How to Use Action Mapping as a Framework for VR Learning Design

Virtual reality needs learning design

There are a lot of questions surrounding virtual reality for training. The promise of the technology to bring training to life and make a lasting impact on success is exciting. Sometimes the leap from the idea of VR to the actual implementation of VR can be daunting. It is important to remember that without a thoughtful approach to the learning design, your VR training will fall flat.

In this post I am going to describe how we use Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping framework for scenario design. This framework bridges the gap between 3D artists and SME’s to create learning that is effective, engaging, and addresses the right topics. My primary focus will be to show how action mapping helps us highlight the goals for our training and why (or why not) VR is the right medium.

What is action mapping, and why does it matter?

At a high level, action mapping is an approach to training design that encourages you to analyze:

  • The measurable goals you are hoping to achieve with the training
  • The specific performance problems that are currently occurring in our organization
  • How to design activities that address the performance issues (and don’t merely deliver an large-scale information dump)

Action mapping is an excellent approach to designing VR training. While avoiding an information dump is a great thing to strive for in all training design, it is essential in creating a great VR experience. Panel after panel of text and 2D media in VR isn’t enjoyable, it’s not immersive, and it does not leverage what is powerful about the medium.

How to using action mapping to shape your VR training objectives

To describe the action mapping steps, I will use a client with a contamination problem. This will help describe our design approach. The action mapping flowchart is here on Cathy Moore’s website

Our client approached us because they are having trouble with food equipment not being properly cleaned. This is leading to some contamination of food products and health and safety is not happy. 

Step 1: Define the Goal

Examine the problem. Think through whether you have any statistics that exemplify the problem. Set a measurable goal that will show improvement.

In the above example, this company spot checks the equipment for bacterial contamination. Their current rate of contamination is 1%. Through VR training, they hope to lower the rate of contamination to below 0.2%.

Step 2: Define the actions necessary to achieve the goal.

After determining the measurable training goal, ask yourself: What do people have to do (note: not learn, not read about) to achieve this goal? 

In the food safety example, people need to follow the proper cleaning procedure almost 100% of the time. This involves knowing the proper steps to take, in the correct order. Trainees also need to know:

  • How to use the sanitization chemicals
  • How to test the pH of the solutions before they use them

Step 3: Determine why employees are not currently taking these necessary actions

This is the step that will determine whether your employees need training. Ask yourself: why aren’t the people doing the action you identified?

In the example, the question would be: why aren’t people cleaning the equipment correctly?

Determine if the problem is:

  • Cultural: training is probably not the answer, but you can get more details on that by looking at the flowchart.
  • Knowledge-based: if yes, could you make a job-aid available to help people be more effective? Or do they need to know how to complete the task from memory? If from memory, you need training.
  • Lack of skills: if yes, you need training.
  • Lack of motivation: probably not a training issue. This is more likely a problem with cultural fit or job stimulation. If realistic simulation could motivate employees, training may be the way to go.

In the equipment cleaning example, the company experiences high employee turnover. There isn’t always someone on hand to walk new employees through proper cleaning procedures, so they rely on videos. The problem they are facing is a combination of lack of knowledge and lack of skills. It can, and should, be addressed by realistic simulation training.

A bit of a digression: it has been shown that learning a procedure involving motion and motor skills can not be mastered through manuals or videos. This has to do with the parts of the learners’ brains that are activated when reading (or learning in 2D) instead of “doing”. You can read more on the comparison of the two learning types, and many more academic papers by visiting this portal.

Step 4: Design activities that let people practice the task in a realistic environment

Now that you’ve set your goals and determined that training is the answer, focus on replicating the set of skills you need to train. This is where VR shines. It is possible to get a very accurate virtual replica of the environment. 

Focus on action and don’t rely on text-based instructions or information panels. Always bear in mind – what do people need to do? If you are introducing something into the scene that would not be present in the real environment, think twice before you add it. We use a storyboard outline that keeps us focused on what the trainee will see, hear, and do at each step.

  • Allow your users to interact with the equipment and/or avatars in the scene. Don’t have them observe from afar and answer questions – that’s what videos are for.
  • Make virtual job aids available that would be present in the real environment.
  • Keep the scenario short and to the point.

In our equipment cleaning scenario, trainees can choose between “teach” mode and “test” mode. In “teach” mode, they are guided through the proper actions to take when cleaning. Guides include voice over and visual cues such as highlighted targets. Trainees can disassemble the equipment, use cleaning solutions, wipe the equipment, and check the solutions using a pH kit. If they follow the steps in the right order and clean all the parts, they are successful. 

Going deeper into action mapping methodology

In her book, Map It, Cathy Moore outlines some innovative ways to create lower fidelity simulations. In fact, she doesn’t discuss VR at all. When I read the book, I couldn’t help but get excited by the way the techniques and best practices can help you plan for VR.

The second part of her book is an excellent guide on how to design and write branching scenarios. The example I used above isn’t a branching scenario. Either they clean the equipment or they don’t. Branching scenarios are achievable in VR and I recommend this book as a guide if you’re designing one.

Use VR when it makes sense

It has been exciting to see the growing interest in VR for training. VR seems to have captured the imagination of many learning professionals. When used effectively, VR can revolutionize the way employees learn. That said, not every goal or productivity problem can be addressed by training and not all training should be delivered in VR. Action mapping is a great way to determine when training, and more specifically simulation training, will help move your organization forward.

Are you interested in learning more about learning design for VR?
Download our VR Learning Design Guide: Virtual Reality Learning Design: Best Practices for Trainee Success.

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Sara Johnston

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