“While the potential advantages of virtual reality are limitless, there has been much debate about the ethical complexities that this new technology presents.”— Technology and Society
Research nonprofit Just Capital puts out an annual list of the 100 public companies deemed “most just” — meaning that they’re practicing ethical business as much as possible. The ranking has two steps:
- Polling the American public on what they consider to be the most ethical priorities in business
- Seeing how the largest public companies in the country stack up
At the top of the list for January: Bank of America, closely followed by NVIDIA, Microsoft, Accenture, Truist, and Verizon. Several other companies on the list just happen to be Strivr customers, which brings us to the topic of this blog: the ethical considerations of using virtual reality and what enterprise organizations should think about as they embark on an Immersive Learning initiative.
Ethical issues in business
What does it even mean to be an “ethical company”? Some of the top issues in the Just Capital research ranking include:
- Acting ethically at the leadership level
- Protecting the health and safety of workers
- Supporting workforce retention, advancement, and training
There are other ethical issues at stake, including whether a company creates jobs to bolster the economy and uses sustainable materials in its product design, Yet, of the six top ethical issues Just Capital ranks, four directly impact the workforce. People are now central to every company. Enterprise organizations that make their people a priority tend to do better business overall.
How much better? Well, for one metric, they have an average 4.5% higher profit margin. And the Just 100 companies also typically provide nine more hours of development training per employee than companies that did not make the list.
In other words, simply increasing the volume and quality of your employee training is one way to be a more ethically-minded employer.
How VR tackles ethical issues in business
Creating more effective training methods is one way that VR offers enterprise L&D organizations an immediate ethics boost. But the content of the actual training can also help ensure a company is meeting the ethical expectations of both its customers and its workforce.
The ethics of DEI
Diversity, ethics, and inclusion (DEI) is an area in which many companies lag — often because they lack the training mechanisms to effectively improve. VR training is highly applicable to DEI efforts.
VR supports inclusive workplace training by offering learners the opportunity to practice navigating potential on-the-job scenarios in a way that feels real and builds in the opportunity for self-reflection. As BrainXchange puts it, the VR environment “is essentially a safe place to fail with unlimited do-overs,” making it useful for trying out the soft skills that employees need to master in order to treat customers and co-workers fairly — without the risks of trying and failing in a real-world environment.
Of course, without buy-in and representation at the leadership level, no company culture can effectively support DEI throughout the ranks. VR training is also highly effective for leadership.
Improving ethics with soft skills training
VR training gives learners the ability to explore emotional responses to likely workplace interactions within a safe virtual environment. Along with DEI training, VR training imparts better soft skills in terms of things like the ability to navigate difficult conversations and improve customer service tactics.
Making training itself more accessible to the neurodiverse or differently abled
The American workforce comes from a huge variety of backgrounds, experiences, and skill levels. There’s also a fair amount of diversity in the way people think and learn.
VR training makes the process of learning itself more accessible to people who struggle with traditional training methods such as reading, test-taking, and watching videos. For people who are neurodiverse (who tend to learn differently), VR is a much more embodied, engaging, and effective way to master new skills they’ll need on the job. In VR, rather than the pressure of a traditional type of test, people have simulated experience in the job they’re training for.
And for people with physical accessibility issues such as vision, hearing, or mobility issues, VR provides options because it inherently combines multiple ways of learning in one platform. In terms of hearing issues in particular, sign-language interpretation and real-time captioning for live training is expensive, scarce, and very hard to scale. With VR, closed captioning can easily be built into the narrative of the in-headset experience, as can visual or haptic cues for sounds in the simulated environment.
Keep in mind, though, that in an immersive learning environment, closed captioning isn’t as simple as it is in a regular video. There can be a lot more environmental stimuli competing for the learner’s attention, which can make it hard to concentrate on closed captions. Currently, Strivr works with the W3C Immersive Captions community group to set a standard for closed captioning in VR experiences.
Other ethical considerations in virtual reality
“People who design, develop, and deploy a computing artifact (hardware or software) are accountable for that artifact, and for the foreseeable effects of that artifact.”— Technology and Society
The philosophy of anticipatory technology ethics says it’s the job of technology designers to ensure the tools and software they make are ethically responsible — taking into account how they’ll be used not just in the short term but in the far future, and what kinds of impacts the technology will have on society and the environment. VR is a fundamentally new medium, currently being defined in its use, so those leading the vanguard have a responsibility to ensure it’s developed in ways that are ultimately ethical.
One thing to consider is how VR headsets are manufactured and disposed of. For instance, disposal plastic VR headsets might seem like a sanitary solution to people averse to sharing, but how responsible would that practice ultimately be in terms of environmental sustainability?
These are the types of things enterprise organizations and VR learning companies are taking into consideration as we design the ethical future of VR, Immersive Learning, and, ultimately, business.
Read more about this subject in Accessibility and inclusion for VR training experiences and Cultural Immersion training to counter diversity fatigue.