I was on sabbatical in the spring semester of 2019 and thus escaped much of the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic that affected students and teachers alike at Elon University and most other institutions of higher education. While my colleagues were frantically trying to figure out how to quickly shift their teaching from in-person to online modes of instruction, I was trying to keep my research into immersive learning pedagogies moving forward. Thankfully, many under-duress faculty members at Elon, and beyond, were willing to consent to an interview. Some probably said yes to my request as I was a brief distraction from the chaos of their abruptly modified day-to-day efforts to continue teaching their students, but via a distinctly different mode. Maybe some actually welcomed the opportunity to discuss their teaching and the ways in which they intentionally—or perhaps unintentionally—build immersive practices into their courses. Regardless, what I learned through these conversations was both fascinating and instructive. The pandemic may have inadvertently pointed me in some directions with my research that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.

Though I wasn’t teaching last spring, and thus wasn’t directly impacted, my sabbatical was disrupted by the global pandemic. I had several trips planned to other colleges and universities where I hoped to bear first-hand witness to immersive learning practices. Only two of those trips—to Colorado College and to Guilford College— actually happened before the COVID-19 doors closed on university travel. I also had plans to visit the University of Montana Western. My hope was to be able to compare and contrast institutions that use a block curriculum (one 3-4 week term after another) to teach their students: a private, liberal arts institution—Colorado College—with a public, regional university—Montana Western. What might be similar and different about the ways each institution implements a block curriculum structure and what benefits and challenges does doing so present to students and to faculty? My visit to Guilford College, our close neighbor to the west, was suggested by some of the people I met with at Colorado College. Guilford is straddling the line between a traditional semester system and block scheduling; they have recently implemented a 3/12 – 12/3 curriculum where each larger semester (three courses) is either preceded (fall) or followed (spring) by a single block course. I made it to Colorado College and Guilford, but not to Montana Western.

I also planned to visit the College of the Atlantic, a very small school in Bar Harbor, Maine that approaches higher education in multiple unique ways, many of which appear to be immersive. In September 2019, at the annual International Social Innovation Research Conference I met Jay Friedlander, a professor of sustainable business who teaches and mentors students enrolled in an innovative learning experience called the Hatchery. Students who are selected to participate in the Hatchery receive course credit and also professional development training, office space, and access to seed money to help fund their business ventures. This experience balances academic learning with authentic professional practice in a ten-week package.

I had plans to attend and present initial research on immersive learning at several conferences. Most of them have been canceled or have been substantially modified in order to be offered in a virtual format. I realize these changes and disruptions pale in comparison to the upheaval that my colleagues experienced when their courses were turned inside-out. Nonetheless, our new common adversary, COVID-19, had its impact on my research as well. However, as is often the case with challenges, there has been a silver lining to what initially seemed like a road block. Although my investigation into immersive learning pedagogies has been hampered by the pandemic, it has also forced me to reconsider how to go about conducting research and collecting data. My inability to interview faculty and staff in person about their experiences with immersive learning forced me to use web conferencing tools; in the case of Elon, one of the preferred tools is WebEx. Through some seemingly magical combination of WebEx and our classroom management platform, Moodle, I discovered that recorded meetings are automatically transcribed (thanks, William Moner). While they aren’t perfect transcriptions, they are 80-90% accurate and really only require cleaning up. More importantly, I was forced to reconsider how I was going to collect information when I couldn’t do so in person, especially relative to research trips I had planned. I decided to ramp up my efforts to collect interviews with faculty and staff at Elon and beyond. I also enlisted a handful of colleagues at other institutions who are collaborating with me on some of this work to do the same. The results are close to 50 interviews with faculty and staff at institutions in the US, Canada, and Australia. Going online with my interviews also opened the doors to faculty that I might not have considered otherwise. I met with Craig Teague, a chemistry professor at Cornell College in Iowa, an institution that also implements a block scheduled curriculum. Speaking with Professor Teague allowed me to triangulate some of the data that I collected on block curriculum from interviews with Tracy Freeman, the Executive Director of the Colket Center for Academic Excellence at Colorado College, and Rob Thomas, the Regents Professor of Geology in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Montana Western. I also met with Chrissy Kistler, a physician and associate professor of family medicine at the University of North Carolina to talk about the immersive pedagogies that have historically been an inherent component of medicine education through clinical practicum experiences. 

It seems possible that because the pandemic forced me to adopt an approach to data collection that I hadn’t anticipated, it enabled me to see my task and topic more holistically. Maybe I would have arrived at this same place anyway, but I do think the constraint on one end of the process may have opened up my thinking on the other end. So, while I wish for a rapid conclusion to the pandemic and the havoc it has created for all of us in so many ways, I am thankful that it opened some doors for my research that I might not have even seen otherwise.

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, September 10). “COVID-19: An Unexpected Adversary—and Ally—for Immersive Learning Research” [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/covid-19-an-unexpected-adversary-and-ally-for-immersive-learning-research