Intelligent Learning Environments

The Potential Future of Workplace Learning and Performance

David GuralnickNew York, NY (USA), January 2018 - (By David Guralnick, Ph.D.) Imagine, if you will, that it’s the not-so-distant future.  I’m a new salesperson in a retail store (in this projected future, we still have retail stores and they still have human salespeople). On my first day, I need some training before I’m ready to work with customers.  So I go to the store where I’ve been hired, go into a back office, close the door, and start my simulation training.

My training involves a simulated store, projected via hologram as a complete virtual world – virtual reality (VR) without the need for special goggles. After I turn on my training course, the room I’m in changes to look like a part of my retail store.

In my virtual world, I find myself in a realistic “serious game” in which my goals are to make sales and keep customers happy.  To help me do this, I have an automated coach in the form of a virtual-but-realistic person who gives me some background and then explains the simulation part of my training. Then I move on to simulated sales interactions with pre-programmed customers who appear, looking like real people, in my virtual training.  I speak to them naturally, as I would to a real person. The customers behave realistically, reacting to my tone and body language as well as my words. My coach gives me specific goals for each interaction, occasionally pauses my interactions to jump in to provide me with just-in-time feedback, allows me to ask questions during my interactions, and debriefs me at the end of each customer interaction scenario. 

I complete my simulation training segment and leave with a summary of strengths and weakness, along with prescriptive training to work on my weaknesses. My interactions have been recorded, so they’re referred to in my summary, and I can watch them anytime I’d like, either while I am still in training or after I have begun working as a salesperson. I’ll also maintain access to my automated coach after I’ve begun working for any just-in-time assistance I may need.  And I can go over my recorded scenes with other salespeople, both new and experienced, either in-person or by interacting with them holographically, wherever they are.

This potential vision has a number of components:

  • A holographic "serious game" simulation in which I interacted with realistic, programmed characters. 
  • The simulation senses my tone, emotion, and anger when I interacted. Even if I said the right words, the system and coach could provide me with feedback on more visceral reactions.
  • An artificially-intelligent coach to help me when needed and to provide feedback.
  • The coach can (at least with my permission) monitor my behavior and even (via sensors) my emotions.
  • Collaboration with other (real) people.
  • Just-in-time assistance (at my own initiative and via a coach).
  • Personalization.
  • A game-like feel to some activities.

In the potential future I’ve described above, the salesperson’s training experience has very much taken advantage of new technology.  But technology has not been used, in this vision, simply to try to mirror common educational techniques with fancier technology.  Instead, the entire training and performance experience has been redesigned.

Creating the Future, Not Just Planning for It

The concept of "learning technologies" tends to be interpreted as "the use of technologies for learning purposes." I prefer a broader definition: "the use and invention of technologies for learning purposes." Looking to the future, from the perspective of creating great learning experiences, we’d be well-served to not simply make use of holograms for use in remote meetings (though that’s certainly worthwhile), but to think of ways that holograms can be used in learning experiences, such as with pre-programmed characters as in the example at the beginning of this article. 

Artificial intelligence techniques have the capability, more and more, to contribute to great learning experiences—but it’s the experience design (for example, an intelligent coach as in the example above) that takes a technological advance and moves it from being simply a cool idea or fancy new toy to being a truly effective tool that can improve learning and performance. This type of experience design, in my view, requires a holistic approach—one that combines an understanding of education, technology, cognitive psychology, and user experience design.

As new technologies become mainstream, the challenge in learning and development is to consider what types of experiences we can create that take advantage of the capabilities that new technologies have to offer. Rather than looking to simply adapt current educational models to a new technological world, we can instead re-envision learning and performances experiences to take advantage of upcoming advances in virtual reality, holograms, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and other areas. The ideal future of learning and performance involves reimagining, redesigning, and rethinking the types of experiences we’d like to create.