The Promise Of 3D Learning

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Every now and again I wonder about the multi-user 3D environments, or virtual worlds that were all the rage just a couple of years ago, the finest example being Second Life. Second Life itself was a promising collaborative 3D learning platform. Yet, as I trawl the web looking for successful implementations of such 3Dverses for learning, I find very little substantive information about companies implementing such systems with any reasonable success. While there are many experiments, very few are able to justify any sort of return on the expense. I personally believe that 3D simulation and collaborative environments have huge potential. Why then is there such a gap between technology development and adoption by the L&D community? Off-the-cuff, I think there are some definite reasons this is happening:

  1. System cost/cost of development – It isn’t budget friendly to implement a ‘behind the firewall’ system that allows for collaborative 3D. In addition to the cost of the system software, there are a number of associated costs – hardware, training, maintenance, etc. Only the early adopters with deep pockets have potential to deploy such systems. Secondly, deploying such systems is one thing, developing content for them is another cost altogether. This cost is significantly higher than other sort of content we typically used for electronic learning.
  2. Networks/Bandwidth – When 3D started out, the biggest constraints faced were around the hardware and networks required to deliver a reasonable 3D experience. First, because the hardware till just a few years ago wasn’t very good at rendering 3D without the use of specialized hardware and drivers (graphic accelerator + GL library). Second, the amount of data a decent rendering of a 3D environment requires is very large. A few years ago, we didn’t have the pipes to deliver that sort of data fast enough to offer a decent user experience. Now, the situation is very different – the hardware has matured to an extent where most computing devices have enough computing power, memory and the graphics capability to render 3D. Same applies to bandwidth, it is now good enough to stream video, and should easily transfer data for 3D. I feel the issue lies in companies being hesitant to unleash what could possibly be a huge resource hog on the network. Corporate networks are constantly forced to upgrade given the insatiable appetite for data in the workplace, they don’t want to add another driver that adds huge data traffic consequently adding to their cost.
  3. Ease of Use – The first time I used a 3D environment, the first thing that struck me was how unnatural navigation in the virtual area was, the next was the clunky user interface that made the space navigation worse. That however, is changing now – the key word for 3D virtual experiences is now immersion. As 3D becomes more capable of offering immersive experiences, perhaps it will spur adoption. Another interesting development in this sphere is the development of mass-audience interfaces like Microsoft’s Kinect and Sony’s Move, which could potentially make navigating 3D virtual environments much more natural and human.
  4. Inertia –For middle-aged decision makers, 3D is a unfamiliar metaphor. It’s only the part of the employee population that are less than 30 years old who are familiar and comfortable with 3D environments. While I don’t want to get into a debate , I’d hazard that when gamers become decision makers, we will see 3D make some impact for learning/collaboration. Over time, perhaps all learning activities that require simulation and collaboration will take place in synchronous 3D environments. That day is far off yet.

If you are considering adopting 3D in some way for learning, Karl Kapp’s presentation about 3D Learning is quite interesting.

While that’s quite broad, even more interesting is this presentation in which he shares insights from his book Learning in 3D, about the 11 3D Learning Archetypes. As an instructional designer this is particular interesting when considering any sort of design to facilitate learning using a 3D environment .

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