As of yet, there are few schools, certificate programs, or even seminars available to provide step-by-step instructions for conducting educational sessions in 3D virtual immersive environments. Absent those formal, standardized guidelines here are "lessons learned" from visionaries, rogue trainers, and brave instructional designers who have pioneered the creation and use of 3D learning environments (3DLEs) for teaching and learning.

These tips will help anyone developing 3DLEs by providing basic guidelines for success. The tips are broken into five categories:

  • business analysis
  • audience
  • design
  • technology
  • implementation.

Business analysis

Lesson 1: Solve a real business need with the implementation of the virtual immersive environment. Identify problems that can be solved using a virtual immersive environment and target those needs, such as closing sales, troubleshooting equipment, negotiating deals, and leading employees. Starting with a business need is a huge step toward ultimate success. Don't get seduced by just the technological aspects no matter how "cool" you think they are.

Audience

Lesson 2: Don't assume that the younger generation is automatically facile with virtual world environments. Allow plenty of time for them and older learners to become familiar with the platform and make sure they are sufficiently capable of navigating the environment before introducing any programmatic activities.

Lesson 3: Allow learners time alone with their avatar. In a 3D virtual immersive environment, the avatar represents the learner. If the learner is to become invested in the learning experience, she needs time to customize the avatar to get acquainted with its movements and clothing options and to ensure that it looks the way the learner wants it to look. Often the idea of automating an avatar is overlooked because it seems frivolous, however, a huge advantage of 3D learning is the identification the learner has with the avatar. Don't skip this important step.

Design

Lesson 4: Don't assume that what works in the classroom or in traditional events translates to the virtual environment. Learning in virtual worlds is more experiential, action-oriented, and social. Focus must be placed on function and interactivity in designing 3DLEs. Also be sure to allow plenty of time for unstructured interaction. Encourage informal social interaction. Create purposeful space and time for informal and serendipitous interactivity in your design

Lesson 5: Don't approach design with a set of preconceived notions. The development of impactful 3D learning experience is not simply a matter of porting existing 2D content over to a 3D world. Be open to new and different ways to leverage 3D worlds to achieve the desired learning objectives. Imagine shrinking the learner to the size of a molecule to emphasize how a pharmaceutical product interacts with red blood cells.

For example, consider creating an entire factory to teach inventory management or a cityscape to teach traffic control and management or a customer's boardroom to conduct a sales call. Don't simply translate 2D PowerPoint content into 3D PowerPoint content. Create a new learning experience.

Lesson 6: Carefully mix informal and formal learning spaces to encourage collaboration and to help ease learners into working with new technologies but be aware of learner's preferences and the culture of the organization. For example, if you are working with a group that doesn't mind having a little bit of fun and frivolity, go on virtual hot air balloon trips or have a meeting under a circus tent complete with some elephants. If the group is a more serious, then use a more traditional environment like a board room or classroom.

However, it is the blending of informal and formal that makes a virtual immersive environment particularly effective. So, even if the group seems totally averse to having fun, mix in one or two non-conventional venues such as a caf in the forest or a room in the clouds.

Lesson 7: As with all learning design, the technology should not drive the design, the learning objectives should. Focus first on the learning objectives and secondarily on what the technology can do. Imagine that you had no boundaries or constraints on creating an ideal learning experience and then design from that ideal event. While it may not be possible to do everything you imagined in your first or second round with a virtual immersive environment, the process of imagining the perfect learning event will get you much closer to the ideal.

Technology

Lesson 8: Don't underestimate the technical challenges associated with getting 3D virtual immersive environment software to run on participants' computers and enabling participants to get network access to run the software. Hardware and firewall issues should be dealt with as early as possible in the deployment process. A good way to do this is to run a small pilot program to test the access to the environment. These proof-of-concept "dry runs" are invaluable in identifying technical problems early. Don't wait until all the instruction is design to find out you can't play audio on learner's machines or that they don't support the graphics.

Lesson 9: Approach the introduction of 3D virtual immersive environments as business critical technology. Employees are busy. They have methods of work that they employ because they are well understood, require less thought (than change), and are quite often efficient. Introducing a disruptive technology like virtual immersive environments as "Hey, try this!" is quite likely going to yield a different result than "this new technology is easy to use and will reduce your workload by 25 percent so you can spend more time with your family."

The point is that you must manage people's perceptions of your virtual immersive environment initiative. If you do not tell them what to think, they will form their own conclusions, and that is not a good risk mitigation strategy and it won't always portrait the virtual immersive environment in the best light.

Implementation

Lesson 10: Whatever virtual world platform you choose, it is critical to provide participants with some type of "warm-up session" to help them become comfortable with the technology. Time must be allocated in advance of the program to provide basic instruction on platform navigation and mentoring must be made available. It is important to separate the learning associated with coming up to speed on the platform from the learning that will be delivered within the program. If participants have to learn both at the same time, it usually results in frustration.

Lesson 11: Logistics should be managed very tightly with a tendency towards over communication and parsing the steps required to bring the participants along a learning curve in appropriately sized parcels of activity. Hardware setup, network-access testing, platform training, and avatar customization and navigation are all key building blocks that need to be accomplished before the participants engage in the 3D learning experience itself.

These "lessons learned" provide a solid foundation for thinking about implementing virtual immersive environments into your organization. Remember, it is not the technology that will make the learning work; it is the focus on designing the instruction to meet the needs of the learner and the organization.


Karl M. Kapp is a professor of instructional technology in Bloomsburg University's instructional technology department and is the assistant director of the Institute for Interactive Technologies. He is a frequent speaker, consultant, scholar, and expert on the convergence of learning, technology, and business operations. He has published hundreds of articles, whitepapers, and industry reports on the topics of organizational learning, instructional technologies, and virtual worlds. He has written several books, including Winning e-Learning Proposals and Gadgets, Games, and Gizmos for Learning and is regularly interviewed by magazine, television, and radio outlets. Visit him at www.karlkapp.blogspot.com

Tony O'Driscoll is a professor of the practice at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, where he also serves as executive director of Fuqua's Center for IT and Media; a research center dedicated to understanding the strategic, structural, and business model issues emerging from these vibrant and volatile industry sectors. His research has been published in leading academic journals such as Management Information Sciences Quarterly, the Journal of Management Information Systems, and the Journal of Product Innovation Management. He has also written for respected professional journals such as Harvard Business Review, Strategy and Business, Supply Chain Management Review, T+D magazine, and Chief Learning Officer magazine.

This article is an adapted excerpt from Learning in 3D: Adding a New Dimension to Enterprise Learning and Collaboration.