Education and Skills

How extended reality - or 'XR' - has transformed workforce training 

Man in yellow jacket playing with VR goggles: XR training complements workforce instruction.

XR training complements workforce instruction. Image: Unsplash/Barbara Zandoval

Ashley Etemadi
Research Fellow – Next Level Lab, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Amreen Poonawala
Product Manager, UNICEF
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  • The pandemic’s disruption to organizational training and development led to a 25% and 18% decrease in informal and non-formal learning.
  • Extended reality (XR) – including virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed realities (MR) – has been successfully adopted within global programmes as supplementary media, providing interactive, scenario-based, low-risk learning experiences complementing current instruction.
  • The benefits of XR training depend on the use cases of these technologies, with XR tending to be one layer of the overall programme.

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

According to a brief by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), participation in informal (learning from others and learning by doing) and non-formal learning (workshops and workplace training) decreased by 25% and 18% within the first year of the pandemic, resulting in a substantial learning loss.

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 like 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.

Image: OECD

XR training in practice

Stanford University and MMUST

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. They could zoom in and out of models and examine specific areas. “In medical training, certain tasks that require physical manipulation are best learned by hands-on practice. VR and AR enabled us to achieve this,” says Dr. Luqman Mushila Hodgkinson, Adjunct Professor at MMUST.

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. According to Dean John Arudo, “it helped students learn in new and transformational ways.”

This case demonstrates that, from virtual explorations to science experiments to surgical procedures, XR has the potential to make spatial visualizations and interactions more feasible between remote parties. These have shown to improve students’ level of comprehension, application, and knowledge retention.

Harvard Graduate School of Education and Mursion

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 could interact with student avatars controlled by live simulation specialists to practice adjusting their teaching practices (e.g. tailoring directions for peer discussions, offering student-centered feedback) based on student learning. The teachers would then receive targeted feedback.


The simulations even addressed the limitations of in-person field training. Historically, differences in mentor teachers and in exchanges with students meant that teachers rarely engaged in rehearsing and refining a specific set of skills. MR provided teachers at all levels of experience the option to choose standardized settings with predetermined opportunities and challenges and then to receive personalized student responses based on their performance.

Emerging research from Professors Rhonda Bondie and Chris Dede suggests that “all teachers seem to benefit from simulations – though, elements of the simulation such as coaching or opportunities for self-reflection make a difference in the growth of teachers – and that difference is moderated by characteristics such as teaching experience.”

This study shows that mixed reality simulations may aid workers with developing skills in interacting with others.

UNIDO’s Public-Private Partnership

Immersive technologies are furthering 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.

“In the case of the water sector, it’s difficult to have access to facilities for trainees to reinforce their practical understanding of the water cycle. Using VR applications was particularly relevant to skills training for aspiring water technicians,” recalls Maximilien Pierotti, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) Programme Coordinator. Thus, 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. These 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 handle these cases, should they arise in their future roles.

These virtual offerings supplemented the theoretical and classroom instruction and the entire curriculum is now being transferred to vocational training centres and universities.

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Immersive Media Going Forward

As these cases illustrate, immersive media offer many affordances. XR can be engaging, allowing one to interact with 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 the learning trajectory of every user.

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–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 we deploy must be the ones that best serve the delivery of the learning experience. Pierotti stresses the importance of “not designing around a tool, but instead starting from the needs and then defining the tools based on the structure, content, and intended outcomes of the training program.”

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.

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

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