In short order, I’ll have collected close to 25 interviews with colleagues who are involved in some way with immersive learning. Most of the interviews are with Elon faculty and staff, but a few are from colleagues at other institutions. As I reflect on the data that I’ve collected so far, I feel like I am rapidly approaching an inflection point in my research. Actually, maybe two.
What I am learning from my colleagues has been very valuable and is helping me understand the many places on Elon’s campus—and beyond—where immersion is a key aspect of the teaching practices used to help our students learn.

The first one looks like this: Soon I will have close to 20 hours of transcribed interviews and I am not sure when I will have enough. What I am learning from my colleagues has been very valuable and is helping me understand the many places on Elon’s campus—and beyond—where immersion is a key aspect of the teaching practices used to help our students learn. Along the way, I’ve been able to make connections that seem obvious to me now, but didn’t a couple of weeks ago. One example is the similarity between the student teaching practices that happen in the School of Education in partnership with the local public school system and the clinical education training that takes place in the School of Health Sciences through placements in local clinics and hospitals. The teaching and learning practices being used in both schools are, in my view, excellent examples of how immersive education can be woven into a curriculum such that they become part and parcel of a program: an integral aspect of a program’s purpose and identity. And, while I believe that both schools at Elon offer exemplar programs in this regard, it’s important to point out that programs in education and the health sciences broadly embrace immersive learning practices in various ways (see this University of Washington/WWAMI — Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho — School of Medicine program for a unique approach to immersive learning).

Elon’s School of Health Sciences is currently made up of two graduate programs: Doctorate in Physical Therapy and Physician Assistant Studies. So far, I have interviewed one faculty member from Physical Therapy and two from the PA program. In those interviews, I learned about practical approaches to teaching that incorporate hands-on, situated learning activities where some of the most valuable and useful experiences are the ones that are the most authentic, where students are asked to examine real patients to learn about making a diagnosis or determine relevant care plans or therapies. I also interviewed faculty members in the School of Education and learned about student teaching practices and the scaffolded approach that is used to immerse a prospective teacher candidate into the real-world of public school K-12 education. Student teaching practices seem, at least from an outsider perspective, like they are similar in terms of objectives and general approach to clinical placements in the health sciences.

As I headed into an interview with my first School of Education colleague, I believed that I would learn about immersive practices, but the descriptions of the up-close and unpredictable experiences of many student teachers sounded a lot like what I heard from my Health Science colleagues. Sometimes what is experienced by students in these real-world settings is emergent and unexpected. This observation left me wondering if I need to more deeply explore the many practices that my Australian and Canadian colleagues refer to collectively as WIL, short for Work Integrated Learning (see Ontario’s A Practical Guide for Work-Integrated Learning and the Australian Collaborative Education Network). I’ve reached out to internship program directors at Elon to explore the immersive qualities of that kind of experience, and am thinking that I need to speak with colleagues who are involved with field research. But what about other WIL experiences, especially if they are ones that aren’t currently in place at Elon?  Should I venture beyond Elon’s campus to explore programs in nursing or medicine where clinical practicums are part and parcel of the educational process? Or, what about co-op programs that are often options for students studying engineering or computer science? I am learning a lot from the interviews I’ve captured so far, but many of them are pushing me to consider disciplines, programs, and initiatives that weren’t initially on my radar. Where do I draw the line?

The other inflection point that I am confronting probably isn’t that unusual: it’s the large and, seemingly, growing body of literature relevant to my investigation. Similar to the data collection and interview process, the more I explore literature that speaks to immersive learning, the more I seem to find. Some of the literature I have encountered so far relates to fields that I expected or was already somewhat familiar with like service-learning or global education; other bodies of information have either been unexpected or are areas that I just don’t know as much about. For example, resources on experiential and engaged learning by authors like David Kolb were expected; discovering the work of Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger on situated learning was new information for me. I expected to find valuable information on study abroad and also service-learning / community engaged learning. However, although I’ve taught international service-learning (ISL) courses and have also published in this area, specifically focusing my research on immersive learning showed me that there is a small but significant body of work on ISL that relates directly to immersion as a pedagogy.

Whether or not what I’ve described amounts to separate points of inflection on my research, or simply two aspects of the same challenge, the real question is where do I go from here? The literature review seems like the more manageable challenge; at some point I should have a good overview of what’s been written about immersive learning and a mapping of where it comes from. Knowing when to stop collecting interview data seems less straightforward. Each interview that I conduct leads to ideas for others. Most of what I’ve collected to date has been from colleagues at Elon, but the opportunities to ask questions of colleagues at other institutions is huge. Do I go there? And, if I do, am I turning on a firehose of data? When would I turn it off? How much will be enough? Thankfully I have access to helpful resources including the SoTL Guide, created by Nancy Chick when she was at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching (with her updated version here), or the wealth of SoTL-related material gathered here on the Center for Engaged learning’s website to help me determine when enough is enough.

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, May 8. Research on Immersive Learning: How to Know When Enough is Enough? [Blog Post]. Retrieved from