How to digitalise experiential learning

How to digitalise experiential learning

Richard Taylor C. Psychol., MBA
01. Nov 2020 | 7 min read

How to digitalise experiential learning

Many are sceptical to digitalising learning that has traditionally been based on live, physical experience. This article describes how both digital simulations and digitally framed experiences can compete with experiential learning.


If we are to discuss the digitalisation of learning, we need to agree what it is.


Experiential vs. Instructional learning

Learning is often divided into two types: instructional, synonymous with education, based on a teacher presenting facts and models, vs. experiential, based on reflecting on one’s own experience.

Instructional learning has been digitalised for many years as e-learning. Most of us have been on the receiving end of e-learning in our work-lives as we study things like ethical guidelines, safety procedures or Marketing Basics.

Many ask whether we can or should digitalise experiential learning, or if we should leave it in the physical sphere where experiences are real. It is helpful to look at what makes experiential learning so powerful before discussing whether it should be digitalised.

We base our understanding of experiential learning on the model below:

experiential learning model

  • It is rich. Experience is based on the realities of the whole context for the learner, not a third-party description limited to what can be conveyed verbally, on a page, or in photograph or video clip.

    A downside is that this richness is of course context-specific and can be difficult to generalise and made appropriate for other circumstances. It is easier to generalise in a book or verbal presentation, where summaries of many experiences can be presented.


  • It engages the whole of us. Instructional learning primarily engages the brain and our retention is weak. When more of our senses are engaged in an experience a stronger memory is created. The strength of this experience can challenge and displace existing understanding. We develop.

    We also develop through reading or watching a film, but far less strongly.

  • It is based on reflection. Learning from experience doesn’t work if we don’t reflect on what happened. Reflection is a core element. It has been demonstrated time and again that reflection increases the effect of learning.

    We can of course reflect on what we have read or heard. Reflection is a key part of all learning and is scarce in today’s over-busy, interruption-based world.
  • It has impact and lasts. The combination of richness, engaging the whole and reflection leads to the learning having a real effect on our understanding of the world. So much so that it can lead to changes in attitudes and behaviour.

    Instructional learning primarily builds knowledge. Experiential learning has a more direct consequence for both attitudes and behaviour.


Of course, experiential learning has already been digitalised.

The most obvious example is of pilots learning in simulators. Adaptation to a new airplane is now done exclusively through training in a simulator.

flight simulator

Cost and standardisation lead to pilots learning to fly in simulators. An hour flying an airliner costs about USD 25,000. That would be a very expensive training flight. In addition, the airplanes are identical across the world. The same simulator is relevant for the same plane everywhere.

Simulation is now being applied for other types of experiential learning. The American company Strivr creates simulations that come to life in VR goggles.

With surround sound the experience feels real. The wearer’s bodily reactions are the same as in real life.

VR goggles for experiential learning

Walmart have used Strivr’s approach to train staff in how to deal with robberies. Actors create the scene that staff react to. Amongst other things, eye-tracking technology is used to show staff how they develop tunnel vision, focusing far too long on the robbers, failing to take in and react to the whole scene.

This kind of simulation is effective in helping staff react more effectively when robbed. Walmart can do it as they have over 2 million employees. The investment in 17,000 VR goggles and the cost of producing films and material pay off when there are so many users.

Other companies have brought down the cost-per-user of simulation. The Norwegian company Attensi uses avatars that the user interacts with. The user can choose the best response based on a standardised model of best practice.

Attensi’s simulations are heavily gamified. This increases the level of engagement, reducing the distance between the simulation and real experience. User feedback is excellent and learning outcomes strong.

gamified simulations with avatars

Attensi reduce cost by letting customers buy licensed access to software they can use to create their own simulations, but each simulation is so rich and complex as to make that a tall order.

The balance is between tailor-making simulations to seem real, to increase the richness of experience vs. generic simulations that are instructive but don’t feel quite so real.

If you want to see more on the multitude of digital tools available for developing leaders, please see Digital tools for effective leadership development

Framed experiential learning

The most cost-effective approach is to digitalise the frame surrounding experiences. This means engineering experiences, ensuring that appropriate space is created for reflection and support, and measuring the learning, preferably its impact in real life.

An example of an advanced form of framing experiential learning can be seen in Ella, a digital coach for a manager to achieve success within 100 days in a new role.

Ella the digital coach

The programme describes the best practice approach to succeeding and suggests experiences in structured tools at each stage. These experiences are interactions with the manager’s boss, peers, team or customers and users. They could be team meetings of different sorts, planning how to achieve an early win, building a relationship with a new colleague or visiting a key stakeholder before starting in the new role.

The experiences are set up in introductory videos describing why the interaction should be useful and how to manage it optimally. In this way the learning is maximised.

Organisations can and of course do frame their own portfolio of learning experiences without a digital tool. An example can be seen in talent management where selected individuals are placed in challenging developmental roles with a mentor as back-up.

how organisations frame experience

The figure above shows a simple model of how organisations frame experiences all the time. If you want to learn more about combining digital and physical experiences please see How to combine digital leadership development activities in learning streams.

If you want to know more about Ella and how focus on a manager’s first 100 days in a new role can be the most effective form of leadership development possible, please check out our ebook.

Free ebook about how leadership success is created in a new role

Richard Taylor C. Psychol., MBA

Richard Taylor C. Psychol., MBA

Organisational psychologist with an MBA. Broad top management experience spanning many industries, functions and countries, including 10 years with corporate responsibility for HR. Extensive experience as consultant in private, public and voluntary sectors. A number of board positions in the education and culture sectors. Started career as counsellor for drug and alcohol abusers.

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