The Evolution of Learning

From PowerPoint to Video to Virtual Reality

Author: Mason C., Inflow Technical Writer

We’ve all been there:

You’re sitting in an unlit room. The artificial white glare of a screen permeates through the darkness, stinging your eyes as you struggle to retain focus. You feel it coming on; the quiet hum of a projector, the speaker’s voice melding into a lull of incomprehensible noise, the darkness beckoning you. No amount of willpower can prevent it. Your eyelids droop. Head begins to bobble. Then rest’s warm embrace swallows you into unconsciousness.


The flick of a switch, the chorus of conversations, and the grinding of chairs on tile jars you as you squint through the brightness trying to make sense of your surroundings. As sleep fades away and consciousness reclaims its awareness, you sit in horror, realizing you missed the entire lesson.          

Slide show presentations. There’s a love-hate relationship with them. We’ve all struggled through hours of lectures and presentations, striving to learn the applicable information as we fought the sheer monotony of it. Whenever we’re told to sit in on a lecture, or to take a 40+ hour course, there’s usually only one feeling: dread. We dread sitting for hours on end as a presenter goes through slide after slide of information. Yet by some strange oddity, whenever we’re asked to deliver a lecture, the first thing we do is create a slide show.

Why is it we’re so enamored with slides? If slide show presentations aren’t the most effective means of learning and sharing information, why then do we use them in nearly every industry? Isn’t there a better means to educate?

Yes. Yes there is. But as everything, there’s a caveat.

Don’t get me wrong. Slide shows can be incredibly useful. There’s a reason why we still see them so widely used: They work. Slide shows are a tried-and-true teaching aid that have effectively educated students from simple addition to solving complex algorithms that have allowed us to launch multimillion dollar projects into space to discover what’s beyond our humble earth.

It goes beyond this however. Not only are slide shows a proven method of teaching, there are several other perks. For instance, they’re cheap. With computers being as prevalent as television screens nowadays (particularly with the advent of smart phones), and with most computers coming preinstalled with a presentation software, nearly every individual has the equipment to create a slide presentation. In addition, the tools themselves are exceptionally easy to learn. An individual with little-to-no experience in PowerPoint, Keynote, or the like can open up the program and develop a presentation. They’re intuitive and simple.

Slide show presentations can be developed overnight, by nearly anyone, and still educate their audience effectively.

Caveat time.

I have often found myself in a “compromising” position. As I prepared my presentation, there might have been a feature that I wanted to use, but wasn’t sure how to do it. As I searched through the internet, there was one of two things I could do: 1) Dig through forums, reading post after post in search of the information I needed, or 2) Watch a video.

Watching a video was the solution I chose 99% of the time. Why? Time.

Simply put, I can watch someone “do” a whole lot faster than I can read. With presentations, there’s a level of translation that has to occur. The information has to be deciphered into meaningful instruction and then applied contextually. That takes time, and even then, the outcome isn’t always positive. Some information can get lost in the translation. With videos, there’s context. I can see someone actually “doing” and applying the skills and information they’re teaching. This adds a level of learning that presentation slides are often lacking: Visuals.

Slides are a great avenue for the Read/Write and Auditory learner (assuming there’s an instructor presenting the slides), and, while visuals can be added, the connection between the information and visuals are not nearly as strong as videos. It goes back to context. Videos provide that direct correlation between information and application.

Like before, however, there’s a caveat. Videos can take longer to produce and require a bit more knowledge to execute. Especially if you’re getting a professional-grade video, it’ll require more money with more people with both expertise and equipment (which can be expensive). You also run the similar risk with presentation slides of running too long. Generally, with videos, it’s about acquiring the most pertinent information as quickly as possible. Therefore, videos that run too long will never be watched to completion, leaving the learners with missing information.

What if, instead of watching somebody else, you did it yourself? Now, it doesn’t matter what type of learner you might be, everybody learns and remembers more efficiently by doing. “Doing” has always been more valuable than “know how” or “in theory.” It’s why on resumes, for example, certain positions require a number of years of experience as opposed to education alone. A surgeon who has done a procedure is much more valuable than a surgeon who has “studied up” on a procedure. What if, then, when a surgeon comes into a hospital to do a procedure for the first time, it hasn’t been their first time? In fact, they’ve done it tens of times in Virtual Reality (VR)? Sounds like science fiction right? Well, it’s happening right now.

We see the emergence of VR really being embraced within our military, and, truthfully, it has been for years now. Flight simulations have been used long before consumer grade VR and has proven an effective and efficient means to get soldiers ready for the actual cockpit. In the 1980’s, the controls of an old Atari game, Battlezone, were changed to match the gunner controls of a Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle.

In the 1980's, the military changed the controls of the old Atari game  Battlezone  to match the controls of a Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle.

In the 1980's, the military changed the controls of the old Atari game Battlezone to match the controls of a Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle.

With the advances in technology bringing forth accurate head tracking and data gloves that allow for fine-motion control and tactile sensing in the hand, Virtual Reality is becoming far more immersive and realistic. As Edgar Dale states within his Cone of Learning, the amount of information that can be retained by “doing” as opposed to just reading or watching is significant: 90%. Through simulating the “real-thing” we provide an avenue that provides the best of both traditional learning and training. VR first and foremost allows the user to “do.” It puts them within an environment where they can realistically act and react to the situations around them, just like training. In the case of Improvised Explosive Device (IED) Training, the user would be able to work on a “live” explosive without fear of harm. This is not only cheaper than manufacturing an actual IED, but it’s also safer.

“But wait, there’s more!”

Virtual Reality also facilitates a very important benefit of traditional learning: metrics and tracking. Much like any video game, the status of the user can be tracked: How quickly are they getting through the scenario? How accurate are they? Where are they having difficulty? This allows the teacher to facilitate the student and provide more meaningful instruction to direct them. Beyond this, VR allows the student to repeat the scenario as often as needed, helping to quickly try new tactics, fix mistakes, and retain the skillsets being taught within the classroom. It is important to note that VR isn’t a replacement to training or the traditional classroom setting, but rather an enhancement of it.

It’s not without its faults, however. This technology is still fairly young, and while it has advanced by leaps and bounds and can greater simulate the real world, the high-fidelity of human movements still can’t be fully replicated. In addition, the equipment and software needed to develop VR applications takes specialized people, time, and significantly more funding than any video production would. Grant-it, in the case of the military, the cost of VR development comparative to live training (i.e. flying a fighter jet) is still significantly less. It is important to note, however, that like the advent of the smart phone, we don’t know the social implications of VR technology and how it can change our behavior. There are ethical issues that arise and, thus, rules that still need to be established. It’s largely untested and, therefore, carries its fair share of risk.

While the adoption of Virtual Reality in the education sector is still far off, some industries have begun to adopt it, and the outcomes we’ve seen from it, so far, are astonishing. We are learning faster and remembering more, and when it comes to our men and women who defend us, anything that gets them more prepared for the obstacles they will face is a good thing.

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