Best Practices: The Avatars Are Coming

Training in a virtual reality environment.

By Neal Goodman, Ph.D.

A few years ago, as training budgets were slashed, e-learning became the new normal for many professional development initiatives. However, over time, e-learning faced a backlash due to poor execution—learners being forced to sit through the equivalent of PowerPoint slides of information on their own. The critical missing element has been human-to-human knowledge transfer and particularly an environment in which colleagues can interactively learn together. Enter training via virtual reality. The social interaction that previously existed in a live classroom and was removed with standard e-learning has been brought back with virtual environment training.

Here are a few examples of ways the potential of virtual environments has been maximized in training:

  • Using a virtual reality training environment, a medical devices manufacturer demonstrated to doctors proper use of its products. The doctors could practice to see if they found the new products worthwhile before making a commitment.
  • An energy company created a virtual oil rig for its engineers to visit and test their knowledge under changing conditions—before they set foot on the actual rig.
  • An automobile dealership used a virtual dealership to teach its sales force how to use their brand to sell various cars.
  • An insurance firm used a virtual environment to teach geographically dispersed adjusters how to write up a claim for a broken (virtual) vehicle.

Initial research indicates that those participating in virtual reality sessions “hang on” afterward to continue discussions. Participants frequently linger in the virtual conference rooms to continue the conversation after the formal session has concluded.

Additionally, the virtual environment has been known to tear down traditional walls that may be encountered in the “real” world. There have been anecdotal reports that people are more comfortable and willing to approach superiors in a virtual environment. Additionally, participants from Asian cultures who traditionally might not speak up in a training session are found to be considerably more interactive in a virtual classroom.

Training in a virtual reality environment, however, is not foolproof. Many organizations simply replicate a Webinar experience or PowerPoint slides in a virtual reality environment and don’t take advantage of the interaction that can come from virtual reality instruction, or they don’t ensure that learners understand the technology prior to the lesson. Utilizing inappropriate or unrealistic virtual environments can present problems, too. “The level of immersion that I, as a learner, have the potential to experience when in a virtual environment is largely dependent on the environment itself,” notes Domenick Naccarato, vice president of Product Management for ProtonMedia. “Is it a PowerPoint on a wall? A spaceship? Or a conference room like I’m used to?”

Virtual Reality Best Practices

  • Evaluate the content you have and take advantage of the tools.
  • Have users learn how to use the virtual environment by participating in another activity (i.e., a scavenger hunt) on the system prior to the lesson.
  • Have the trainers spend more time than the students in the virtual environment prior to the session (if it is a new system for them). Ideally, the trainers could have their preparation meetings in the virtual environment.
  • Communicate all necessary details to the users ahead of time, such as type of headset required, time of the meeting, whether they should use the computer’s microphone or call in, etc.
  • Keep the sessions interactive: Ask questions; take polls; do quizzes; enable small group interaction, breakout sessions, etc.
  • In addition to having the trainer(s), consider having a facilitator, as occurs in many live training sessions.
  • Review system requirements with all participants far in advance of the session.
  • Encourage participants to have their avatars act as they, themselves, would in an in-person meeting. So have the presenters’ avatars face the audience and ask participants to have their avatars raise their hands to ask questions or make points.
  • Be aware that the attention span limitations of live in-person training also will apply to virtual reality environments: Shorter bursts generally tend to be more effective.

To share other best practices for training in a virtual environment, or raise questions about this topic, send an e-mail to Neal Goodman at With your permission, we may share your thoughts in a future column.

Neal Goodman, Ph.D., is president of Global Dynamics, Inc., a training and development firm specializing in globalization, cultural intelligence, effective virtual workplaces, and diversity and inclusion. He can be reached at 305.682.7883 and at For more information, visit

Best Practices

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