Why Immersive Training Still Matters

Eric Wilson

8 min read

Oct 19, 2022

Why Immersive Training Still Matters

The learning world seems to be gravitating toward bite-sized.  

eLearning, microlearning, in-context learning, self-paced learning, and social learning have all changed the way employees learn and train. And all of these have their place. Employees often find there aren’t enough hours in the day to finish their work—not to mention doing training on top of that. Studies have shown employees have as little as 2 – 3 hours per week that they can dedicate to learning something new. (I find that, for myself, it’s often less than that.)  

However, this doesn’t mean that the only types of training that can or should be delivered are those that can be ingested in bite-sized increments. And just because employees don’t have much time for learning during the work week doesn’t mean we can’t help them make time for it in general. 

Sometimes learning is hard. Sometimes it takes time. And sometimes it requires a more immersive approach. 

But… why? Why might you need to pursue a more immersive approach? Why can’t we simply provide employees with bite-sized, self-paced learning and expect great results every time?  

Consider How These Skills Will Be Applied

Skills like conflict management, writing, or organization can be immediately applied because employees often encounter these situations in their day-to-day work. Many skills like these are learned “on the job.” In other words, students can learn and grow their skills simply by applying them to their daily work. 

Other skills may be more about accessing information. If students use them infrequently and are unlikely to recall their learnings, they need reference documentation and resources that can be accessed on-demand. These types of skills might be appropriate for bite-sized and self-paced learning because the practice opportunities are ample. Employees can start applying what they’ve learned right away, and can do so in relatively low-risk ways. 

 Of course, this isn’t always the case. The biggest issue students run into is finding ways to practice their new skills in a real-world environment. Perhaps the student’s learning would slow down the rest of the team or the risk of real-world failure would be too high.

So, how can they find ways to practice? An immersive training environment provides students with these practice opportunities in a lower-risk, safe-to-fail environment. 

Another crucial element of practice is feedback. To truly learn and grow, students need to know whether they are on the right track—and if they aren’t, they need to know how to get back on track. This can be done through feedback loops. When learning a new skill, it’s important that students have tight feedback loops showing them how to get back on track as quickly as possible.  

On-demand learning has come a long way in terms of feedback loops, and there are great courses out there that provide helpful feedback. But sometimes, students need expert guidance to work through a tricky situation. That’s where immersive training comes in.  

What Is Immersive Training? 

We’ve been discussing immersive training, but what is it? Immersive training is one that forces students to really focus on their learning. Its most common form is that of classroom training. Classrooms, be they physical or virtual, are places where students are forced out of their everyday routine and into a learning environment. Students interact with each other, an instructor or facilitator, and new ideas and concepts. They have time and space to experiment, try, fail, and try again.

But immersive learning doesn’t only have to take place in a classroom. While we continue to believe strongly in the transformational power of classroom training (instructor-led or virtual instructor-led), we know that the learning world is evolving. Students, managers, leaders, and learning professionals are looking for ways to get the benefits of immersive, classroom learning while also making the experience more self-paced.

An example of this is blended learning. Blended learning gives students opportunities to learn on their own while also providing targeted opportunities for them to engage with an instructor, ask questions of their peers, or seek feedback on their work. It may not have all of the elements of a classroom, but a targeted, curated, and well-executed experience can still provide an immersive approach. 

 The Practice Conundrum 

Skill acquisition requires practice. We can’t fully absorb or learn something new unless we are given the opportunity to try it out (and try it out in a safe-to-fail environment).  

While there are practice opportunities that come with self-paced and bite-sized training, a significant load falls onto student. It’s on them to make the most of those practice opportunities. Since employees are already limited on time for learning, they might not commit as much as they need to the practice. Also, if they get stuck, there’s no one to help them through the problem.  

All in all, practice alone can lead to good outcomes if the student is able to find helpful resources quickly. If they struggle, it could also lead them to give up or take shortcuts to get through the activity rather than absorb the knowledge being provided. 

The Time Conundrum 

One conundrum surrounding immersive learning is time. Employee time is precious both to the company and to the employee. Prioritizing learning can be seen as a drag on productivity or taking away from business objectives. But self-paced, bite-sized learning can make the time problem worse. 

Take this example: I was recently speaking with a client about self-paced vs. live virtual training. The client indicated most of their students wanted to pursue a self-paced program, which was not entirely surprising. However, when we asked why they wanted to pursue self-paced, the client indicated it was because they didn’t feel they had time to step away from their daily work to do the training.  

Rather than simply taking the time away from work to learn the new thing, students would be trying to fit the learning in around their daily tasks. The interesting thing here is that pursuing a self-paced approach could actually make two problems worse.  

  1. Students would be more distracted and stressed because they have to study in addition to their daily tasks, and  
  2. They would likely learn less—or it would take them more time to learn the same amount—due to context switching and their divided attentions 

One way or another, learning is going to take time. Sometimes, the most efficient approach is stepping away from the daily grind for a while. 

The Knowledge Retention Conundrum 

The practice conundrum and the time conundrum both feed into the knowledge retention conundrum. If students don’t have enough opportunities to practice the new skill and they don’t have the time to focus on learning the new skill, then they aren’t likely to retain the knowledge and skills they are acquiring.  

For example, a programmer working in Java every day might have a hard time learning Kotlin using a bite-sized, on-demand approach. This is because she won’t have the chance to practice with her Kotlin knowledge; in between her training, she’s still working in Java 40+ hours a week.

A quick caveat: incremental learning stands in contrast to some of the examples we’ve been exploring. If you just need to learn how to enhance what you’re already doing, bite-sized, on-demand training might be just what you need. This could even be in the form of training materials you received from a more intensive experience.  

This works because:  

  1. You aren’t context switching (or, at least not as much), and 
  2. You’re learning something directly related to your work

This helps solve both the practice and the time conundrums. It resolves the practice conundrum because you can apply what you’re learning immediately. And it resolves the time conundrum because it’s more than likely helping you do your work more efficiently and effectively. As such, the time spent learning is being repaid with immediate efficiency and effectiveness. 

The Accountability Conundrum 

The element of accountability found within immersive training is difficult to replicate with bite-sized, self-paced training. It’s the social accountability of being in a classroom with other students and with an instructor, all of whom are working toward the same goal.

I went to a burger restaurant that my family and I once really enjoyed. They had replaced their cashiers with digital kiosks, so the only person working the “front of the house” was an expo who called out orders when they were complete. The experience was not the same. Half the kiosks didn’t work, there was no one to help if you had a problem with the kiosks, the condiments and napkins weren’t stocked, the lobby wasn’t as clean, and the food took longer to arrive. Even the quality of the food was worse. Why? There was no human accountability. 

Since no one had to directly interact with the customers, staff cared less about the customers’ ordering experience or whether the condiments were stocked. Without the human connection, the social desire to help and take care of others had been removed. 

I use this example to illustrate the power of social and human accountability in a learning environment. If you are working through content on your own with no human interaction, what do you do? You increase the lecture speed to 2x, you skim through the reading material, and you retake the quiz until you get the right answer.  

My point is simply that this type of learning may not encourage a student’s best effort, and it might not be intentional. It might be because students don’t have the time and the ability to really focus. It might be that they’ve got a looming deadline that’s taking precedence over all their other tasks. It might also be that there’s no accountability to an instructor or to peers.  

One of the reasons learning communities are so powerful is that community adds to the learning experience. Other students hold each other accountable. They learn together—from each other’s mistakes, their tricks and shortcuts, and form connections that can last years and even decades. 

What Does the Future of Immersive Training Hold?  

While I’ve been discussing some of the potential shortcomings of bite-sized and self-paced training, these training methods absolutely have their place and should be part of any robust employee development program. I’m not calling on us to abandon these and go back to ‘the good ol’ days’ of classroom instruction.

What I am suggesting is that every good and robust employee development program leave time and space for immersive training experiences. Classrooms and blended learning may take different forms, but they are still incredible places for learning. Transformation doesn’t happen without it, employees appreciate it, and it can accomplish things bite-sized training simply can’t.

Sometimes you need to learn from an expert, someone who has been there before and who can explain things in a way that’s easy to understand. You also need opportunities to socialize, build culture, share experiences, and practice things you wouldn’t normally do. 

Eric Wilson

Author Big Nerd Ranch

Eric joined Big Nerd Ranch in the spring of 2019 to lead the training initiatives and brings a wealth of experience in both training and consultancy work.

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