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Immersive Learning: What It Means and How To Do It

Posted by Dave Coodin on Thu, Jun 16, 2016

We hear it all the time in our industry: To succeed, eLearning needs to be engaging, fun, even different.

At SwissVBS, we tend to agree. At our core, we believe that learning shouldn’t feel like “capital L” Learning – something that’s good for you, but not necessarily good. As an instructional designer, I always say that my job is to create immersive experiences.

It’s a noble aim, but have you ever stopped to think about what “immersive” really means? It’s a term that’s thrown around so much that its meaning can sometimes get lost. What exactly is immersion, and what are its essential ingredients?

When you’re truly immersed, you forget that you are participating in an artificial construct. Think back to the most fun you’ve ever had playing a video game, whether it’s Grand Theft Auto or Pac-Man. You know that feeling when you look up at the clock after a few minutes and realize that hours have gone by? That’s immersion. It’s giving yourself over entirely to an experience, losing yourself in a constructed reality. For instructional designers, we need to be thinking constantly about how to reproduce that feeling, regardless of context or subject matter.


For a digital onboarding program for a major organization specializing in household consumer goods, we wanted to recreate the anxiety and excitement of the first day on the job. The end result was an experience that mimicked what a first day would look like through the eyes of a new employee – from a first-person point of view.

Luckily, a lot of research has been done to help us break down the various things we can do to create these kinds of experiences.

According to a study at Harvard,[i] it’s all about creating identifiable stories. Learning is at its most effective when I can see myself in the narrative or situation that’s taking place. This might seem like an obvious point, but it means that instructional designers always have to be asking, “Who are my learners, and what sorts of situations will they relate to?” That doesn’t mean that stories have be “realistic.” Out-there, fantastical narratives are welcome, and in fact, often a good idea. But it does mean that learners have to be able to buy into a fictionalized world pretty quickly, or they’ll tune out.

Secondly, studies[ii] show that the way that learners are drawn into an experience should be inviting, and even enticing. Have you ever clicked on a link in your social media feed because you just had to? That’s how an effective eLearning experience should present itself. Think about it: if you need to learn how to format a table in Excel, no one has to tell you to Google it. It’s the same for what we do: eLearning should be stitched seamlessly into the fabric of your workflow right when you need it, a natural and intuitive resource for boosting your performance that’s constantly available.

Finally, researchers have found that people learn best when narrative is balanced with opportunities for reflection.[iii] It’s a matter of pacing, in other words. Being immersed in a pool of new knowledge is a wonderful feeling, but we also have to ensure that learners have the tools for assimilating that knowledge. As a rule of thumb, I try to offer a breather every few minutes with some kind of interactivity, even it’s just an open-ended question. Allowing learners to come up for air every so often allows them to think about the ideas they have just heard, and apply them to their own experience before diving back down for more.

To recap, there are three key elements that every learning experience needs to be truly immersive:

  • An identifiable narrative
  • An inviting and intuitive presentation
  • A balance between immersion and opportunities for self-reflection

At SwissVBS, we see learning as a journey...an immersive journey. We want people not even to notice that they’re “learning,” because they’re so deeply immersed in the experience as a natural part of their work day. We’re constantly looking for new ways to create experiences that achieve immersion through identifiable narratives, intuitive and inviting presentation, and a perfect balance of deep engagement and opportunities for self-reflection.

What kinds of innovations are we imagining to push learning to new places?

Click below to learn more about how we helped one organization create a truly immersive learning experience for its employees.

Download the Case Study


[i] Sole, Deborah and Wilson, Daniel Gray. “Storytelling in Organizations: The Power and Traps of Using Stories to Share Knowledge in Organizations.” Training and Development 53 (1999): 1-12.

[ii] Lim, Theodore et al. “Narrative Serious Game Mechanics (NSGM) – Insights into the Narrative-Pedagogical Mechanism.” GameDays: 23-34, 2014.

[iii] Ibid.

Topics: SwissVBS, Customization, Storytelling, Learning Journey

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