The hype vs reality of VR enabled learning in pharma and biotech

Pandemic induced workplace disruptions have been keenly felt in employee training across pharmaceutical and biotech enterprises. Starting in March 2020 as traditional, instructor-led (or classroom type) training became infeasible, most pharma enterprises have vastly scaled up their eLearning infrastructure and content libraries. Along with its many advantages – from universal access through smartphones to affordability, and from scalability to automated compliance, pharma companies have also realized that they have been late to the eLearning game compared to their peers in other domains, like IT and consulting.

Presentation Gui E Learning · Free image on Pixabay
eLearning modules can be completed anywhere on any device.

Along with this realization, companies are also experiencing the fear of missing out (or FOMO) on the next big thing in learning. And a new breed of software and gaming startups are out to convince these companies that the next big thing is virtual reality (VR) enabled learning.

At its core, the value proposition of VR is learning through experience. So instead of watching a video on bioreactor operations on a computer screen, you would don your VR goggles, and explore the bioreactor in 3D. You can even press virtual buttons and steer the virtual media to learn how to operate it. This way, the learner is immersed in in life-like experiences and the learning would supposedly be more effective.

How To Play Online Games in VR | Techno FAQ
VR enabled learning is positioning itself as the next big thing

But a deeper look into the limitations of VR exposes major shortcomings specific to its use in pharma and biotech training. Let’s look at the most obvious hold ups:

  1. It costs a bomb – A typical, customized, 45-minute technical training VR module can cost four to ten times as much as a traditional eLearning module. Large scale adoption of VR is sure to be beyond most companies’ learning budgets. And the money spent doesn’t go too far because most VR modules come with severe limitations on portability which prevents sharing across divisions within the same company.
  2. It takes a long time to develop VR modules: Given the heavy lifting in software development, customized modules can take many months to make. And learning priorities can shift in the interim.
  3. The biggest advantage of eLearning, ie: “anywhere learning” is lost in VR because of hardware limitations. Companies need to invest in VR theaters stocked with equipment that employees access one-at-a-time. Employees can’t take learning home or even to their work desk. Oh, and VR learning modules are seldom compatible across multiple hardware. So modules developed for Facebook-owned Oculus glasses may not work on Samsung, and vice versa – forcing companies to pick a side and live with it.
  4. Improvements in learning experience over traditional eLearning is marginal in most cases. Is it really that better to write on a virtual diary instead of typing on a screen when learning about good documentation practice? Or to see a 3D rendering of a pH meter through VR goggles as opposed to on a computer screen? Probably not.
Other Available Software – Partnership for Biotechnology and Genomics ...
Advantages of seeing something through VR goggles as opposed to on a computer screen may be overblown

So is there any instance where VR might offer advantages over traditional pharma and biotech eLearning?

There is. On topics where “learning by doing” offers vastly more meaningful training over “learning by watching”. In pharma companies, these topics are always found close to a lab bench. VR maybe a great way to train R&D and QC staff on lab techniques – especially where doing the real thing is impractical or expensive. Think everything from correctly twirling a pipette, to holding a meter just at the right angle to observe its meniscus, to inserting a sample into an NMR machine. For these and similar applications, VR offers a paradigm shift in learning.

Team:TUDelft/Public Engagement - 2018.igem.org
VR offers advantages where “learning by doing” is important. Example: simulating lab benchwork techniques

But the disadvantages around cost, turnaround times, and access remains. So it is important to identify exactly where “learning by doing” is best utilized within an organization. A great place to start is a list of common lab mistakes that employees make which lead to erroneous or incomplete readings. So the script writers of the VR modules need to be lab personnel and QC supervisors with their feet on the ground. These supposedly unglamorous people have more to offer VR based learning in pharma than computer whiz kids and star game developers.

Team:Paris Bettencourt/Public Engagement - 2018.igem.org
A virtual pipette as viewed through VR goggles

Of special relevance is training for cleanroom behavior, which suffers from the classic “chicken-and-egg” dilemma. You cannot let someone enter a cleanroom unless they are trained, and they can’t be trained without entering the cleanroom. A great solution for this dilemma would be creating a virtual VR enabled cleanroom environment and developing modules specific to cleanroom behavior.

VR is especially suited for training on cleanroom behavior

But through it all, it is important to be aware of VR hardware’s limitations. Extreme sensitivity to delicate and multi-dimensional hand movements is still a work in progress for most set ups. Here’s a good review on hand tracking capabilities of the Oculus 2 (caution: salty language):

So if you are a pharma or biotech enterprise considering VR enabled learning, have a chat with lab personnel about what people are “doing” wrong.

The author is a partner at CRAMbridge, a leading eLearning provider to pharma and biotech enterprises. CRAMbridge industry experts can develop VR assisted learning modules on topics where “learning by doing” is critical.

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