Immersive Learning Environments: From Physical to Virtual and Back Again
Many of us first experienced immersive learning environments when we walked into our first school classroom. This was the domain of the teacher who had an intuitive understanding of the value of an immersive learning environment and took the liberty of filling the blank canvas of classroom walls and shelves with age-appropriate illustrations, models and photographs — even the occasional class pet — to engage students in a broad range of educational subjects. This approach became so common, so expected that the educational value of immersive learning environments was accepted naturally.
Digital technologies gave rise to a new form of immersive learning environment, virtual immersive learning environments that, unlike the seemingly effortless origins of their physical classroom forbears, are intentionally engineered to mimic physical reality. Virtual immersive learning environments are so dominant today that they are widely identified by a simple acronym — ILE. ILEs are used for training purposes because virtual immersive environments offer a safe, efficient and inclusive way for individuals to learn and apply new skills that can then be applied in the real world.
The increasing prevalence and feasibility of virtual immersive learning environments has given rise to studies that did not exist before about the value of immersion to education. One study described the aim of learning as becoming so genuinely and totally absorbed in an activity that time is perceived to pass very fast. Such an immersive cognitive state has been shown to be very effective for learning. Studies of virtual immersive learning seem to confirm what grade school teachers intuitively understood — that immersive learning environments positively affect learning. This is stimulating new thinking about the value of creating immersive learning environments in schools.
Total immersion may be possible virtually, but it is not feasible in a school. Even if it were, it could not address some important educational principles as well as an actual physical environment. For example, school is a place for in-person student/student, student/educator and educator/educator collaborations that are essential to differentiated learning strategies.
Another principle of differentiated learning is that learning happens outside of the classroom. Traditionally, the design of common school areas has prioritized durability and maintenance over education-friendly environments. This is changing as learning strategies evolve and some creative common school environments are being built. But aside from the occasional school library, there has been little in the way of truly immersive learning environments outside the classroom.
One successful example that may be a model for others is a recently designed science center for middle school students. The school recognized that about a quarter of its middle school students had an aptitude for and innate interest in science, that another quarter of its students might not ever, and that the remaining fifty percent might if they were more naturally engaged by the subject. The school’s leadership and faculty understood this as an unmet challenge that reputation demanded be corrected.
Finding a solution began by deconstructing the existing science curriculum, which ran from the biological sciences through physics. Considering science curriculum sequencing from a student’s point of view, faculty began to see physics as a more logical building block towards other sciences and decided to flip the sequencing. This fundamental shift in thinking unlocked other creative thinking about science education, particularly with respect to educational environments.
Science classrooms themselves were reexamined and restructured to include zones for collaboration and individual experimentation that fostered differentiated learning. But it was the common areas between science classrooms that were fundamentally reconsidered to form a new science center that became the heart of the science curriculum.
The school’s science center is an immersive learning environment in the spirit of traditional elementary school classrooms, but more mature and communal in nature. It is rooted in serious science concepts but has a playful character, uncharacteristic of traditional science learning environments, that naturally engages that middle fifty percent of students who are open to but not effectively engaged in science education.
The science center is a model differentiated learning environment. It is divided programmatically into areas that address a broad range of science topics. From the student’s perspective, the variety of interactive activities appears almost random, which fosters individual curiosity and allows students to find a learning path natural to them. From the faculty’s perspective, the apparent variety has been carefully curated to reinforce curriculum goals.
Differentiated learning has required a new degree of collaboration among teachers to address the broad bandwidth of student learning paths. The results to date have been mostly limited to the classroom or to one entire grade level. Creating immersive learning environments outside the classroom raises the bar on faculty collaboration for several reasons. One is that these environments cut across grade levels and so must be relevant to a broader student, faculty and, perhaps, parent audience. Another is that they tend to be more permanent in nature and so the content of these environments must be carefully curated to address enduring educational goals.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to implementing common area immersive learning environments is the consensus building it requires among faculty and administration. Classroom immersive learning environments are commonplace because they are within the control of a single teacher. Common area immersive learning environments require a shared view among educators about curriculum, content and, ultimately, about design. Consensus of this sort is hard-won and any compromises made in the planning stages for the sake of consensus have a way of showing through in the executed design. This challenge is probably why common area immersive environments to date have tended towards school boosterism and the temporary display of student work.
What common areas lend themselves to immersive learning environments? Like the middle school science center, common areas between classrooms dedicated to a specific subject lend themselves to immersive content development. Stairways offer good opportunity because they are dynamic, well used by students and are dedicated to single function that will not change over time. Spaces that are multifunctional do not because it is hard to develop immersive content for changing environments.
Science and math education may more easily lend itself to the consensus building required of immersive learning environments because it deals with content that is by nature objective and enduring. The current emphasis on science and math education as a key to our collective future can be seen to reinforce the prioritization of these types of immersive learning environments. And just as STEM led to STEAM, it is also easy to envision complementary arts related immersive learning environments.
For Digital Natives born during or after the introduction of digital technologies, virtual immersive environments are a reality, one that often competes with real environments, including school, for their attention. Fantasy worlds associated with gaming and entertainment overshadow our perception of virtual immersive environments because they are culturally dominant. But studies confirming the value of virtual immersive environments like ILEs used for training purposes are leading to a reconsideration of an old idea — the school immersive learning environment. A symbiotic relationship between the design of physical and virtual learning environments has developed that will continue to inform the future of school design.