How to make VR learning psychologically safe.

Part of the appeal of VR is that the technology allows for the easy creation of very realistic experiences. This realism can elicit the same type and strength of emotional response as a real-life experience. 

Whilst this can be pedagogically powerful, there is also a degree of psychological risk that comes along with this. 

Where there is risk there needs to be informed consent and risk mitigation in place, these are basic tenets of workplace health and safety.


So how does this relate to creating VR training experiences?

The main consideration from a WHS perspective is the level of psychological risk a given learning experience presents. This consideration is one that may not have gotten much thought in L&D departments in the past, but VR represents a powerful new medium and requires this consideration to be brought to the fore. 

As a logical first step, learning professionals should consult the organisation’s psychosocial risk matrix or similar policies where these are available. These should provide an overview of how risk is to be assessed, classified and the required levels of mitigation associated with these. It’s very likely though that these policies will not cover VR or immersive tech explicitly and learning professionals are encouraged to look at establishing this coverage if they plan to use immersive tech in the long term.

One way to approach such an assessment might be to ask if the virtual world in the experience is as psychologically safe as a real-world setting would be.

If not, then why not? 

It’s easy to place a 360-degree camera in a dangerous position, or to recreate this in CGI, (e.g., moving traffic, heights, explosions, etc.), but only because it is possible to simulate dangerous and stressful events in VR, does not make it acceptable or necessary. 

One area which may not be as apparently obvious as potentially harmful is interpersonal training. There is growing interest in developing high-value soft skills such as emotional intelligence/empathy, perspective-taking, confronting bias, having conversations about team culture and practises. These are essential soft skills in today's world and ones where VR can be incredibly helpful. 

The risk here is that immersing people in certain social situations may trigger previous trauma or associations which cause distress. Every employee will bring different lived experiences around these issues and these experiences can often be very formative and strong, so caution needs to be exercised here.

Conversely, it may be acceptable, to ask people to undergo a certain amount of virtual risk exposure if it is very likely that similar experiences will occur in real life (e.g., law enforcement). In this sense, it can be argued that failure to prepare would be irresponsible and that the virtual risk created in a controlled learning environment is acceptable.


What are some practical considerations for learning professionals?

Unfortunately, there are no simple rules for ensuring psychological safety, but below are some general considerations around psychologically safety:

  1. Consult any existing policies and guidelines the organisation has around psychological wellbeing, and apply these to any experience design.
  2. Are alternative options for learning the topic available? Even if the content is psychologically safe, some users may still find the immersive medium too confronting for other reasons. Providing alternative options is a must.
  3. Consider how much realism is required to achieve the learning outcome.
    1. At a minimum, the level of realism used in an experience should be such that it would also be considered within acceptable limits in a different modality, such as 2D video, or real-life role-play.
  4. Is the realism focused on the domain that is most relevant to the learning objective? This will generally reduce the chances of introducing disturbing (and irrelevant) content. For example:
    1. e.g., a psychomotor learning experience focuses on the realism of the physical action/s being taught and the procedure etc.
    2. e.g., a worksite induction experience focuses on the visual and spatial realism and accuracy of location names etc.
  5. When using experiences that deal with more emotive content, provide a psychologically safe space for learners to debrief and discuss their reactions. This will no doubt also uncover valuable feedback about the learning potential of the experience itself and lead to improvements.
  6. Do not attempt to create engagement by ‘shocking’ learners with highly emotive or distressing material. A borderline ‘acceptable’ video show on a presentation screen may be outright distressing when viewed as a 360 video.
  7. Remember that higher levels of realism (CGI or 360-degree based) generally require more effort, and are not clearly linked to increased learning effectiveness. 


For more detail on the relationship between experience realism and learning outcomes look at our Whitepaper, Best Practice for Learning in VR. 

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Learning professionals looking to create powerful learning that will really empower their colleagues to excel in their work (or life more generally), will no doubt embrace VR as a great addition to their tool kit.

Applying some basic principles of risk mitigation and asking some of the above-listed questions are good starting points to creating psychologically safe learning experiences.

Ideally, learning professionals who are serious about making the most of this technology might like to dig a little deeper and start to develop their own expertise around its application. The Facilitate Whitepaper might be a good starting point for this.

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