People learn best when they are active participants in the learning experience. To achieve the best learning outcomes we need to build experiences that immerse the learners in environments and scenarios that make them active participants.

Many past and current training initiatives fail to immerse learners. Role plays in face-to-face workshops don’t provide the realism required, many eLearning courses fail dismally only immersing the learner in a ‘click next’ experience and real-life immersive situations are too dangerous for learners to engage with or too difficult to replicate at the point of training (could you imagine failing a CPR exam on a real patient?). However, with improvements in technology (which is only getting better) we now have the capabilities to create effective immersive learning experiences that provide so many benefits.

Technology now provides us with the tools to create immersive virtual environments, that can engage the skills and knowledge of learners as well as the senses of sight, sound (and in some cases) touch.

What is an immersive learning environment?

Virtual worlds are often the first thought when immersive learning is mentioned. However, immersive learning environments can incorporate a number of mediums including augmented reality, simulations, games in addition to the virtual worlds.

The benefits

An immersive learning experience can more quickly move individuals towards the mastery of skills. The immersive environment can allow for the learner to be placed in a simulation of their real working environment. They can practice their skills and apply knowledge to a range of situations, some of which they may not be readily exposed to in real world training.

Learners can practice, and receive instruction, in a safe environment. They can progress at a pace that suits them. The safe environment means the learner does not have the concerns of injury or accident when practicing. They can fail safely and receive feedback on how to improve in the future.

Because of the realistic and immersive nature of the virtual environment, learners can develop an emotional connection to the learning experience. This emotional connection will increase the opportunity for the transfer of learning into the real-world environment.

Joost Uitdewilligen in his TedX talk ‘I Am You. How Immersive Learning Can Help Us All’ discusses how you can develop empathy in learners through virtual learning environments. He talks about how people’s empathy can be limited based on their own experiences. By immersing people in an environment, or putting them in another person’s shoes (virtually), you can educate them and allow them to develop empathy for the other person.

Factors required of an immersive environment

There are four key factors to consider when developing an immersive learning experience.

Provide a visually rich and realistic environment

To have a strong impact on the learner’s psyche, to make them think they are there, you need to provide a visually rich and realistic environment. It is not only having the environment look as authentic as possible to complete the learning task, but also incorporate other experiences and objects that deepen the immersion. I recall one of my first immersive learning experiences, photocopying documents in a virtual environment. On my desk, with many other objects, was a ball. It had nothing to do with the learning experience. The ball was an insignificant object that did not need to be there or require me to interact with it to complete my learning task. However, I could interact with it. I picked it up, and as you do with a ball, I threw it across the virtual office. This simple experience of picking up the ball, throwing it and watching it move through the air like a real ball, deepened my experience in the environment.

Adapted from Koreen Olbrish Pagano, Immersive Learning: Designing for Authentic Practice.

Storytelling

To create a strong emotional connection to the experience, you need to incorporate effective storytelling. Stories provide an effective way to engage learners with the content. A good story can be used to provide some context around the topic, to provide some characters that people can relate to.

“Stories have the ability to encapsulate, into one compact package, information, knowledge, context and emotion”. (Norman)

Stories provide an immersive learning experience, making learning more memorable and fun. People always remember a good story, therefore will have a higher retention of the content covered. Incorporating the use of imagery, animation and sound to tell the story create a user experience that is even more memorable.

Give up control

For an authentic and engaging immersive experience you need to give up control. The learner must be free to explore the environment in their own way. You can control what they see and the feedback they receive, but control on how and when they engage with the content must be relinquished. If we sent a learner into a library or other real life room to find content we would not have control. The same must occur in a virtual immersive environment.

Fail safely

By giving up control we allow learners to explore how and when they want. During this time we must provide an environment that allows them to fail safely. The immersive environment is perfect for this as they can undertake dangerous tasks, make risky decisions and see the impact without the fear of injury or accident. Learning through failure provides an effective learning experience that can support the learner into the real-world environment.

An active participant in an immersive learning experience will retain more information and develop knowledge and skills quicker. One could argue that the end result would then better learning, better outcomes and better returns.

Consider how your next learning experience can be made immersive.

This article originally appeared in Training & Development magazine October 2017 Vol 44 No 5, published by the Australian Institute of Training and Development.

References

Kapp K, 2008, Advantages of Immersive Learning http://karlkapp.com/advantages-of-immersive-learning/

Norman D, 1993, Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, MA.

Olbrish Pagano K, 2013, Immersive Learning: Designing for Authentic Practice, ASTD Press, Alexandria VA.

Uitdewilligen J, 2015, I Am You. How Immersive Learning Can Help Us All. TEDxAmsterdamED http://tedxamsterdamed.nl/talk/joost-uitdewilligen