Interviewing teaching faculty about the pedagogies they use in their courses has been one of my primary methods of collecting data for my exploration of immersive learning practices in higher education. With each interview, I learn more about the range and richness of experiences provided by faculty across a variety of disciplines and approaches to instruction. Although I don’t believe that specific labels or descriptions should be the primary concern, I am increasingly taking note of the nuances and subtle differences in the language used to describe pedagogies and practices.

By way of example, I offer two recent experiences: one an interview with a colleague and one related to recent work I’ve been involved with through my new role as Elon’s Faculty Fellow for Service-Learning and Community Engagement. During a recent interview with a faculty member who teaches in the Public Health Studies major at Elon, I learned about courses in the program designated as service-learning experiences and others that are defined as practicum experiences. As practicum isn’t a term typically used in the disciplines in which I teach (communication design and interactive media), I asked my colleague to explain how those courses are both similar to and different from each other. (For a thorough description of both in the context of Work Integrated Learning, see Chapter 2 of “A Practical Guide for Work-integrated Learning” produced by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.) What I learned is that in many ways the experiences aren’t substantially different from each other, at least not on the surface.

Public Health practicum courses implement community engaged pedagogies in very similar ways to the courses in the program designated as service-learning. The primary difference appears to come down to the timing of their delivery. Public Health courses designated as service-learning experiences are delivered in either the fall or spring semesters. A student who enrolls in one of these courses would take it alongside other courses and must fit the learning activities—classroom- and community-based—into their weekly schedule of competing demands, assignments, and deadlines. In other words, service-learning courses in the Public Health Studies major are normally taken in conjunction with three to four other courses in a specific semester.

Practicum courses in Public Health, on the other hand, are delivered using similar pedagogies, but are only offered during Elon’s winter or summer terms so that the course is the only academic experience the student is signed up for. Though shorter in overall length (in terms of days), winter term and summer courses typically meet every day of the week for longer periods of time, which equates to a more intense learning environment. Students enrolled in practicum courses don’t have the competing demands and distractions that seem likely in a 15-week semester involving multiple courses. Are the learning experiences afforded by the practicum course better than what occurs via the service-learning course? And, if so, in what ways? I don’t have a ready answer to either question, but it does occur to me that the two experiences have notable similarities and differences relative to my working definition of immersive learning as a set of continua that can be used to describe learning experiences as being immersive and, perhaps, to what extent. 

My other example involves discussions that I’ve been having recently with colleagues at Elon about how we describe community engaged learning experiences. At Elon, students are required to earn two Experiential Learning Requirements (ELR) before the graduate. ELR credits are awarded to students for completing a learning experience in one of five areas: global engagement, undergraduate research, internships, academic service-learning, and leadership. Courses that award an academic service-learning ELR credit are vetted by a committee for rigor and are then designated with “SL” in the course catalog for clarity during the course registration process. My colleagues’ and my discussions center on how to capture learning experiences that incorporate service-learning pedagogies but do not meet the required threshold for ELR designation. There is clear value in signaling the chance to earn an ELR for designated SL courses, but possibly there is also a missed opportunity with this structure in that we don’t formally recognize through a designation all of the other learning experiences that involve community engagement in some way. If the ELR credit isn’t the only thing of value in play in this system, and I don’t think anyone believes that, then do we need words, terms, or acronyms of some sort that can be used to further designate when community engagement is a significant aspect of how a course will be taught?

Given these examples, it seems possible to me that we need better methods to capture, quantify, and describe the types of learning experiences that we offer students that clearly communicate the ways in which they will learn. Regardless of the primary pedagogical approach and whether or not it crosses into territory related to immersive learning, it seems like the more explicit we can be in our descriptions, the easier it would be for students to find themselves engaged in learning experiences that best fit their needs. This line of thinking reminds me of the ongoing discussion that my colleagues in global education are having about what constitutes an international or global learning experience and what the real difference between study abroad and study away may be beyond the obvious one of a border crossing. The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have sharpened the focus on the discussion of location versus engagement as part of that conversation. I wonder what might motivate higher education to give serious attention to making the pedagogical nuances that are part of other experiential learning practices more explicit—in my particular case, ones that incorporate immersion.

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, November 16. “How We Describe Immersive Learning Experiences” [Blog Post]. Retrieved from