Over the course of the last year, I have collected 54 interviews with higher education faculty and staff, from fifteen separate institutions, all of whom are involved with immersive learning in some capacity. I haven’t done this work alone; I have six collaborators from the United States, Canada, and Australia: Beth Archer-Kuhn, University of Calgary; Catharine Dishke, Thompson Rivers University; Jennifer Dobbs-Oates, Purdue University; Michelle Eady, University of Wollongong; Janel Seeley, University of Wyoming; and Rosemary Tyrrell, University of California-Riverside. We also have survey responses from over 70 participants that describe views on immersive pedagogies. We are now in the midst of analyzing this large repository of data.

I am going to use this blog post to share some initial impressions of the collected data. The survey instrument asked a wide range of questions about immersive learning in the attempt to ascertain involvement with the pedagogy, disciplines in which it is used, the benefits of, challenges to, and supports for immersive learning, and how immersive learning might be assessed. The 70-plus responses provided a wealth of information and have given us a good sense of what types of practices are most often associated with immersion. The survey data has enabled us to develop an interview protocol that we could use to delve deeper into specific practices—and reasons for using them—that faculty members in a variety of disciplines across the academy have implemented.

The interviews lasted anywhere from 30-60 minutes on average and asked participants a variety of questions, including the following:

  • Are you aware of immersive learning as a pedagogy and, if so, how would you describe it?
  • Do you believe that any of your regular teaching practices are unique, and do you consider any to involve immersive learning approaches?
  • What practices are you aware of that might involve immersive learning in some capacity?
  • What learning benefits might accrue from immersive pedagogies?
  • What are your perceptions of challenges that exist to implementing immersive learning practices?
  • What supports might be available or desirable for instructors wanting to incorporate immersion into their teaching?

The resulting transcripts reveal a wide-ranging interpretation of what immersive learning is and the various places we find it within higher education contexts. We weren’t surprised by some of what we learned about immersive practices: for example, learning to speak Spanish or Japanese through a home-stay study away experience has been and still is considered to be an immersive approach to language learning. Many interviews, on the other hand, reveal a depth and nuance about how immersion is built into courses, programs, and other learning experiences as a core construct of the discipline. One example is the multiple ways that health sciences curricula include clinical practicum experiences as a significant component of the overall learning strategy. Many of the pedagogies and practices that were revealed in the interviews are referred to and discussed without ever describing a particular practice as being immersive. It’s both exciting to know that there is quite a bit of immersive learning happening at the higher education level and frustrating that a lot of it exists using different language and terms.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when instructors were asked if they considered aspects of their teaching unique, many stated “yes.” Fewer were willing to label their practices as being immersive, at least initially — likely because “immersive learning” just isn’t that common of a term in higher education. Some interviewees weren’t entirely sure how to define immersive learning, even if they had come across the concept previously. However, as most of the interviews progressed, many participants grew to the idea of immersive learning, either in relation to their own practices or as a concept that made sense relative to the broader context of their institution or the work of colleagues. For example, for faculty who don’t teach study away courses, it wasn’t a stretch to consider how students traveling to and studying in another country or location might involve some degree of immersion in a cultural context different from that of their normal life experiences.

Responses to questions asking how immersive learning might be defined were varied. Further analysis should allow us to determine the areas of greatest overlap and consensus. For now, some characteristics that appear frequently deal with ideas that, at least in part, relate to my evolving definition of immersive learning: the significance of student autonomy and agency; authentic engagement and “real world” utility including hands-on experiences and connections to professional outcomes; practices that allow for sustained, continuous, and deep connections to the learning context; and teaching strategies that are more often facilitation of learning, rather than direct instruction. Participants’ responses about the benefits of immersive learning were equally, if not more, varied than those about how it might be defined. Our future publications will offer deeper insight into the defining characteristics, as well as the benefits, of immersive learning.

When we look at where we find specific examples of immersive learning within higher education, responses point to descriptions of well-known practices including the following:

  • study abroad/away;
  • community-based learning practices including, but not limited to:
  • service-learning;
  • internships and other forms of work-integrated learning;
  • specific approaches to language learning;
  • and field-based research.

Some responses deal with practices that are very specific to a particular discipline: for example, the use of simulated scenarios and standardized patients within medical schools; or teacher education practices that are often viewed as student teaching by those outside the discipline but appear to be much more nuanced than any single approach can capture to those participating in that type of immersive learning. Other responses further the idea that immersion may be a key ingredient in connecting disparate high-impact practices, for example, international or global service-learning.

As we dig deeper into our survey and interview data, we believe a highly nuanced picture of immersive learning will emerge. My collaborators and I look forward to sharing a more detailed dive into these results in our future publications.

Phillip Motley, Associate Professor of Communication Design, is the 2019-2021 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Motley’s CEL scholar project focuses on immersive learning experiences.

Motley, Phillip. (2021, April). Initial Views on Research Data about Immersive Learning [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/initial-views-on-research-data-about-immersive-learning.