AI is helping to save time, reduce the workload on staff, increase personalization, and reduce costs. For these reasons and more, it’s only a matter of time before AI and related technologies such as Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality transform the field of Learning & Development (L&D).
In fact, these technologies are already starting to appear as stand-alone tools and updates to popular Learning Management Systems (LMS). Therefore, it is important for L&D professionals to understand what these technologies are, why they are particularly beneficial for training, and how to best utilize them in their own programs. Let’s start with some background and definitions.
Even among scholars, exactly what constitutes artificial intelligence is debated, so we will simply define AI as using algorithms to solve problems and find answers rather than using humans. AI ranges from software that simply improves upon a single task, as we see today, to complex neural networks that mimic the human brain, which as of now remains the stuff of science fiction.
Machine Learning (ML) is a type of AI, or more accurately, a way to achieve AI in which a computer program progressively improves on a particular task without feedback from a human. Machine learning uses algorithms to “learn” from data, experience, and inference. Machine learning is the most relevant type of AI to the L&D professional because it can be used to augment and improve so many common tasks, so that is what we will focus on.
There are four types of machine learning that L&D practitioners should be aware of:
As you can see, artificial intelligence and machine learning are powerful tools that can help L&D professionals do their jobs. It is important to note that AI is not designed to replace humans; it is being developed to free people from mundane and time-consuming tasks so that they can focus on more impactful things.
Virtual Reality, powered by AI, is another tool quickly taking hold in the L&D industry. Virtual Reality immerses the user in a simulated world that they can interact with on some level. The earliest VR used screens and speakers to surround the user with moving images and sound. You may recall the shooting simulator seen in old police movies.
Today, the most common type of VR is a computer-generated environment, seen through specialized goggles that allow the user to turn their heads through a full 360-degree view. Specialized joysticks or gloves can be used to interact with the simulated environment, allowing users to “touch” objects.
VR gives complete control over an environment that students can access from almost anywhere. Imagine a retailer putting new hires from across the globe into a virtual cashier station to train on operating the register and interacting with customers, or a chemical producer teaching emergency response procedures in a realistic setting without exposing employees to hazardous materials or danger. The applications for VR for training and personal development are almost unlimited.
The drawback to VR is that virtual environments must be constructed in their entirety, including everything the user sees, touches, and hears. This carries higher costs and time to develop and is best used when there is a clear cost or safety benefit over traditional training methods.
Augmented Reality layers a simulated environment over the real world, such as apps that add game characters or virtual products over the live image from a smartphone or tablet camera. The advantage of AR over VR is that less content has to be created, which saves time and reduces cost. AR does not require any specialized equipment because the latest generation of mobile devices all have AR functionality built-in.
AR is ideal for self-directed, hands-on training where students interact with their surroundings through a mobile device, guided by AI that customizes the content to the user. This ability to personalize content makes AR ideal for the traditional instructor-led classroom as well; imagine each student in a class seeing content that is specific to their location and language.
AI is powering these and other technologies, like natural language processing and the ability to interpret facial expressions and body language for more human-like interactions. The potential for AI and the tools it powers is almost unlimited, and we have only begun to scratch the surface. It’s clear that AI will play a significant role in L&D in the years to come.
Traditional corporate L&D programs utilize a library of training materials, most derived from lengthy classroom-style lectures, such as PowerPoint presentations, seminars, study manuals, and videos that take hours to present and up to 10 times as long to produce.
Because of the time and resources required to create them, these materials have to be kept generic and soon become dated. Long-form materials tend not to be user-friendly, leading to a poor user experience and diminishing levels of engagement, with results that are difficult to measure and prone to errors. This traditional approach no longer meets the needs of today’s digital workforce.
Today’s L&D professionals are turning to a blended learning approach, one that combines traditional classroom lectures and materials with the latest in digital technology. They are also moving to micro-learning, breaking lessons up into smaller segments that are faster, easier to produce, and better aligned with the preferences of today’s workforce.
According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 93% of Millenials own a smartphone and 78% have a broadband access at home. GenX is closing fast with 90% smartphone ownership and 78% broadband subscription, with Baby Boomers clocking in at 68% and 74%. That means that more and more people are accustomed to using Google, YouTube, Udemy, Lydia, and other resources to find the answers when they need them. Regardless of the age range of a workforce, they all want the ability to access information, learn rapidly, and develop new skills on the job from anywhere and at any time. Employers have to be able to provide resources to meet that desire.
AI can allow organizations to intelligently integrate training into an employee’s workflow, making suggestions on the fly and adjusting content based on results. AI can empower an LMS to consider a person’s position within the organization, work history, prior training, and other factors whenever they use a search function to provide results that are personalized and relevant to that individual.
Imagine the scenario of a new employee in the not-too-distant future: they first receive a customized onboarding orientation, created by AI based on their role and delivered on their mobile device. Follow that with a self-paced Augmented Reality tour of their facility, followed by a Virtual Reality training session with other employees from across the globe. Their training continues with fully interactive tools that provide them with instantaneous feedback, making corrections on the fly to ensure that each session is as productive as possible. When they encounter a scenario that requires a refresher on a skill or they need to obtain a new skill, AI makes the appropriate recommendation and delivers the right content at the point of need.
The benefits are clear: L&D departments can automate many tasks and procedures to save time and reduce costs. They have access to more in-depth information about what is working and which areas need improvements. They can focus on creating content that is fresh and relevant, and be able to keep up with new technologies, processes, and procedures as they are implemented. And they are able to track performance in real-time, making adjustments as needed to ensure targets are met.
AI can also play a critical role in attracting and retaining top talent. Employees expect a robust training program and opportunities for personal development, and they want access to training materials when it is most convenient for them. A corporate LMS that doesn’t offer the convenience and flexibility to which they are accustomed is a detriment and leads to increased turnover rates. AI can provide tomorrow’s workforce with the tools and user experience they demand.
The fastest way to integrate these powerful tools into an existing L&D program is by creating new content designed specifically for AR or VR. There are multiple companies that provide production and programming services for almost any budget. Some are traditional education content providers or agencies who are branching out, while others are dedicated solely to producing content for AR and VR. A quick Google search can uncover plenty of options.
The next option is to outsource some training to a third-party LMS provider. Relative newcomers like Edcast, Grovo, and Axonify offer an AI-enabled platform and a microlearning focus, while familiar names such as IBM are introducing AI into their latest corporate learning platforms. Most offer a demo to see if their platform is the right fit for the needs of the organization.
The final option is to upgrade an existing LMS. Well-known platforms like Oracle, SAP SuccessFactors, SumTotal, and more are constantly evolving to offer an improved user experience and new features. Chances are, the LMS that an organization already has will soon offer AI functionality if it doesn’t already.
AI is poised to transform L&D in the years to come, but as advanced as this technology is becoming, it is still only a tool and must be used properly to be effective. For example, AI can suggest what content is needed, pick the right content for a particular person, and even deliver that content in an engaging way…but it cannot create new content. (At least not yet.) That’s why it is so important to partner with a vendor who can help adapt to and adopt these new tools.
Insight has been providing organizational change management, content development, and training services for over 30 years. We help companies manage “the people side of change,” preparing their workforce for new technologies, processes, and procedures. We help organizations through every step of improving their L&D program, from strategic planning and process documentation, to content development and training. Our teams offer deep expertise in finding and implementing the right technology platform including setting up and building custom solutions.