developed an interactive, story-based experience replicating real-life child protection scenarios that enables social workers to apply their observation and communication skills. ‘Real-life’ characters guide students through an experience that delivers learning content, assesses progress, and helps students to revisit topics until they are proficient.
Non-profit organisations such as the Norfolk & Suffolk Dementia Alliance have also turned to immersive learning in an effort to plug the gap in enduring training transfer. Research into training in the social care sector raises on-going concerns around the achievement of training transfer. Estimates suggest that only about 50 percent of training effort results in any real behaviour change on the job. Further studies showed this could be improved by including identical problems or situations found in the work environment within the actual training programme, and by giving participants the opportunity to practice and gain feedback.
Engaging the learner
The economic climate continues to be tough for many organisations as they are still focused on cutting and controlling costs. Against this backdrop, L&D professionals are also faced with the challenge in of ensuring that their workforce or students are fully equipped to succeed and to get tasks right the first time.
Immersive learning can be effectively used to plug the reality gap in training programmes – while controlling costs expenses through avoiding costly mistakes, cutting down repeat training, and retaining skilled staff. Participants are immersing participants in an environment which is realistic but safe, can help them to develop skills while testing their ability to apply their skills, knowledge and competency in authentic situations. Online experiential learning delivers not only an engaging, absorbing and enjoyable learner experience, but also measurable improvements in performance and behaviour change.
Sarah Frame is business development director EMEA at Toolwire.