Webinar Highlights: Design for Immersive Learning
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Aaron Appleton is a graduate of Harvard University where he received a masters degree focused on design for learning. He has spent the last decade working as a lead learning designer for several education companies…ranging from the world’s first game-based learning school in NYC, a startup scaling a network of innovative universities across Africa, and most recently for a San Francisco based startup accelerator that has helped entrepreneurs learn how to start 1,000+ companies and raise over $2 billion from top investors.
Aaron is now the creative director and founder of Exogram, an innovative design studio that are doing a lot of great stuff around new learning experiences by emboy play experiences. Exogram designs products at the scale of an experimental board game to interactive museum installations, or immersive adventure that takes over a national park.
During this session we explored:
The Big Problem in Design for Learning: Transmissionism
The Positive Shift & Immersive Technologies: Constructionism
Key principles & methods from interaction design & the science of learning
How to design inviting & immersive learning experiences
Transmissionism and why it’s a problem in design for learning
Aaron opens up the webinar by speaking about the big problem from the past century of learning design and how it’s been dominated by an ineffective approach to learning that goes by a long name of transmissionism.
Transmission is a theory of learning that says knowledge can be transmitted from an expert and passively absorbed by a learner. This can be found occurring in many forms today from traditional lectures to slide decks or multiple choice Ed tech gaps.
However, transmission is built on a faulty idea about how people learn, and its be thoroughly discredited in the learning sciences and yet this transmissionist approach is so pervasive that it’s dominated in the past century Aaron pessimistically refers to this period as the rectangle revolution, because learning is mostly occurring within the confines of a rectangular box throughout this timeline.
Aaron prepared a timeline highlighting some key inflection points where both emerging technologies and then rapid user adoption of those technologies converge and serve as a platform for both the design and consumption of learning experiences.
At the start of the timeline is the film-projector with a dominant learning design output being recorded lectures, a perfect example of transmission.
Next is the overhead projector, the main learning design output is transparencies. The godfather to the modern-day slide deck presentation. All transmitting facts at learners who are expected to passively absorb them when the Tv comes along. The primary education use, being live broadcasts of lectures or educational programming with a bit of narrative, transmissions again.
A bit of a positive change though occurs here with the mimeograph. Then the original gangster to the beloved photocopier which introduced some interactivity through worksheets. Again transmissionist by mostly having learners regurgitate facts.
The next is the Apple personal computer with lots of potential to revolutionise learning. However what ends up happening is that many of the desktop publishing tools are used to create transmissionist artefacts for learners to passively consume rather than using this powerful tool to turn the learners into the ones doing the creating and learning through their creation.
Then around 1993 the internet goes mainstream to consumers, followed by cloud computing going mainstream. But again, the primary education use case for both are transmisionist in nature with lectures and cohort based learning to passively consume.
Finally, in the most recent history, we have mass consumer adoption of the iPhone 1. While again showing so much potential to revolutionise learning. The most popular learning design outputs have been apps built around a transmissionist approach to learning.
Metaquest is then released at a low cost and a tether free headset tat enabled greater adoption of consumer VR but as demonstrated by the majority of education apps in the meta quest store, the main approach to learning is still lectures, but this time given by 3D avatars on VR.
This transmissionism keeps being perpetuated over and over again as new technology comes along. Fortunately a positive shift is happening. The dominant models that learning experiences are built around are starting to shift from this faulty paradigm of learning to one that is inspired by evidence from the interdisciplinary fields that make up learning sciences. They bring findings of how people learn best from fields as diverse as cognitive science, educational psychology, anthropology, or one far left field, neuro robotics.
Learning experiences were being designed kind of like learners are riding a bus where the driver or the learning designer, the expert decides where the bus is going and the passengers are just along for the ride. So here the focus would be mostly creating courses, units, lessons.
But now the learning designers role is changing in a positive direction. They’re starting to create experiences more like learners are riding a bicycle where the writer or the learner is empowered to choose the destination, the speed, and the route and have interaction rich experiences. Here is the focus of the learning designer creating these dynamic learning environments.
There is also a shift away from a technology first approach to learning design where cool new technology comes out. Like recently generative AI or VR based metaverse or douse, learning designers port copy or digitise or emulate their content to the new delivery system, and what often ends up happening with that technology first approach is that the technology gets in the way of the learning experience or inhibits meaningful human interaction but the positive shift is that there’s this emerging realisation, that good design uses technology to highlight the substance in the learning experience while hiding the technology itself.
Technologies are delivery systems for experience, and the goals of the learning experience should be given primacy of place, then a medium can be found to deliver it most effectively. So one approach to learning that shows promise in charting this new path forward is immersive learning.
What distinguishes immersive learning from other approaches is its focus on creating this sense of presence and this can be done in either a virtual or a simulated physical environment and these learning experiences are often rich with interactivity and created using technologies like VR, AR, mixed reality, the combining of both or most recently immersive experiences that use projection and smart sensors kind of like that example from moment factory, or immersive theatre techniques are being used and gaining in popularity.
Constructionism and why its impactful
One theory of learning that Aaron finds particularly impactful is constructionism. This is a foundation that I like to start with when designing learning experiences, and construction is all about the first part not that word, constructing.
It comes from decades of compounding research, from folks like Cymour Papert, John Dewey, Levagotsky, and it generally just points toward the findings that people learnt best through the hands on process of creating something. In scientific terms what’s going on with this construction is that it provides this link between sensory and abstract knowledge and it generates understanding through representation or through the creation of these physical or digital artifacts.
Once this foundation of active hands on and creative learning is established, this is then validated against second order principles of learning. Principles to design learning experiences that are immersive really works.
The Key Principles for Learning Design
Now the four key that are used when designing immersive learning experiences are:
Thenspace that learning experience occurs in.
The interactions that produce the learning.
The objects that mediate or enable those interactions in this experience.
Starting with the transformation goal is key. This is the reason why a learner would want to join the learning experience, they’re seeking to be transformed by some fundamental aspect of their life through learning. You can think of this in terms of what does the learner want to become and once you figure that out, it’s the key to them wanting to join the particular learning experience that you’ve developed.
At this stage as a learning designer, your core responsibility is doing exploratory design research and that’s done with your learners to understand what are their motivations, what are their challenges? what are their needs?
As you start to narrow in on that transformational that the learning experience can be built around. Aaron highlights some methods for how you might be able to go about doing that exploratory design research to uncover the transformation goal by learner interviews, learner observations or secondary research. Aaron also provided 3 examples of transformation goals from 3 different types of learning experience.
The first comes from Hax, this is a startup accelerator in the hardware space. So the transformation goal that would compel a learner to join Hax is that they seek to become a founder of a venture scale hardware company, and then Hax provides the learning experience to help them become that.
Example 2 of a transformation goal comes from an art based learning experience called new Inc which is a program for creative technologists that’s based in Manhattan. The transformation goal of a learner joining new Inc. is that they desire to become a boundary pushing artist that’s also able to build a substantial career around their craft.
The final example of a transformation goal comes form conservation X labs are known for hosting a series of global competitions for environmental problem solvers and the transformation goal of joining this community is to become a problem solver by designing a solution of a major environmental challenge.
Designing Inviting and Immersive Learning Experiences
Now the second element that’s the key to designing immersive learning experiences is the space where it takes place. This is the actual physical location where learners engage with digital or in person learning experiences.
Considering the space is important because it prompts certain types of actions, it conveys spatial cues that sets the emotional tone it influences learning processes, and it imbues the learning experience with particular meaning and provides initial constraints.
When you think of the space consider think like
The number of learners.
The intimacy gradient of the space.
The amount of time that’s most natural to spend in that space.
Is the space able to provide a rich sense of immersion, milti-sensory experience and social interactions.
The next element of designing for immersive learning are the interactions that occur which allow learner to progress toward their transformation goals. There is 2 main topics of interaction design, mechanic interactions and dynamic interactions.
Mechanic interactions can be describes as the primary actions that your learners are performing throughout the learning experience. As a learning designer its important that these mechanics are aligned with principles from the learning sciences such as do they enable embodied cognition using the full body of the learning experience a depth of processing people deeply engage with the material engaging system two of the brain.
Ecological validity, meaning how closely to real-world tasks and real-world contexts is this. Focusing again on the active creating comes from constructionism. It’s also found in different areas of the learning sciences that it contributes to something called the Ikea effect, where by creating something that increases the perceived value of the artefact to the learner and it again, connects that sensory and abstract information and constructs that meaning through representation.
The other type of interactions are those dynamics. Dynamics are the patterns of behaviour that emerge as a result of repeated actions or repeated mechanics and a great example of these dynamics comes from the improv comedy group called upright citizens brigade and operates citizens brigade training centre. In this instance the mechanics would be individuals creatively speaking. Dynamics comes into play once what individuals are speaking starts to build off of each other, forming this base reality of the scene which then eventually evolves into a fully co-creative story with a narrative arc. As a learning designer, at this stage it’s important to design your mechanics in a way that they can build off one another and create motivating dynamics that can also provide real-time feedback.
One thing to carefully to consider here is what type of motivation do these dynamics encourage? Is it intrinsic? Is it extrinsic? and are you motivating the learner with external rewards or with the enjoyment of the activity in the interactions themselves.
The final element to consider when designing immersive learning experiences are the objects. You can think of these as the interfaces that enable interactions in a learning experience. When selecting the objects consider both the technical and the aesthetic attributes of each and which are best for achieving the transformation goal we’re designing for.
It’s also great if you can engage multiple senses because when we interact with information through a variety of senses, we activate different areas of the brain and create multiple neural connections which can enhance learning and memory.
To bring all these elements together, the transformation goal, the space, the interactions and the objects and then put them through the gauntlet by filtering them through key learning sciences principles.
So what we get when we put it through the gauntlet is and all the examples of designing for immersive learning is an exciting peek at what the future may hold for learning that are going to break free from this grip of transmissionism and that are highly effective and just plain ould fun.