Immersion: When Media is Educational ☆

| February 16, 2019
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A ‘Ready Player One’ Dystopia

Sure, video games are immersive, but are they educational? Only to a very small extent. Educators have been pursuing the connections between immersive media like gaming and education for decades, but I want to offer another perspective: learners have to be suspended between being gamers and game-makers. Here’s a brief reflection on how that can happen…

Put Away the Video Games

Games are really only interesting in small doses. So if you’re going to use them for broader educational purpose, keep it short. This same advice applies to many other activities as well: hooks, icebreakers, brainstorms, research, and perhaps even reading. When it comes to ambitious learning goals, how long does it take until we get bored? Are all engaging educational experiences short in duration? (And is this a feature rather than a bug?)

If we contrast active and exciting learning experiences with more conventional lecture-style information delivery, let’s say the best experiences are the short ones. (Even traditional teacher-led experiences collapse after about 50 minutes, though there is evidence that more interaction is perceived as better.) Is formal education—educational experience that spirals and requires significant exposure to achieve significant recall—ever likely to permanently achieve the velocity to escape boredom for most students most of the time? It seems unlikely, but what if the answer was that it could

Dynamic Interventions

Teaching often begins with a presentation or a group activity—activities that help individuals explore new ideas while confronting factual information from experts or authoritative sources. A part of our jobs as “producers” in the Learning Theater is to bridge events (and our event partners) from the present into a better-designed-built-environment future.

In the past two years at EdLab, we have begun experimenting with what I will call “dynamic interventions.” These are generally small multimedia gestures that connect classroom activities:  a soundtrack, a light cue, an introductory video for an activity, or a background image. The Learning Theater has enabled us to manipulate the built environment in both subtle and dramatic ways during a face-to-face learning experiences. Using light, sound, video, props, and furnishings, we have built many multimedia experiences to enhance what began as more ordinary learning scenarios.

Adding multimedia to an educational experience is not always the right thing. (As in all design, sometimes simple is better.) But increasingly we’re seeing the blending of “simple” and “multimedia” moments as creating the optimal conditions for sustaining learning over the course of an hour, an afternoon, a day, or longer.

Recent events have given us more confidence to steer our partners toward building dynamic interventions into their plans, and I’m excited to see where these efforts lead. But it won’t just be a matter of adding “fun” and “exciting” multimedia moments into lectures that optimizes learning. The learners are going to be active participants in the process of design and execution.


I think “immersion” is a helpful word to describe this enhanced educational experience. Often used in language learning to describe a situation where learner can’t help but be confronted with educationally rich experience, it also comes to us with a sense that the learner is sustained in a state of flow. How can that happen?

Only learners can ultimately tell us what they need. Do they need a break? Do they need a boost of energy? Do they need time to reflect and write? Or time to talk together? Involving learners in the ebb and flow of educational experience with dynamic interventions will raise the stakes. Educators can offer learners an environment, but learners will need to activate it.

Collaboration is a key element of dynamic interventions we’ve made so far. (Learning is often more fun together!) With respect to collaborative activities, learners are really asked to be both participants and educators—taking an active role in their colleagues’ learning. Dynamic interventions can help support learners in both their roles by giving their work new contexts as an activity unfolds—and in a highly aesthetic way. Ultimately, I imagine that the suspension of learners between these different orientations can best sustain a flow experience. Time will tell…

Alas, we are just beginning to explore the possibilities of this exciting—and I think somewhat novel, or at least technologically-heightened—nexus of knowledge, creativity, and learning.

What are ways do you think we can further (or best) support the development and sharing of these ideas and our toolset?