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Talking Immersive Learning Costs With Helen Routledge

Discussing Immersive Learning Misconceptions And Navigating The Digital Learning Landscape

Helen Routledge is an award-winning serious games designer and developer of a learning technologies studio that utilizes game-based learning and VR. As the CEO of Totem Learning, she leads a team of immersive learning specialists to create impactful learning for future-facing companies that want to increase employee engagement, retention, and performance. Today, she speaks with us about reinventing learning perceptions, cost-effective L&D immersion, and making a performance impact.

In your opinion, what do you think is the biggest misconception about implementing immersive learning in corporate training?

There’s no denying there is a lot of hype when it comes to immersive learning, as well as lots of misconceptions.

The most common misconception we come across is probably around the cost of immersive learning. There is no denying that it is more expensive than off-the-shelf click-next eLearning, and rightly so! Immersive learning solutions can be complex, intricate systems, and if you just look at it as a cost, you will, of course, limit your thinking.

When we work with clients, we always examine the business case, whether it’s VR, AR, games, or even eLearning. We ask how this investment is going to give back to your learners and your organization. We look at the scalability of the solution as well as the reusability of the assets created. Oftentimes the solution can be used in multiple ways, and the assets can be repurposed in other solutions. It is also worth examining the cost of not taking action and sticking within the comfort zone. 94% of employees said they would have stayed at their current employer for longer if there were more development opportunities in a recent LinkedIn Workforce Learning survey. With the cost of replacing that hire averaging $30,000 with an 8–26-week timescale to full productivity, the cost of not paying attention to talent development can hit companies hard.

You have probably heard of the “quiet quitting” phenomenon, which is far-reaching and affects organizations worldwide. Forbes reported that a quarter of the total U.S. workforce quit their jobs in 2021. And the trend is continuing; in February 2022, at least 4.4 million Americans left their jobs, and 4.53 million workers resigned in March.

Balance that with the recent Gallup report, which notes that companies that make strategic investments in their employee development are twice as likely to retain their people while increasing profitability by 11%.

If you flip the focus from cost to investment, you start to explore the benefits, short- and long-term, and then the bottom line “cost” becomes a no-brainer.

Another area that Totem Learning specializes in is gamification. What do you think the future holds for immersive game-based learning experiences that leverage VR, AR, and Mixed Reality tech?

I’ve been working in this space for the last 20 years and I’ve seen it grow from a niche cottage industry to the powerhouse that it is today, so, of course, I see the future as exciting and positive. But at the same time, I realize the pace of change is gradual, and the economic situation we find ourselves in is challenging.

There is huge interest in this space, but that is balanced with the short-term focus and budgets.

I believe the workforce will continue to demand more engaging and meaningful Learning and Development opportunities, and immersive learning has a key part to play in this movement.

There is also an incredible amount of hype and excitement around the metaverse and what opportunities Web3 technology can bring. However, as a realist, we always need to ask ourselves what problem this technology is solving.

As we saw with Second Life, companies invested millions and failed to see a return on their investment. We’re seeing similar patterns emerge.

I want organizations to use their budgets wisely, which is why we always advise and guide them on how best to use immersive learning to achieve the desired outcome rather than jumping on the latest bandwagon.

However, saying all that, I do see immersive technologies becoming more ingrained in our lives; whether we’ll be living, working, shopping, and playing in virtual worlds is yet to be seen, but this technology, when designed well, has the potential to offer us so much. We can literally go anywhere any time and step into someone else’s shoes to have experiences that otherwise would be beyond our reach.

The future does look incredibly exciting. Much of what we offer at Totem Learning has come out of the games industry, we can see the advances being made there with visuals, cloud computing, data, responsive systems, AI, and online gaming filtering down to Learning and Development.

We are seeing rapid growth in asset-intensive industries as one might imagine (transport, construction, engineering, manufacturing), where training can be expensive, dangerous, and logistically challenging, but also interestingly increasingly experimented with in soft skills, such as management and leadership development where innovative providers are looking to enrich the subjects they are teaching and create an emotional connection with the theories being covered (i.e., understanding beyond the mathematics how it feels to experience the bull-whip effect as part of a complex supply chain in a volatile market).

While a few years ago we were building one-off pilots for organizations to trial, we’re now helping organizations build their immersive learning strategies, taking a multi-year approach to ensuring what is created is sustainable and long-lasting.

What is one of your biggest eLearning client success stories?

Client success is at the heart of everything we do at Totem and where we see the most significant shifts in behavioural change occur when we work in partnership with subject matter specialists and the entire organisation to reinvent how learning is considered and delivered. When I say “considered,” what I mean is when learning is seen as an investment rather than a cost, where it is viewed as a long-term goal rather than a box-ticking exercise, and where problems and solutions are understood on a deep level. And of course, understanding how you are going to measure the impact rather than relying on qualitative comments or happy sheets.

One such example of a where a client has achieved marked success is our partner Applied Driving Techniques (ADT). They have a long-term vision for their learning, are open to innovation and using technology in a way to maximise impact and augment their current offering.

ADT worked with Totem to help make its digital offering more engaging. Formerly using analogue video-based products for fleet driver training, they realised Totem’s capabilities offered limitless flexibility in the scenarios they could depict, giving ADT 100% creative control over the modules we created with them. Many of the scenarios created would be impossible to reproduce in real life. You just can’t orchestrate an accident or dangerous driving on public roads to make a point. Totem collaborated with ADT and a telematics app to deliver short, punchy 90-second micro-modules automatically to drivers who are driving unsafely. This means those who drive for the business get fully tailored and immersive training exactly when they most require it, through their smartphone and at a fraction of the cost that traditional training would cost. This training persists until the driving improves. This partnership is in its third year and constantly expanding and exploring new opportunities, including accessible VR, site-specific driver safety (i.e., heavy construction and airside in airports), and even areas beyond driving, such as staying safe whilst traveling for work.

Because we are linked to a telematics system, we have access to real-world behavioural data before and after the training. Below we have published results on the impact on learner capability and behaviour from two companies in different sectors and geographies.

Company 1 (Renewable Energy) – ​​large numbers throughout South America, South Africa, and Australia.

  • 70% decrease in hard braking events identified in five weeks
  • 84% decrease in distracted driving events identified in five weeks
  • 92% decrease in rapid acceleration events identified in five weeks
  • 34% decrease in local speeding events identified in five weeks

Company 2 (Construction) – 25,000 drivers for Client 2 on an international basis. Primary territories include UK & ROI, USA, Australia, and the Middle East.

  • Witnessed a 100% reduction in distracted driving events
  • 68% reduction in global speeding events
  • 35% reduction in all at-risk events in three weeks

Here is a 2.5-minute video showcasing some of the modules.

These results were not simply achieved with a one-off learning intervention. They were achieved through the repeated use of a well-thought-out learning technology stack (eLearning, mobile, gamification, and VR linked to live telematics data), an awareness of how to leverage data analytics, and the vision to create learning components that can scale and drive efficiencies over a number of years.

Is there a recent development project, product launch, or another initiative our readers should know about?

Over the last 2–3 years, we’ve observed a huge amount of investment in content libraries, with companies boasting they have hundreds of hours of available learning on their system for learners to browse and use at their leisure, the “Netflix” for learning, if you will.

We also realise L&D have a bewildering choice when it comes to technology and immersive learning, with many claims about engagement and impact but not as much evidence. Hardware also has taken a leading role, impacting procurement decisions, so we then get asked to help people make the most of those technologies, even if they are not fit for purpose.

All of this is back to front and it is missing the mark for what learners are really looking for and need. We want L&D teams to break away from a focus on content delivery, technology, and short-term thinking to consider how learning technologies can be approached on a more strategic level.

In 2022 we launched our “Art of the Possible” workshops to help partners, new and old, navigate the digital learning landscape and think about learning in a different way for two main reasons.

1. There is a lot of ‘waste’ in L&D

We saw many organisations gain real value from these workshops, so in 2023 Team Totem is on a mission to help L&D teams reduce waste and find more value. Why? Because the evidence shows that many initiatives fail, and with a global spend of $357,000,000,000 [1] on L&D we need to ensure that money is being spent effectively. That $357 billion is dollars paid by corporations for corporate training initiatives. 64% is internal spending, with 26% being outsourced. Yet only about 12% of employees use the skills they learn in their L&D programmes, and 75% of managers are dissatisfied with their Learning and Development offerings [2]. So there is clearly a problem.

2. Much of our learning provision lags at least one generation

Generally speaking, our grandparents had to work to live, our parents’ generation worked to improve their social mobility, and the current generation entering the workforce is looking at “prioritizing work/life balance, learning and development, and well-being as critical, as well as having a clear purpose and giving employees the opportunity to address societal issues through their work” (Deloitte Gen Z and Millenial Survey 2022).

So, if we’re spending $370 billion a year, yet our learners feel unprepared, something obviously is broken. Much of training is still couched in the way previous generations saw work as a must-have rather than as a social driver.

Totem is a design-led studio where we put end users and objectives first, and one of the last pieces of the jigsaw for us is the actual solution. Too many learning offerings still homogenise their customers and/or are led by the shiny new toy syndrome rather than the required knowledge or skills to develop. You just have to look at the hype around the metaverse to see this happening in real time. All this sits in an immensely cluttered marketplace where it may just be simpler, and to an extent meet a high-level objective, to buy an off-the-shelf library of content.

Our tried-and-tested process takes a step-by-step approach, working back from the learning need/learner persona and environment and ending up with the most appropriate modality. It’s simple to follow and effective for focusing multiple perspectives onto clear learning design challenges.

So, our Art of the Possible workshops have three goals—to help:

  • Reduce waste and improve talent attraction and retention
  • Clear up the confusing learning technologies landscape
  • Define solutions that relate to the intended audience

It has never been more important for organisations to really understand the capabilities of learning technology and move their thinking into alignment with the current workforce’s needs and expectations. Organisations need to be using engaging learning opportunities to attract and retain the best employees in addition to the primary goal of imparting knowledge and changing behaviours.

One of your areas of expertise is behavioral sciences and psychology. Based on your experience, how can immersive learning improve learner motivation and engagement, as well as foster a stronger emotional connection?

Well, that’s a big question! We have so much to learn from the world of behavioral sciences and psychology regarding how to improve learning design. I always say game designers are closet psychologists—they understand human drivers, desires, and behaviors to create experiences that hook us and make us come back again and again.

If we take a step back and look at the majority of digital learning offerings, we can see they have been created in the main with very little concern for learner motivation, memory, and engagement. And don’t get me started on emotional connection. It seems most courses created pre-2020 ignored the fact that we’re human beings and focused on information and content. Learning is produced with the intention of ticking a box rather than seeking to make an impact and help people improve.

The reason why we use games and immersive solutions is that we know these tools work to engage people—we just have to look at the world of game design and development to see how hugely successful that industry is.

The clearest “how” is flipping the focus from content to experience. No longer am I presented with the information I need to remember; rather, I am placed in a situation which I need to work through or resolve. I literally step into someone’s shoes. I become the main protagonist. The experience becomes all about me as a learner. This is important because it gives the learner autonomy and they own the consequences of their decisions. Being able to relate outcomes to our actions and developing our locus of control is a key principle in our self-development. That is a fundamental shift and one of the reasons why these solutions connect with people so well.

Immersive learning also appeals to our brains and how we love to learn. From the reward cycles, challenges, stories, and characters, immersive learning lights up the brain. And, by using multiple engagement techniques and by presenting information in different ways, we activate different parts of the brain, building stronger memories.

And it’s not just characters and stories—it’s how information is presented and structured. In game design, we talk about core loops. These are the play cycles for any game, the actions you ask a player to take. These core loops form the foundation of a good game design and, when blended with learning material, allow learners to be exposed to content gradually, build up their knowledge, expand their internal schemas, and develop a deeper understanding of principles. The reason why core loops are important is that they enable us to avoid cognitive overload and keep learners in the flow state for longer.

Game design and, consequently, immersive learning design is both an art and a science, and while there exist models and templates, each game needs to be different depending on the subject, audience, and use case. Developing a deep understanding of psychology, game design, user experience, and topics such as marketing, all work together towards creating successful immersive learning solutions.

Wrapping Up

A big thanks to Helen Routledge for taking the time to participate in our Q&A and share her valuable insights with us. She was also featured on our eLearning Trailblazers: Immersive Learning Pioneers, and you can read the articles she’s penned for eLearning Industry by visiting her author page.


[1] Size of the Training Industry

[2] Why Leadership Training Fails—and What to Do About It

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