The Rise and Fall of 3D Learning – Lessons from Real Implementations

On being asked to write a blog post on my experience with virtual learning, our near obsessive interest a few years ago, with Virtual worlds and 3D Learning comes to mind. Second Life in particular had caught the imaginations of several different groups within our large global organization. Having seen its stupendous success with assorted conferences and meetings, various teams worldwide began exploring Second Life, and its applications in Learning.

Few early sessions that we pioneered, were a module (in Planeshift)  in “Team Building” for remote participants, where avatars were sent off on a Treasure Hunt, and another similar module in Second Life, for  a creative thinking and innovation workshop. These were hugely popular with our techy workforce, especially on the days that the ‘Bandwidth Gods’ blessed these sessions.

About two years later, the global L&D group commissioned the first formal 3D learning project – a New Hire Orientation program,  envisioned as a game changer in virtual learning. This was a ‘global’ offering, which different Geos could then adapt for onboarding their new hires. The immersive environment was designed especially to appeal to the younger new hires in the organization. The output was breathtaking 3D training facilities on an island with marvellous views. Features included embedded presentations and streaming videos, interactive whiteboards, and several interactive games to reinforce learning. In addition, participating avatars were to receive company branded T shirts, and even virtual coffee and snacks. The project was given all the required resources, funding, branding and executive support and took well over a year for development.

I was one of the many L&D Managers tasked with promoting the program amongst various Geos. During launch with L&D teams of different countries, the project did not fail to excite. Attendees were sold on all the aspects of 3D learning and went away awed with the demos. But that’s where it stopped. For some reason, no team actually went live with the program.  Few months later – it became a cost recovery effort, and sadly used in ways that defeated the need for virtual learning – for example, as a pre-lunch ‘fun’ module in regular classroom sessions, where participants logged in, from around the table!

I moved on from the organization, and recently got to know that the program was decommissioned a year later. Some of the reasons for failure were apparent from the beginning (although few L&D decision makers were convinced otherwise!), and others not so obvious. Bandwidths in many countries still did not support the program. Where they did, there were other issues:

  • Roll-outs were too work-intensive for busy training managers to co-ordinate, amidst a host of other regular trainings. Participants had to be taught how to set up their avatars and use the tool. So did the trainers and facilitators who came from business, and already had their regular busy roles to perform. It did not help, that moving around the 3D world and ‘looking’ at certain points was still a clumsy affair with Second Life.
  • Wrong choice of platform for the kind of training – While 3D worlds may have a great appeal for younger audiences, New Hires of any age, need to see and interact with ‘real people’ in an organization. When virtual learning becomes a necessity, a simple virtual meeting tool with audio-video conferencing, and a set of slides, worked wonders and was far more ‘real’ (for the time being at least)  than the avatars.
  • From an instructional design point of view, 3D learning environments are rich and possibilities immense. Yet most designs, like this project, still seem to use 3D worlds as a place for avatars to gather and  view content, or interact as they would with traditional e-learning materials. (These slides  provide  few 3D Learning archetypes and should be of interest to Instructional Designers)

One of the earliest champions in our organization for 3D Learning, Dr Prithwis Mukherjee (Professor of Management : Information Systems, Web 2.0, at  Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur)  had some interesting insights to share with me.  Citing the example of Apple’s failure with Newton tablet 20 years ago, but the terrific success of iPad and Samsung Galaxy tabs enjoy today, he makes the point that Time and Technology have a great impact on the success of an idea.  Here is a post where he shares, what he calls his ‘imagineering’ for the future with the convergence of a number of technologies.    He also highlights the success of Facebook and Twitter and current pre-occupation with Social Learning, that has deflected attention from the powerful technology of digital worlds.

As practical as I am, it is my opinion that 3D Learning is important, simply because a unique feature that these environments (and to some extent Xbox and Wii genre multiplayer games) provide, cannot be replicated by other virtual tools, or even real life classrooms for that matter. That is dealing with unknown people, countries and situations and the unpredictability it brings! Think of the possibilities for practice sessions, for say negotiation, sales, or consulting skills training. Learner experiences in these environments would be far more realistic than role-plays in classrooms with fellow colleagues.

So, what should be L&D’s stance with 3D Learning today?  I believe that 3D Learning should be perhaps a small, but important part of an organization’s training mix. L&D cannot afford to turn a blind eye, but neither adopt them where goals can be achieved with simpler tools and less development effort.  Organizations must set aside some minimal resources for research and experimentation (that’s easy given many of these environments as freely available), and gear themselves to harness the potential. It’s just a matter of time for advancements in technology, bandwidth and user interface design, and the readiness of the learner too, to reach the right level of maturity – and then 3DLearning will rise again!