Friday, February 10, 2012

Student Perspective on Immersive Learning

A visiting scholar from the across the pond popped into a few of our meetings and discussions this week over in the Games, Fun, and Learning camp. His goal behind seeing how we operate is to see if the style of experience that Ball State has dubbed "Immersive Learning" lends itself well to higher education.

I thought about this for a while, and I've come to the conclusion that Immersive Learning, studio-based learning, or whatever you want to call this type of experience works very well in most cases.

Looking back on my education at Ball State University, I realize that my introductory Computer Science courses wouldn't have worked as well in this type of a learning environment. This environment is too free, it's too open, and it's too easy to become distracted for typical 19 year old college freshmen. Sometimes even us "experienced" college students get distracted.

But once that foundation is established, the old model of lecture, test, lecture, test just isn't necessary, and in some cases is counterproductive. It's not engaging enough, for the most part, and the lessons don't ring through quite as loudly.

Myself, I've been involved with three projects that fit the bill of "Immersive Learning." I've learned important lessons that were really driven home by the fact that I did them while working on something I cared about. I have something tangible - if you can call software that - from which I can remember these lessons learned. Now, when I think of the Morgan's Raid project, I think of volunteering to come in on a weekend and rework some unsightly code with Ryan Thompson and Dr. Gestwicki. The lessons learned that weekend stuck with me that much more because I have an artifact associated with it, not a letter grade after 15 weeks.

Would any other class have allowed me to do something like this? How much am I going to interact with my professor and classmates when I see them for a combined 3 hours a week, tops? The course I just mentioned was a small, almost microscopic version of what we're up to this semester. Imagine being given free-reign over an entire 3 story house and essentially given every resource you might need. It's a 180 from the conventional classes, and it's a great change of pace.

One of the other great things about Immersive Learning opportunities, especially the Virginia Ball Center projects, is that the students can get a lot of 1-on-1 time with each other, as well as with the instructor. If you want to get a multidisciplinary team to cross-pollinate ideas within itself then give them a tough problem, allow them to work as they see fit (while guiding them when necessary, without preventing small, meaningful failures), and watch. It isn't necessary to drill your students, and being given a bit of freedom can unleash a great deal of creativity and productivity.

This afternoon a subgroup of the VBC students spoke with this visiting scholar, speaking at length about some of the things I mentioned above. I had to step out of the conversation before it ended, but the other students all felt very positively about their experience so far at the VBC. The overwhelming theme that arose was that they all (and I agree) were tired of the K-12 experience, consisting of being guided along through various subjects. We all agreed that we much prefer to be allowed to explore topics and learn lessons that deal with our specific project.

It sounded as if the scholar agreed with what we were saying, and I hope he found the conversation helpful. A big issue that we all noted with this style of learning is that it is difficult to get more students involved with Immersive Learning projects. Some professors and some majors make it difficult for students to get credit, while other students truly don't understand what these projects even are. Hopefully Ball State University can address this issue so that more students can see the positive effects of Immersive Learning. I myself am a strong believer in student-led projects, where the students and the faculty mentors are learning in parallel. I give a ton of credit to one of my past Immersive Learning projects for bringing me out of my shell socially and helping me realize a deeper interest in my field that I didn't realize I possessed.


  1. I've been involved in a few conversations on campus about scaffolding the undergraduate experience more directly towards upper-division immersive learning. That is, make the first two years based on content and traditional effective teaching techniques, then roll people into interdisciplinary project-based learning in the junior and senior years. It would be a grand experiment, but as I'm sure you can guess, there are lots of impediments to moving this forward---not the least of which is inertia.

  2. Describing it as a 180 turn is about the best way to do so when referring to typical on-campus classes and off-campus classes. While I by no means am regretting getting involved with our project this semester, it is fairly dismaying to think about having to go back to regular campus classes for next year. After a semester of being out of a "real" classroom, making the transition back to a real one is not going to fun. We're only a month and a half in, but I can say without a doubt that this immersive (still makes me angry that it's not a word) learning experience will be one of the highlights of my time here at BSU.