Virtual Training: Making It Work for Real-World Success

By Daniel Harbecke

“The future,” as Jeff Goldblum once said in a popular PBS program, “is where we will spend the rest of our lives.” If so, our future home is coming upon us faster than ever before. The advents of virtual reality and social learning come at a time when our resources are shrinking and our current lifestyle become untenable – as gas becomes more expensive, it may turn what may be a niche or a gimmick under other circumstances into a necessity. For this reason (though not for this reason alone), these two technologies are becoming increasingly important and in-demand.

It would be easy to simply agree to the trends, and let wizened tech gurus tell us what the future is. However, as we all have a stake in it, as well as keeping our smarter money in our pockets, it’s wiser to take a more critical stance on what comes our way. After getting burned by fads and learning to smell the smoke of hype, experience and skill in anticipating the future become valuable tools. Part of that includes second-guessing the ideas purveyed in both social learning and virtual reality.

The key to simulation is to create an environment in which users can explore appealing options and become self-directed, ideally led by their own curiosity and possessing autonomy rather than being conducted on a virtual tour. There are two significant areas of restriction for this:

The first, as always, is that a simulated environment is limited by its interface. A metaphor that’s convincingly simulated serves as a bridge for focus within a virtual environment, and many developers are beginning to expand on that potential, such as Knoodle. Yet most of us are resigned to a 2D monitor, mouse and keyboard for our modes of influence, and we need to match our skill with the interface to the virtual environment to interact in a fluid, immersive manner. Though our senses can be easily manipulated, it’s the methods for influencing a virtual environment that produce the bottleneck. The interfaces of the future will build from the most fluid interface we have at our disposal – our bodies, which includes our limbs, face, body posture and positioning. Future interfaces may use low-level lasers to scan body position and motion, or even capture facial expressions; to date, that possibility remains latent.

The second area for the future of simulation is in the development of content. Here we see the increased demand for open-source data – that is, information that’s linked by meta-descriptions for multiple uses. Imagine if the works created by 3D programmers, blog writers, web designers, document creators, graphic and musical artists, and so forth were all suddenly made available, in multiple formats within a virtual setting; Creative Commons is one of the trailblazers for this development, and there are many others joining suit. Richard Baraniuk gives an excellent TedTalk discussing the potential of open-source learning.

It’s uncertain whether a virtual classroom, in its present state of development, could look anything near as fluid or visually appealing as live interaction.  The stiff body language and blank expressions of avatars such as those from Second Life can seem creepy, and the smoothness of gesture and emphasis, which convey so much, seem out of reach – all of which interfere with immersion, engagement and interactivity.  Though perhaps acceptable for a virtual icebreaker, it’s hard to see how the lack of nuance in body language can lead to an effective teaching environment. As noted by Michele Smith and Zane Berge, “One important concept is the observation and modeling of attitudes and emotional reactions.  How does this concept manifest in Second Life?  That question is more difficult to answer for in-world, or any distance education environment that does not include in-person contact between instructors, students, designers, and researchers.”

If the Internet is bound to become the future for learning, the definition of Web 2.0 needs to be broadened.  Where Web 1.0 dealt with the basics of communication, and what kinds of data could be transmitted, Web 2.0 will ultimately be described less as Internet commerce than the methods by which we extend community. We see this advent in social networking, and begin to spy Web 3.0 just over the horizon: how we create identity and personal boundaries on the Web. The path to Web 3.0 is through creating convincing environments and accessible interfaces, and this will only come through a revolution that takes us beyond mouse-and-keyboard interaction to make effective use of a wider variety of information. For the many resisting the metaphor of Web X.Y because there’s no physical relation to hard- or software, the missions framed by the version numbers will inevitably lead to the wares.

“The future,” said Jeff Goldblum, “is where we will spend the rest of our lives.” It’s vital to have a solid grasp on where its leading currents are heading, and where they will take our social connections in virtual – yet authentic – potential. When the classroom begins to slip its traditional and historic definition, we need to ask ourselves what the true core of a learning environment, live or otherwise, really is – and how to advocate its place in the virtual future.


Where do you see the future of virtual reality and social learning?

Could artificial software like Siri replace live instructors?

What do you feel is vital for effective virtual learning?

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