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The recent mass commercialization of virtual reality (VR) technology - software and hardware - has catapulted VR and its potential applications in training into mainstream corporate and commercial environments.

The idea of training in a simulated environment, where users appear to be somewhere they are not, is not new. Early attempts of the concept of VR can be traced back as far as the early nineteenth century. What is new however, is the significant advancement in VR technology and more recently the commercial availability of the technology. Readily available and affordable VR simulated training environments have reached an unparalleled level of realism.

Some industries will be quicker to embrace the latest in VR, and its offerings as a training tool, than others. The ability to simulate life-like VR training environments has been quickly embraced by industries with a focus on practical skill development and safety. The construction industry is a prime example of this as it is currently poised to benefit from the potential of commercially available and affordable virtual reality simulators.

The challenges of learning in VR

Once the hype of using such exciting new VR technology to train operators settles and becomes mainstream, the learning component of any VR training program will really have to ‘stack up’ if it’s to have longevity in the industry as a viable training tool.

Learning design in virtual reality simulation, particularly in the construction industry, is uncharted territory. In the longer term, VR training programs that rely on the excitement of the new technology to achieve learning outcomes will fail to lure trainers and operators away from traditional construction equipment operator training.

To be a leader in the field of VR training for construction, players will need to recognize the validity of established adult learning principles and be prepared to seamlessly merge this with the VR environment – not an easy feat by any means.

Adult learners know what they are looking for when it comes to their training needs, and construction equipment operators are no exception. They are self-directed, experienced at life and have a readiness to learn. They want to gain knowledge that can help them do their job better. Failing to recognize their needs when designing the learning component of VR simulation training will result in a lack of learner engagement, regardless of how ‘cool’ the technology may be.

Implementing adult learning principles into the learning design of VR training programs is not the only challenge of training construction equipment operators in VR. Learning styles also come into play. Some learn by watching, some learn by listening and others learn by reading or doing. Students tend to learn and retain more knowledge if the learning content is delivered as per their dominant learning style.

Construction equipment operators learning how to operate the joystick controls of an excavator in VR simulation may require verbal instructions on how to move the joysticks or they may need to be physically guided while using the joysticks; they may need to watch someone using the joysticks or they may need to read and then memorize the joystick controls. The point is, each operator will look for ways to learn how to use the joysticks. VR training programs that tap into all learning styles will have greater appeal as a learning tool than programs that cater to only one style of learner.

Benefits of VR Training Programs for the Construction Industry

Safety, efficiency and operator skill development have long been the key drivers of construction industry training programs. Today’s commercial climate of tight schedules, increased project risk and less margin for human error is putting more pressure on the industry to find cost effective, innovative training processes to mitigate risk. The flow on benefits of training operators on simulated equipment in virtual environments should not be underestimated, as it has the potential to positively impact safety, productivity and profitability.

VR simulator training programs can benefit trainers and operators by:

  • training green operators quickly and to a high standard, increasing the ability to handle high-adrenaline situations confidently and safely;
  • providing a scalable solution to training with the potential to train large volumes of green operators in a short period of time in comparison to traditional field training;
  • training operators for situations that are too dangerous or costly to train using the actual equipment;
  • providing opportunities to develop correct equipment operation techniques by allowing complex skills to be broken into smaller, more manageable tasks that gradually build in difficulty;
  • providing opportunity for repetitive practice in a safe environment that is essential in developing ‘muscle memory’ of machine controls and key to long term knowledge retention;
  • providing a platform for real time feedback and ongoing assessment of key equipment operation skills;
  • providing operators with the opportunity to sharpen their skills away from the field where they can take charge of skill development without having to wait for access to equipment in the field;
  • ensuring training is delivered anytime and potentially to any location (if the VR simulator is portable) without reliance on ideal weather conditions;
  • determining employment suitability by using the simulator as a pre-employment testing tool to determine the skill level of equipment operators before sending them to a jobsite, thus reducing construction contract delivery risk;
  • training operators in the safest environment without burning diesel or adding hours to machine time or risking machine damage (more time training on simulated equipment is less time required for training on the real machine);
  • allowing operators to take responsibility for their own skill development, identifying areas of improvement in a safe and non-intimidating environment to create opportunities for self-directed, self-paced learning which improves operator engagement and creates a more ‘learner-centered’ culture (operators are more likely to discuss skill development with other trainees and reflect on their progress when they have more control over the learning process);
  • providing the potential for benchmarking as operators compare their skills against other operators or compare improvements in their own individual performance;
  • reducing the overall training costs associated with instructor led training and reducing the reliance on trainer availability (providing an opportunity for a more proactive approach to training by freeing up trainers to focus on planning and identification of the future training needs within the organization); and
  • building relevance with the next generation of construction equipment operators as tech-savvy equipment operators move through the ranks (using high-end graphics and 3-D visuals appeal to this group).
With VR technology leaping to new plateaus, the VR simulation ‘wish list’ is no longer relegated to the realm of science fiction. Players in the VR training market who understand their learner and have the technical capability to utilize the latest developments in VR to produce highly realistic simulated environments could potentially revolutionize training in the construction industry worldwide.

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