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Book Review: Immersive Learning, by Koreen Olbrish Pagano

Part of the success of immersive learning experiences depends on the cultural support of the value of practice and the motivation to practice. Fun is a motivating factor and should not be dismissed from your tool kit. Humans are playful and curious and competitive. Immersive learning taps into these very human characteristics and leverages them for learning. It’s not child’s play to want to enjoy improving your skill; it’s human.

At the outset of her book, Immersive Learning: Designing for Authentic Practice, author Koreen Olbrish Pagano asks a critical question, “Does providing information to learners lead to improved performance and behavior change?” She posits that it may be possible, but more often than not, the simple act of knowledge acquisition does not change an individual’s performance. To gain skills that lead to real behavior change, we must create opportunities for our learners to practice those skills. And, as the title of her book suggests, Pagano provides a framework for thinking about immersive learning design and easy-to-follow guidance to design immersive learning environments that will allow your learners to practice and to fail … and, ultimately, to learn.

What’s in the book?

Immersive Learning is divided into four sections—the first gives a broad overview and explanation of the concept of immersive learning, the second defines an immersive learning design process, the third provides numerous real-world examples of immersive learning in action, and the fourth is a quick wrap-up looking at the future of immersive learning.

In the first two chapters of Immersive Learning, Pagano sets the stage for the remainder of the book by explaining the general characteristics of immersive learning and outlining three important design principles—realism: the extent to which the environment in which you are immersed is lifelike; achievement: the mechanism by which success toward performance goals is measured within the immersive learning environment; and presence: the extent to which the learner feels like she is connected or present immediately within the immersive learning environment. Recognizing that immersive learning environments encompass any number of mediums (e.g., games, simulations, virtual worlds, mobile learning, augmented reality, etc.), Pagano makes the point that, “immersive learning is not about the technology; it is about the design principles that allow learners to practice in context, apply their knowledge, and improve their skills and competence.”

With that in mind, the second section and primary focus of the book outlines an immersive learning design process using the ADDIE model as a general framework. The Analysis phase is where the rubber meets the road. As Pagano explains, “The most powerful tool in the immersive learning designer’s tool kit is the ability to ask questions… For immersive learning design, you can’t forgo the analysis, because the analysis becomes your design.” Specifically, designers should focus on identifying meaningful issues that affect performance to create realistic scenarios in environments for learners to practice addressing those issues. A thorough analysis can also help designers uncover other ways undesirable behaviors are inadvertently reinforced in an organization, as well as specific failure points and their causes. As a starting point, Pagano provides a series of questions to help guide some of this critical analysis work and acknowledges, “Your goal should be to approach immersive design from a position of questioner—never assuming an answer, and always seeking new sources of information to make your immersive environment as effective as possible.”

Recognizing that analysis will be ongoing throughout the immersive learning-design process, Pagano explains three levels of design decisions to guide your work. (Figure 1) First, define performance objectives and benchmarks that focus on what your learners should be able to do following the realistic practice. Secondly, design the world in which your learners will be immersed. And lastly, design the performance evaluation that supports your learners in achieving the performance objectives you defined from your analysis work. Above all, Pagano reminds us to use a couple of “F” words … make it Fun and design for Flow. Your design work will encompass a number of considerations, including the immersive environment itself, the story line, your cast of characters, and the role of the learner and his or her user experience. To help guide this part of the process, Pagano provides thorough explanation and examples based on her experience both as an immersive learning designer and as a graduate course instructor.


Figure 1: Koreen Olbrish Pagano’s simple design flow for immersive design.

As previously mentioned, the book does not focus on specific technologies that you can use to develop immersive learning environments. However, the depth of Pagano’s personal knowledge and experience really shines through, with her detailed descriptions of the most recognizable immersive learning design categories: games, simulations, virtual worlds, alternate reality games (ARGs), and 3-D immersive environments. For anyone curious about the similarities, differences, and interconnectedness of these mediums, you’ll definitely appreciate Pagano’s explanations and considerations for each.

The final chapters of this section are dedicated to a quick synopsis of implementation and evaluation details. The strength of these chapters lies in Pagano’s practical advice for implementing immersive learning experiences where learners have the freedom and support to fail, and outlining simple evaluation strategies to measure your learners’ change in performance.

The third and final section of Immersive Learning details numerous case studies that show how various businesses and organizations have designed and implemented immersive learning solutions. These examples are particularly helpful, as they illustrate just how broadly you can apply immersive learning design principles.

Should you read it?

In a word, yes. Immersive Learning is a quick read, full of Pagano’s real-world insights, commonsense guidance, and straightforward advice to help you design authentic practice experiences for your learners that lead to changed behavior and improved performance. The case-study examples certainly help clarify what is possible, and the step-by-step guidance in the final wrap-up charts a path forward. Perhaps Pagano says it best, “We are not simply helping people ‘learn.’ We are helping people perform at a higher level to improve organizational performance.” And to help you design and build scalable practice that bridges the gap between knowledge acquisition and real behavior change, consider adding Immersive Learning to your reading list for 2014.

Bibliographic information

Pagano, Koreen Olbrish. Immersive Learning: Designing for Authentic Practice. Alexandria, VA: ASTD Press, 2013


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