Defining the Characteristics of Immersive Learning

written by admin on March 10, 2020 in CEL Scholar and Doing EL and Engaged Learning and Immersive Learning with no comments

by Phillip Motley

Attempting to fully define the characteristics of immersive learning is a distinct challenge. What pedagogies count and which ones don’t? Is there a specific line in the sand that demarcates what is and isn’t immersive learning, and if so, where exactly is that line? How does immersive learning fit into definitions of High-Impact Practices (HIPs), distinct pedagogies described by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) as being significant approaches to deep and sustained learning for college students. Immersive learning isn’t currently included as one of the eleven high-impact practices, but I would argue that immersive learning is a characteristic of many of them.

For example, service-learning/community-based learning is one of the eleven HIPs. According to a 2008 AAC&U publication written by George Kuh, “In these programs, field-based ‘experiential learning’ with community partners is an instructional strategy—and often a required part of the course. The idea is to give students direct experience with issues they are studying in the curriculum and with ongoing efforts to analyze and solve problems in the community.” In terms of immersion, the key part of this quote is “direct experience with issues they are studying in the curriculum.” According to Lave and Wenger (1991), learning is situated and is embedded in authentic environments, activities, and contexts. Immersive learning practices do just that: they get students as close as possible to the situated context that the curriculum and content of a course is concerned with. If students are studying economics, then having them work with community organizations that address economic challenges in a particular community might prove to be a beneficial way to make the content of the course authentic, and not abstract or simulated. 

The AAC&U language that describes Internships, another of the eleven HIPs, says the following: “Internships are another increasingly common form of experiential learning.The idea is to provide students with direct experience in a work setting—usually related to their career interests—and to give them the benefit of supervision and coaching from professionals in the field.” Again, the key point here in terms of immersion is the focus on “direct experience;” in this case it’s within a setting situated to relate explicitly to students’ career goals.

So, similar to the concept of providing students with opportunities to have direct experiences (what I am defining below as “situated learning” with all due credit to Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger) with relevant issues, locations, problems, and/or people, how might we best define the key characteristics of immersive learning? Put another way, what does immersive learning look like and how do we know it when we experience it? As a thought exercise, and as a way of development, I propose the following characteristics, not as conclusive or in any way complete, but for consideration—a starting point for future further refinement.

  • Degree of focus: The dedicated amount of attention a student is able to engage with a specific learning objective, task, or assignment relative to competing concerns.
  • Time on task: The allotted time for dedicated student engagement with a learning activity, which could be measured in terms of physical time, credit hours, or another metric.
  • Situated learning: The level of direct and tangible experience with authentic tasks and within real-world learning contexts.
  • Amount of agency and autonomy: The amount of ownership afforded to students over their process of learning.
  • Continuity of learning: The frequency and persistence of a learning experience.

In order for a specific practice to be included in a definition of immersive learning, there needs to be a set of explicit criteria that captures what is and isn’t a characteristic. Furthermore, characteristics of immersive learning shouldn’t be fixed, binary definitions that demonstrate that a practice does or does not fit the description. Instead, any characteristic that defines immersion in the context of learning might be better viewed as a continuum that represents the amount or intensity of that component. For example, relative to a specific practice:

  • How strong is the degree of focus the practice provides learners? or
  • How much autonomy and sense of agency are students afforded by the practice? or
  • How authentic is the situated learning context of the practice?

In this light, it might be possible to quantify the degree or intensity of immersive learning for any specific practice. An approach that “scores” high on several of the defined characteristics might then equate to a highly immersive learning experience. On the other hand, some experiences may only achieve a high score for a single characteristic, which may then mean that those experiences offer a lesser degree of immersion in terms of student learning.

At this point in my exploration, I am not sure if these five characteristics are the right ones, or whether or not they capture the full extent of what immersive learning may define. I do, however, think that they are a good starting point for consideration and refinement. 


  • Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger. 1991. Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge university press.
  • Kuh, George. D. 2008. High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities.


Phillip Motley, associate professor of communication design, is the 2019-2021 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. His CEL Scholar project focuses on immersive learning.


How to Cite this Post:

Motley, Phillip. (2020, March 10). Defining the Characteristics of Immersive Learning [Blog Post]. Retrieved from