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As any parent knows, tasty medicine goes down easier than big chalky pills. Likewise, corporate training goes down easier when it’s engaging enough for the learner to easily focus their attention on it.

But sometimes, there’s no way to sweeten the medicine enough to make it fun to swallow. Corporate employees often need to focus on dry and complicated material to develop competencies for their job. Instructional designers see this as a challenge and through techniques like UX optimization, storytelling, and gamification, they can improve the process. Now, however, there is technology on the horizon that could radically improve how well learners focus and how well training managers can guide them.

Brainwave Monitoring

As technology continues to advance, tools that seemed implausible even on the USS Enterprise start to appear in your doctor’s office and, perhaps soon, in your corporate training classroom. One of these tools attempts to bypass cognitive psychology entirely by monitoring the waves generated in learners’ brains, thus forcing them to focus on the material.

Freer Logic is developing a system that uses brainwave monitoring to determine how attention is focused. In a nutshell, our brain cells generate electromagnetic waves when they communicate with each other, and higher-frequency beta waves dominate when our attention is directed towards a cognitive task. Wearable monitors designed by Freer Logic get nearly instantaneous readings of the intensity of a person’s beta waves, which shows how focused they are on whatever they’re supposed to be doing. These readings can then be passed along to software that controls the learning experience.

This has some tremendous implications. By comparing brainwave frequency with events that unfold in a video, software can train the viewer to focus on the action; otherwise, the video will stop. Brainwave monitoring can also be used for responsive home appliances, such as a light that turns off when you fall asleep and a coffee maker that turns on when you wake up. This technology is still in the development stage, but prototypes are working well, and it’s not hard to imagine how it could impact learning technology.

In a training environment, brainwave monitoring can keep track of how engaged a learner is with each section of a course. With this information, instructional designers could modify training to work better, create responsive courses that shift focus to where a learner needs it, and generate reports that show managers precisely where an employee’s strengths and weaknesses lie.

There are a few products already on the market that use brainwave monitoring in games and simple learning activities. NeuroSky’s MindWave is marketed as an education tool, and uses brainwave monitoring in a similar way to Freer Logic—that is, it monitors the type and intensity of activity through a wearable device. At the moment, the applications that work on this platform are very simple and are considered by many to be more “toy” than “tool.” So, MindWave isn’t having a huge impact on education yet, but it’s certainly an interesting proof of concept.

Virtual Reality

Another technology that training developers are exploring is virtual reality (VR). A VR apparatus doesn’t typically interact with brainwaves, but provides an immersive experience that prevents distraction and engages spatial awareness.

In a virtual reality experience, learners can visualize 3-dimensional objects like building interiors intuitively—much better than they can by looking at a flat screen—and they get the distinct feeling of “being there”, developing spatial awareness and even muscle memory at a deep level. This technology is developing fast in gaming, and is already being applied in many learning situations, such as training for dangerous tasks.

Augmented Reality

Closely related to virtual reality is augmented reality (AR). In AR, the learner can see their physical environment and can also see extra information as overlays or ‘pop-ups’. For example, a person walking through a museum with an AR headset on, or looking through an AR app on their phone, would see detailed information next to each painting as they view it. Similar technology has existed for decades in heads-up display (HUD) systems that show pilots critical information on their helmet visors while they are looking out the aircraft window.

The benefits of AR in training seem to be straightforward. An AR device introduces information when and where it is needed, which allows the training to blend in with the learner’s attention. This helps the learner reduce cognitive load while keeping focused on the training. Currently, though, AR has not shown widespread integration in learning programs. Perhaps a blended approach, layering AR features on top of other developing technology, will trigger the next step forward.

The Future

So, what’s the verdict? Is a new paradigm in learning technology right around the corner, or is it coming sometime after the flying car? It looks like these nascent technologies still need work before they can be applied to corporate learning in a game-changing way. This is an exciting time, though, because a small army of clever people are working on interesting problems with previously unseen tools. In 1783, just after the first manned hot-air balloon took flight in France, a bystander wondered aloud what practical use this feat could possibly have. Another bystander, Benjamin Franklin, famously observed: “What is the use of a newborn child?”

To find out how the latest learning and development trends are capturing the attention of learners, learning managers, and CEOs alike, check out AllenComm’s 2017 eBook Anatomy of a Trend: Going Beyond Trendiness.