Virtual reality was a hot buzzword long before Facebook dropped its announcement about forming a “metaverse,” a virtual world where people can live, work and play. Over the last five years, VR has been making waves in education, healthcare and corporate training and development, including the diversity, equity and inclusion space.
VR is notable due to its ability to simulate real-life situations. Through targeted, scenario-based training, many believed utilizing the technology has the power to shift perceptions and change behaviors.
“The best learning experiences for adult learners are environments where they have user agency, they can self-direct their learning, and it’s experiential,” says Elise Smith, co-founder and CEO of Praxis Labs, an immersive learning platform focused on workplace outcomes around DEI. “VR as a tool can deliver that high-impact learning experience, where users make decisions that have outcomes, and they can be put in a scenario where they can practice, make mistakes and learn.”
Earlier this year, Praxis secured more than $3 million in venture capital to bring research-backed, immersive learning experiences to the mainstream. Their hope is to develop more conscious leaders capable of developing cultures that better support DEI.
We sat down with Smith to chat about VR in the corporate training space on a conceptual level and how immersive learning experiences provide a unique space for people to learn and evolve their behaviors.
The following interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
DiversityInc Best Practices: “We’re having this conversation one day after Facebook announced its virtual-reality product and creating a metaverse. I think one of the things that’s interesting about VR is its effect on behavior. One of the things I’m curious about is, what is it that separates VR or augmented reality as a training tool around diversity from in-person sessions or other types of learning environments?”
Elise Smith: “This goes back to what we know around best-in-class learning and this idea of ensuring that you’re meeting all learners where they’re at. Ensuring they’re able to engage, they’re self-directing, they’re getting feedback and data on their growth and development, that it’s continuous and reinforced. What we’ve seen in some of the diversity, equity, inclusion and justice trainings of the past is that they were ‘one-and-done.’ A session that you do once, maybe twice a year, or every other year — we know that frequency is not how we’re going to learn best. What we’ve seen with some of the best-in-class drama-based trainings, where you bring a troop of 10 actors together to act out experiences, is powerful, but this is incredibly hard to scale to a multinational organization of 160,000 people.”
DIBP: “When we have what we refer to as courageous conversations, people’s reservations often hold them back from asking questions or sharing their feelings for fear that it could be taken the wrong way. Can you talk a little bit about VR providing that safe yet realistic enough space for people to learn to be more courageous, and how this might help shape their views and their approach to those conversations?”
Smith: “Immersive-learning journey is a model in which learners go through the learning journey individually, but then also typically with cohorts as well. You are practicing, you are likely making mistakes, you’re saying the wrong thing, but you’re continuing to learn in a judgment-free space. You then get to reflect on the decisions you made. Would you have made those in real life? We provide that language context, definitions, research and data for folks. We ask if you’ve seen those barriers to equity in your workplace. If so, where? And what would you want your organization to prioritize? How can you create that more equitable and inclusive work environment? What commitments, behaviors or interventions will you practice along this learning journey to put that into reality?
“What we found is that, as folks are engaging in that individual experience, they are being incredibly reflective. They’re thinking about all the times that they’ve experienced or encountered barriers to equity — and the times when they might have been the one perpetrating bias or some sort of biased action. What we then do is pair that individual learning with a cohort-based model where groups of employees or teams meet outside of that environment to talk about that learning module: how they experienced it, what they noticed, what they believe they could improve at their organization, and how they, as a collective, can be accountable to that. Folks are leaving that discussion energized to work together to make their workplaces more equitable and inclusive.”
DIBP: “One of the things everyone’s looking for is tools that provide data that we can measure. We do a lot of content around scorecards, and when people see examples of them, they wonder, ‘how do we measure this? How do we illustrate for executives the progress that we’re making?’ What are some of the ways VR can provide us with new approaches around data and measurement for progress?”
Smith: “We’ve seen from past diversity, equity, inclusion and justice trainings that we didn’t get the data and measurement that we wanted. We measured the number of people who went through a training and how valuable they felt it was on a scale of one through five. Unlike learning on other topics, we weren’t measuring attitudes, mindsets and behaviors. We weren’t linking them to real outcomes. We weren’t looking at growth or proficiency.
“When we think about data and measurement, we are now looking at key competencies of what does it mean to be a consciously inclusive leader? It’s about building empathy and understanding for experiences different than yours. It’s about being able to identify barriers to equity in your daily life and in the workplace. It’s about taking informed action and knowing the levers at your disposal.
“When we think about VR and the ability to measure, we have to think about our learning experience not just as that immersive environment. It has to be paired with learning and reflection tools. We have diagnostics, and we do pre- and post-activities. We can then measure decisions learners are making in the immersive experience, as well as look at how they’re reflecting on those decisions and growing over time. We’re doing this at the aggregate level for the organization as well.
“VR is also a listening tool that allows you to examine your culture of equity and inclusion. As learners are going through those modules, we’re getting a real-time pulse-check through qualitative and quantitative data.”