Dr. Gregg Collins and Sapnesh Lalla: Pushing the boundaries with an Immersive Approach to Learning

Dr. Gregg Collins

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The world will keep changing and there will always be new challenges. The important thing is to learn from them and be prepared to face the new challenges that the future will bring,” says Sapnesh Lalla (CEO at NIIT Limited). Sapnesh, along with Dr. Gregg Collins (Chief Learning Scientist at NIIT Limited) are two of the best-known leaders in the AR/VR industry and have contributed greatly to NIIT’s strong growth in recent years.

Commencement of the Journey

Sapnesh was an Electronics and Telecommunication engineer from Bangalore University, and completed his Executive Education at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan. He started his career in computer programming and software before his friend who worked at NIIT approached him. Impressed by the experience, leadership, and global ambition of NIIT, he joined the company. In his nearly 30-year career with NIIT, Sapnesh performed a variety of different roles including program and project management, sales and business development, and management and leadership roles. “It’s been a fascinating and incredibly rewarding experience and, in some ways, it feels like it’s just begun,” he adds.

Gregg, on the other hand, started in artificial intelligence. For his PhD at Yale he originally studied human learning as a vehicle to try to understand how computers might be programmed to learn more effectively, an experience that helped him see the flaws in traditional classroom-based training. As the adoption of digital technology was on a rise, he co-founded Cognitive Arts along with some colleagues at Northwestern University, with the aim of creating simulated worlds online in which learners could have almost any learning experience that could happen in real life, but safely, securely, and efficiently. The company gained ground in a very short period of time; however, the dot com crash of 2002 scuttled its investment plans, causing it to seek an experienced, stable company to acquire it.

Consequently, NIIT acquired Cognitive Arts in 2002, and Gregg was appointed as NIIT’s Head of Design, and eventually the Chief Learning Scientist. At NIIT, he has continued to pursue the same vision that motivated him originally. Together with the co-founders of NIIT, Sapnesh and Gregg have been helping to push the envelope of learning science and learning technology ever since.

All-in-one Immersive Digital Training

NIIT Ltd. is a global leader in skills and talent development, offering broad-based education and training solutions to corporations, institutions, and individuals in over 30 countries. The company was established in 1981, when two engineering graduates from the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi realized that the primary obstacle to an IT revolution in India would be the need to create a skilled workforce. NIIT went global within a decade of its inception and has since expanded its business to include the delivery of training and training–related services to Fortune and Global 500 companies in over 30 countries.

The company leverages immersive digital training approaches which include VR, AR, gaming, and simulation. This innovative approach projects learners into realistic situations, confronts them with the kinds of challenges that might occur on the job, for them to make decisions in the face of these challenges, and provide realistic feedback as a consequence of those decisions. Gregg believes that when these experiential technologies are combined appropriately, it results in a super-effective learning experience that is so engaging that learners often want to keep interacting with the learning environment even after completing their formal training requirements.

Pedagogical Approach to Immersive Learning

I think what distinguishes us is that we have a strong pedagogical approach to immersive learning,” asserts Sapnesh. He continuously seeks learning models that produce better outcomes faster. He believes that the process of learning is like accelerating a relevant experience and is always interested in finding ways to make this process more efficient and effective. Moreover, NIIT has a team of highly experienced Triple-A gaming professionals in its studio in England, who have worked on big-budget Hollywood productions and high-end games.

Sapnesh adds that this combination of a highly-experienced and technical team with a sound instructional design philosophy gives NIIT an edge to produce these better outcomes faster. Alongside this approach, NIIT’s philosophy of combined growth is one of the major drivers of its success. As CEO, Sapnesh’s role is to ensure that everyone grows. He asserts that there is nothing they can’t achieve if they work as a team. “Our role as NIITians is to ensure that we always put our customers first and that we give them the best possible value from their learning outcomes by helping them run training like a business,” he added.

Pivoting to Digital

The COVID-19 pandemic caused havoc among a majority of industries around the world. The L&D industry too was under the pump as the majority of corporate training took place in physical classrooms when the pandemic hit. As classrooms have shut down, digital has become the new normal. Sapnesh adds that this has led to a profound realignment within the L&D world, driven by three major shifts —Portfolio Transformation, L&D Prioritization and Allocation of Resources, and Short-Term Planning Cycles for Demand and Supply.

NIIT launched its research on Adaptive Learning Organizations with Josh Bersin Academy in January, which was way before the pandemic hit. With COVID, Sapnesh believes that it has become even more important to share the findings of NIIT’s research that involved senior learning leaders from over 100 organizations.

As an organization, NIIT was able to quickly and safely pivot to a 100% work from home model. It replaced physical classrooms with virtual ones within a short period of time. Moreover, it set up a COVID-19 response task force in early March and launched a microsite with actionable toolkits for its customers. The company helped many of its customers pivot to digital while managing business continuity across all customers and geographies. Moreover, despite the increased workload, the team found ways to work and stay connected across time zones. NIIT’s HR teams were instrumental in organizing everything virtually– from fitness challenges to cooking challenges and even a ‘bring your pet to work’ day.

Dr. Gregg Collins

Crisis creating Opportunities

Gregg believes that the pandemic has created an opportunity to make a change, and several organizations are capitalizing on the opportunities by leveraging digital technologies such as AR and VR. He is optimistic about the fact the crisis will get learners out of classrooms and into immersive worlds that engage their natural learning mechanisms to deliver engaging and super-effective learning events. “We’ve learned that an awful lot of what used to happen in classrooms can be carried out a lot more efficiently online without much loss of impact,” said Gregg.

At the same time, Sapnesh asserts, the pandemic has presented an opportunity to prepare the talent for the future. He adds that organizations will need a workforce that is agile, innovative, and resilient to ensure success in the post-pandemic world. According to him, the high-performance organizations will also need to push for building new competencies at a business-unit level or engage in company-wide digital transformation initiatives. Upholding the crucial role of learning leaders, he said, “At this time, across the globe, every learning leader should focus on building competencies to help build from a workforce that not only takes charge but also meets the needs of the new normal.”

VR and AR: Wave of the Future

Gregg believes that as a result of rapidly evolving technology and the COVID-related events, the corporate learning sector is on the verge of a huge transformation, and that immersive technologies including VR and AR are the wave of the future. “I can see a day coming when we stop doing classroom-based learning, stop teaching by telling, stop with all the boring and irrelevant page-turning e-learning, stop with the PowerPoint slides, and the bullet points and the rest of it,” he adds.

Sapnesh too is excited about the infinite possibilities in the immersive learning space from wearables to artificial intelligence. He adds that learner experience and engagement will be the key focus area for NIIT. The company will continue investments in technology in the gamification, real-time 3D, and the virtual world space as well as its engagement and analytics portal along with mobile apps. It is committed to increasing value-add for its clients by strengthening and expanding its consultancy and advisory services and will continue to remain laser-focused on learning outsourcing services and accelerating its growth rate. Currently, there is a gap between being educated and being job-ready. In the near future, Sapnesh and Gregg aim to bridge that gap with NIIT’s innovative solutions.

“Keep Going”

Sapnesh says that in the face of the pandemic, the world no choice but to keep going. Addressing the success mantra of NIIT, he said that during the pandemic, the team focused on what’s important and kept going to keep its heads above the water. Being an eternal optimist, he advises the young entrepreneurs —“Change is around the corner–we just have to keep making our way through the rough patches.”

Dr. Gregg Collins

Read More: The 10 Ingenious AR-VR Leaders 2020

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