Immersive tech for deeper learning

For several years, I was been following the deeper learning movement in the U.S. (see here, here, and here). Being in the business of education, I do my best to keep up with  developments; but there is something about the deeper learning approach, with its pragmatic social justice roots and energetic constructivist approach, that really piques my interest.

According to the Deeper Learning for All network, some of the mainstay ideas of the approach are:

  1. Content mastery: Students acquire knowledge that they then apply or transfer to real world situations. Content mastery is about learning for life;
  2. Effective communication: Students develop and demonstrate active listening, clear writing, and persuasive presentation;
  3. Critical thinking and problem solving: Students consider a variety of approaches to produce innovative solutions.
  4. Collaboration: Students work with their peers, assume leadership roles, resolve conflicts, and manage projects.
  5. Self-directed learning: Students use teacher feedback to monitor and direct their own learning, both in and out of the classroom (I would add that this might better be conceived as teaching students metacognitive skills both individually and in groups
  6. Academic mindset: Students feel a sense of belonging and the motivation to persist through their school work.

Deeper learning offers a framework to think beyond limited ‘input-out’ conceptions of technology-enhanced learning. This type of input-output (or technicist) conception focuses on adding technology with content (input) to a learning context and then narrowly defining success through measurement of individual knowledge and skills acquisition (output). There is no emphasis on understanding the pedagogical dynamics of learning (what happens between input and output) or its broader social or philosophical purpose of education.

Deeper learning might provide us with a framework to extend thinking beyond a commonly held (and historically rooted) idea that immersive technology (simulation) for education relate primarily to training – that is, for learning knowledge and skills in a simulated environment that are then directly transferred or applied to a ‘matching’ real world context. Training is one type of educational practice and is only one use for immersive technologies for learning. I would suggest that we need to seriously broaden our conception of education to better include how immersive technology can promote higher order thinking and those elusive 21st century learning skills (see here for Dede’s work on this).

Deeper learning is a grounded take on 21st century learning with an equity twist. While deeper learning is for all students, it has been specifically developed to address the profound equity issues that haunt many Western education systems. Students from lower socioeconomic groups, those from Indigenous and certain cultural backgrounds, learners with a disability or those living in rural and remote communities, often fair less well in schooling not because they are less clever but because of the material and other resources they have available to them. These students are our lost talent and I think that new technologies combined with robust, evidence-based pedagogical frameworks, such as deeper learning, might provide a powerful way of engage students in/through learning.

So how can the unique learning affordances of immersive technologies be used to facilitate deeper learning? Here are some initial thoughts based on my research in schools.

One of the purposes of deeper learning is to have students engage in discipline knowledge (maths, science, history, languages etc.) in the context of how that knowledge relates to life more generally. Knowledge mastery is more than learning facts to pass tests. Knowledge should be ‘played with’ throughout learning – it should be learnt through use, examined, questioned, tested, applied to different problems, and actively reflected upon. Basically, knowledge mastery requires active experiential learning undertaken in a sustained and scaffolded way. When introducing an immersive technology (abstract explanation cannot capture the complex psychological or social experience of virtuality) into the classroom, we need to think beyond the ‘technology as tool’ metaphor. The ‘technology as tool’ metaphor represents technology as a means of getting to an end goal i.e. the real goal is to master knowledge or skills specified in the curriculum and the technology is just an instrument to make the mastery happen. This ‘technology as tool’ metaphor is commonly associated with simulation for training purposes.

I would argue that it is just as important for students to master knowledge of the many and varied affordances of immersive technologies – to be given scaffolded, correctly paced and sequenced lessons on immersive technologies – as it is to develop understanding of content and/or competency of skill. If students are taught about the technology, from a learning affordance perspective, that is how the unique properties of the technology allow us to learn, then they can approach knowledge and skill mastery from multiple angles, often with great creativity and in ways that teachers might not have considered.

This weaving of learning about the affordances of the technology with mastery of content knowledge will develop metacognitive skills in students. Students are learning how technology can increase their understanding of how to learn in powerful and creative ways and this will lead to peer collaboration, development of communication skills and self-directed research for technical and intellectual problem solving.

This type of learning journey will not be an easy one for either teacher or student. It certainly isn’t what Paulo Freire referred to as a ‘banking’ concept of education where the teacher deposits facts or pre-cooked information into the heads of passive students (please let’s not perpetuate feeding great chunks of text to students and tell them to adapt it to spit out during exams – this type of approach will not serve them well as life-long learners). Combining learning with and about a new technology is arguably a great way to develop a resilient academic mindset and prepare students for the type of higher order thinking required for tertiary education and the world of work.

As a work-related related aside, I have never understood why we do not use new technologies to engage students, especially those from under-represented groups, in the possibility of pursuing  tech careers (I have written about this here).  There is much hand-wringing about tech workforce school pipelines and yet we rarely integrate  new technologies authentically for learning with the very students who we want to enter the pipeline. It’s time to investigate using simulation technology in low income and rural school communities to engage students in tech career education in a curriculum-aligned way.

To illustrate with an example from my research. Recently, I worked with a very experienced teacher from a rural high school to use the VR application Tilt Brush  as a virtual studio for senior drama students. The class was divided up into small groups and set the task of collaboratively developing set and costume design for a Gothic play they were studying. In the unit of work developed by the teacher, students were always going to create a traditional portfolio showcasing and justifying their design decisions and make a model of their set using a cut away cardboard box with fabric and other materials. However, as a first step we had students explore what Tilt Brush could offer them from a design perspective with the teacher building in time to the unit of work for them to explore the affordances of the application together. This process led to the class researching how VR is used by international theatre companies and by artists.

Students were able to prototype and experience each group’s set designs elements in a free-flowing and rapid fashion, taking on board feedback from peers and the teacher. This led to deep conversations regarding the role of motif and symbolism in set design especially as they relate to a Gothic aesthetic. Not only could the visual elements of the set be quickly changed through the colour palate and light box but music could be added to the experience. What was most interesting to me was the way students independently explored one of the most commonly touted affordance of VR – perspective taking (usually framed as VR as an empathy machine). They came to realise that in the vast space of Tilt Brush that they could teleport around to take the perspective of the actor in relation to elements of the set, or experience how the director might view it, or the audience. They considered this very useful in making decisions about the design elements for their final traditional cardboard set model.

While the teacher and I had spoken to them about the learning affordances of VR, they really engaged with the ideas of quick prototyping, mood creation and perspective raking using the sand pit studio environment of Tilt Brush in ways that (pleasantly) surprised both of us. The students’ use of the affordances of Tilt Brush translated into a sophisticated understanding of the role of motif and symbolism in Gothic set design and the need to take multiple perspectives when making design decisions, with the teacher remarking that she had not seen this with previous classes. These were rural students, with some having very limited experience of theatre and with the vast majority having no experience of VR before the project. Their ability to creatively and collaboratively use the affordances of

the application was remarkable to see.

With overcrowded curricula becoming the norm in school systems, teachers often worry how they will cover all the mandated content and 21st century capability learning objectives. Deeper learning is possible when teachers plan units of work (often using the longer time frames of project or inquiry based pedagogies) that allow students to be scaffolded towards exploration of the learning affordances of technologies so that students can discover how the unique properties of the technology allow them to master new content knowledge and skills.

Let’s expand how we think about AR, MR and VR beyond restrictive ideas of ‘technology as tool’ and ‘simulation for training’, by using of pedagogical frameworks such as deeper learning that can allow us to realise the educational and equity potential of immersive technologies.


  1. Hi Erica,

    I just found this. Great article and very timely for me. I really hope I can take this approach. I was looking for the words to express it and the research to back it up. Now I am armed for approaching the principal. Thanks!




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