by Phillip Motley

As Elon University’s newest Center for Engaged Learning Scholar, I am embarking on a two-year study of what constitutes “immersive learning” in higher education. I have been interested in this topic for quite a while, although I don’t think I’ve always thought of it as immersive learning. Over the next two years I will investigate immersive learning in a variety of ways: what it is; what known approaches to teaching and learning are involved; where we typically find it being implemented; and, perhaps most significantly, what value it has in our efforts to best teach students.

So, starting with the obvious, what exactly constitutes immersive learning? Searching for a definition of immersion in a teaching and learning context yields something similar to this definition from Merriam-Webster:

Instruction based on extensive exposure to surroundings or conditions that are native or pertinent to the object of study; Especially: foreign language instruction in which only the language being taught is used (learned French through immersion).

If you do a quick web search beyond a strict definition, then you will likely find references to study abroad programs or further reference to what is generally considered to be one of the most effective methods for deeply learning a foreign language. Digging further beyond those two possibilities, it quickly becomes less clear what is—and isn’t—immersive learning. My own investigation at this point leads me to believe that perhaps there isn’t currently an established and reliable definition, or even description, of exactly what immersive learning is. Given that, trying to figure out what immersive learning really is seems like a good topic for deeper exploration. 

I am headed into my eleventh year teaching at Elon in the university’s School of Communications where I get to teach both undergraduate and graduate students. Over the last ten years, I have utilized several pedagogies that I now believe should be considered immersive learning. In several of my courses, I have taught service-learning projects in the community that surrounds our university. I have led short-term study abroad courses that incorporate service-learning projects conducted internationally. My experiences teaching courses that involve experiences where students can immerse themselves in another culture, even if only for a short period of time, while working on projects that are germane to their career aspirations leads me to believe that the authentic nature of this type of experience is significant for student learning. More recently, I have been involved with an immersive semester program that focuses on social innovation strategies using design thinking tools and methodologies. This program asks students to commit a full semester’s worth of courses to a singular program located on campus, but deeply embedded in community work. 

Ultimately, regardless of what can be readily packaged and labeled as immersive learning—and what cannot—will, I believe, be sorted out. More importantly, and likely more challenging, will be to figure out what value immersive learning brings to our endeavors as teachers and to our students as learners. Is there something about an immersive learning structure that is in some way better that other pedagogies? Is there something to be learned and borrowed from the approaches that foreign language educators have used for many years? My hope is that I can provide some answers, or at least add to the discourse, about the ways in which immersion can enhance learning a topic or skill. To that end, I welcome input in the form of ideas, strategies, questions, and comments. If you use immersive learning techniques in your work in the academy, even if you don’t or haven’t yet considered your approaches to be immersive, I would love to hear from you, so please reach out.

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. 2019, July 26. What is Immersive Learning? [Blog Post]. Retrieved from