In their shoes

VR training provides employees with firsthand experiences

Posted on Jan 30, 2020 :: Feature
Posted by , Insight on Technology Staff Writer

Workplace trainings often leave many employees daydreaming, thinking about their to-do list or gazing at their phones. Virtual reality and other new technologies have the potential to better engage employees and help them retain the information presented.

That’s the thinking behind a new sexual harassment training offered by J. J. Keller & Associates in Neenah. The training takes advantage of 360-degree video, where a view in every direction is recorded using a special camera or multiple cameras. Employees can watch the video using an Oculus virtual reality headset or smartphone enclosure such as Google Cardboard.

“It puts you right into the scene,” says Tom Ditzler, portfolio director with J. J. Keller. “You can look to the right, the left, behind you. You feel like you are right there. The hope is by being immersed in that environment that the training will resonate more and you’ll have a better idea of what to do.”

In Keller’s sexual harassment training, the person wearing the VR headset is a bystander watching a scenario unfold. The person is then given response options and receives feedback based on his or her choice. “It makes the situation feel very real,” Ditzler says.

Keller is constantly looking at new ways to deliver its training, Ditzler says. When it came time to rework its sexual harassment training, the business decided to use some of the new tools and technology being developed as one of the delivery options. The 360-degree video training can be accessed through an app on both Apple and Android platforms.

“Sexual harassment is something that can be hard to engage with in a classroom setting, and we thought by adding this to the mix that it could make the training more meaningful,” Ditzler says.

The platform also allows Keller to place the trainee in the role of a bystander. Previously, people were either put in the mindset of the victim or perpetrator. “The topic really lends itself nicely to using the new technology,” Ditzler says.

In addition to releasing the training on the app, it is also available to view online or on a DVD. Ditzler says it’s important to deliver the content where and how businesses need it.

Measuring the impact

While there is anecdotal evidence that employees are more engaged when using VR or other new technologies in their training, two faculty members at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, along with a professor from Stanford University, are working on a research project to determine if that hypothesis holds true.

Shannon Rawski, an assistant professor in management and human resources at UW-Oshkosh, says the study looks at how participants respond to the sexual harassment training developed by Keller, whether it’s by watching the immersive 360-degree video or watching a DVD. The study will be conducted at Bright Labs in Madison, which has a survey pool of students and community members.

“What we’re looking at is as new technology is developed and being used in workplace trainings, what is its effectiveness?” she says. “The research hasn’t caught up with the technology yet.”

Rawski’s partners on the study are Joshua Foster, a UW-Oshkosh assistant professor of economics, and Jeremy Bailenson, a communications professor at Stanford University and the founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Rawski, who also consults on creating sexual harassment training, is the subject matter expert on the project, while Foster designed the study and Bailenson brings his expertise on VR research.

“It all fit well together,” says Rawski, who adds the study results should be available by the end of the spring semester.

Sexual harassment training was an ideal training topic for the study since many employees may not find the topic very interesting or feel like they’ve been through it before, Rawski says. She says adding VR as the training vehicle may motivate participants more.

“VR is cool and new, and people may be more excited to use it. Research shows that if people are more excited or interested in the training, it is more effective,” Rawski says. “The study should tell us if that’s the case with sexual harassment training.”

Businesses that develop training programs, such as J. J. Keller, will be interested in what the study discovers, Rawski says.

“If businesses are spending money on a training program, they want to make sure it works,” she says. “Delivering training via VR costs more and takes more time than just putting together a standard DVD. They want to make sure there’s a good return on their investment.”

In the case of Keller’s latest offering, Rawski worked with the company to develop the new module that focuses on the bystanders’ point of view. “Usually (the training) is from the victim’s standpoint, which not everyone may relate to. By coming from the bystanders’ point of view, that’s something more realistic and relatable,” she says.

Endless opportunities

Ditzler says Keller is looking at other ways to incorporate immersive or VR technology in its training offerings, including a series of occupational health trainings. “We can teach them something new and then see how they apply the knowledge,” he says.

For example, an immersive video training on hazardous situations, such as a wet floor or trip hazards, can place employees in a setting with several situations to help them identify potential issues. The next step is again placing them in that situation and seeing their response.

“If the worker identifies a spill as a hazard and then picks up a mop to clean it up, you can immediately provide the feedback that ‘Yes, that’s the right response,’” Ditzler says. “Our goal is to create immersive, complete programs.”

While employers may be unsure of how VR training works, Ditzler says as soon as they don the VR goggles, most see the value.

“If you haven’t experienced VR before, it can be hard to understand the impact, but then you put on that headset and the benefit of having such an immersive training experience is clear,” he says.

As for using VR in training, Rawski says it can be a little jarring at first when people put on the goggles.  She and Foster attended training at Stanford where they learned how to incorporate VR in research projects.

“You have a bunch of other things to think about if you use VR in a study: Will someone walk into a wall? What about someone getting motion sick?” she says. “You definitely need to think differently about how you do the research.”

That also includes taking care of what viewpoint is taken when using immersive video, Rawski says. “If you did a VR training from a victim’s point of view and a past victim of sexual harassment watched it, she may be profoundly emotionally affected by it or it can trigger bad memories,” she says. “That’s just something else to consider when putting together VR videos: that you’re coming at it from the right perspective.”