Woman holding a Virtual Reality (VR) headset. (Image: fauxels via Pexels) 

How extended reality has transformed workforce training

Immersive media as a tool to reshape learning and workforce training systems globally.

By Ashley Etemadi and Amreen Poonawala

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted education and workforce training systems worldwide. Schools had to shut down. Major institutions and organizations responsible for skill-building suspended their on-site operations. And millions of students and workers were left behind.

According to the EU Labour Force Survey, adult participation in both general and vocational formal and non-formal learning (workshops and workplace training) decreased by about two percentage points in the first year of the pandemic (see figure below), resulting in substantial learning losses. Additionally, educators struggled to transition their rich, in-person learning approaches to online environments in formal contexts. Delays in the training and retraining of workers and professionals widened the existing skills gap in key sectors such as healthcare and K-12 education.

Some instructors, however, took advantage of the affordances of immersive media such as Virtual (VR), Augmented (AR), and Mixed (MR) Realities—collectively referred to as Extended Reality (XR)—to augment and even reimagine their face-to-face curriculum. We highlight three programmes that successfully adopted XR as supplementary media and thereby provided interactive, scenario-based, and low-risk learning experiences complementing their current instruction.

Adult participation in learning, 2013-2021, European Union

Note: Percentage of adults from 25 to 64 years. EU refers to EU-27.

Source: Eurostat, 2022.

XR training in practice

Anatomy lessons and emergency preparedness

During the pandemic, Stanford University faculty taught anatomy lessons and emergency preparedness using VR and AR to students at Kenya’s Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST). The immersive medium allowed paramedical and medical students to view three-dimensional organs with real-time commentary from world-class instructors. For students in medical training, hands-on practice is the best way to learn certain tasks that require physical manipulation, and VR and AR enable educators to teach it.

Research suggests that XR embodies the constructivist theory of learning by bringing agency and experiential learning to the individual. Professors anecdotally noted that after they incorporated XR, students were more involved and better able to draw parallels between theoretical information and practical application. This case demonstrates that, from virtual explorations to science experiments to surgical procedures, XR has the potential to make spatial visualizations and interactions between remote parties more feasible. 

Simulated field scenarios in school

Field experiences and role-play activities have always played an important part in teacher training. But when classes went virtual, teaching looked different than it did in typical classrooms. Harvard’s Graduate School of Education turned to simulated field scenarios to recreate the classroom. Teachers engaged in professional learning were able to interact with student avatars controlled by live simulation specialists to practice adjustment of their teaching practices (e.g. tailoring directions for peer discussions, offering student-centred feedback) based on student learning. 

Source: Mursion, Inc., Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Agile Teacher Lab, and Lisa Wall.


Emerging research1 suggests that all teachers may benefit from simulations—though, coaching or opportunities for self-reflection make a difference in the growth of teachers—and that teaching experience moderates that difference. This study shows that mixed reality simulations may help workers develop skills in interacting with others.

On-the-job skills via simulated environments and equipment

Immersive technologies are advancing the development of practical, on-the-job skills for novice and experienced workers in Morocco’s skilled trade sector by exposing learners to simulated environments and equipment that might be inaccessible, dangerous, or uncommon in real life. For example in the water sector, for trainees to reinforce their practical understanding of the water cycle they would need easier access to training facilities. Bridging those needs, VR applications were particularly relevant to skills training for aspiring water technicians. Therefore, a water-specific immersive and interactive learning experience was designed through a dynamic public-private partnership and integrated into a newly-developed curriculum in Morocco.

The VR experience allowed learners to navigate and address real-life scenarios in a virtual water treatment facility. The scenarios included system failures as well as environmental and hazardous issues brought about by difficult-to-reproduce events that could pose serious consequences for water facilities (e.g. floods, power outages). Through exposure to high-risk and high-stress environments in a safe and controlled capacity, students became better equipped to deal with such cases, should they arise in their future roles. These virtual offerings supplemented theoretical and classroom instruction and the entire curriculum is now being transferred to vocational training centres and universities.

Immersive media going forward

As these cases illustrate, immersive media offer many affordances. XR can be engaging, allowing one to interact with both content and with other individuals in a more realistic, three-dimensional manner. Moreover, it can be standardized to maintain a consistent quality of instruction and personalized to match every user’s learning trajectory.

However, the benefits of XR training depend on the use case in which these technologies are applied. In the examples above, the immersive technologies served as just one lever for learning among many others. They were never a standalone solution. They were paired with standard presentations, readings, real-life models, group sessions, virtual activities, reflections and performance-based assessments. The tools and approaches deployed must be the ones that best serve the delivery of the intended learning experience. Starting from the needs of the participants, the tools should be defined based on the structure, content, and intended outcomes of the training programme.

As we move beyond the pandemic, there is no doubt that XR will continue to shape and enhance workforce training globally. Properly blending these technologies into pedagogies will strengthen learning-by-doing efforts and, most importantly, empower the workforce with the situated knowledge, skills, and tendencies to excel in their occupations.

This piece has been adapted from a blog published on the World Economic Forum. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors based on their experience and on prior research and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNIDO (read more).

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