The creation of powerful classroom experiences is something that every educator strives for. When learning is memorable, students make connections that help them easily acquire and retain information. This is often referred to as Experiential Learning, a theory which educational theorist David A. Kolb describes as “...the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” Put simply, experiential learning is learning by doing.

Just as a learner driver must practice on a real road before taking their test, so should other learners experience the real thing to learn effectively. You wouldn’t want to be an airplane passenger flown by a pilot who only learned from a book. Neither would you follow a football team who had never set foot on a genuine football field. The same goes for surgeons, builders, artists... you get the idea.

Of course, in the classroom, the ‘real thing’ can be hard to come by. It isn’t so easy, after all, to walk students around the ancient Mayan settlements or to fly to the Moon to experience zero gravity. But thanks to advancements in digital learning technologies, the recreation of these experiences is closer than ever. And powerful tools such as Augmented Reality (AR) are taking immersive learning to a whole new level.

What Is Immersive Learning?

Immersion is a feeling. An experience that deeply engages a person's senses, emotions and attention, creating a sense of being fully surrounded and absorbed in an environment or activity. If you’ve ever read a good book, seen a captivating performance, or smelled a scent that unlocked a memory, you’ve experienced immersion.

Educators have been teaching lessons through immersive moments for many years. The trick is to recognize an immersive moment for what it is, capture the window of opportunity, and take advantage of students’ open and receptive minds.

Immersive technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR) allow educators to take this process even further, by superimposing virtual images onto a student’s view of the real world. These hands-on learning experiences heighten engagement and improve students’ ability to retain knowledge longer, because they’re actively participating in the learning process.

From stepping back in time to visiting far-flung lands, AR supercharges immersive learning. It’s easy to use – just a simple smart device and an app make the magic happen. And because AR allows students to create, share and inhabit so many different virtual environments, the possibilities for experiential learning are endless.

Technology with Purpose

Of course, like all technologies, AR works best when used with purpose and not just as a shiny gimmick. When students encounter well-made and contextualised AR or any immersive content, they will ‘lean in’ to the lesson and eagerly consume the learning.

With every immersive learning technique, educators must always ask, Why? It isn’t enough to provide students with an amazing experience; the important thing is how this translates into learning.

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory can provide a good framework for ensuring that AR is used in a pedagogically sound way. The theory defines experiential learning as a four-stage process:

Concrete Learning

This happens when the student has a new experience and commits the experience to memory. For example, when a learner driver experiences a stop sign for the first time and physically applies the breaks.

In the classroom, concrete learning takes many forms, such as practical science experiments and computer programming. Introducing concrete learning into less practical subjects such as history, can be a challenge, but AR can make this happen! From walking with dinosaurs to visiting the pyramids of Egypt, the technology brings learning to life by allowing pupils to travel through time without leaving their classrooms.

Reflective Observation

This occurs when the student reflects on the experience and understands it by processing the information afterwards. Our learner driver might speak to their instructor about how well they performed the task.

In the classroom, this might be a post-experience conversation, a written recount, a recorded interview or any activity in which students process how they felt during the experience. When using AR, it can be good to have children record their observations and make time to discuss and share at the end of the lesson.

Abstract Conceptualization

In this step, the student starts to come up with their own theories, and ideas to understand problems and solutions. Here, our learner driver might reason that applying the brakes sooner and more gently would result in a smoother stop.

In the classroom, this process can also form part of end of lesson discussions. When talking about an AR experience, you might ask students what went well and what they might do differently. You can also encourage students to carry out further research e.g. does the virtual environment they’ve created match information learned previously? This can help students to conceptualize their amazing creations.

Active Experimentation

Here, the student takes their theories and goes back to real-world experiences, to test their thinking. One would hope that our learner driver is indeed having more than one practice session and improving over time.

In the classroom, this stage of learning is sometimes overlooked. It can seem counter-intuitive to undertake an activity a second time. But there can be real benefits to trying again, having reflected and conceptualized on the subject. AR is great for active experimentation because it allows students to keep trying. Let’s say they’ve used AR to build the Pyramids of Egypt. If something doesn’t look or feel authentic, they can use the technology and work as a team to fine tune their creation!

Deeper Learning

Ultimately, experiential learning advocates for deep rather than surface learning, and this is something that AR facilitates very well. It encourages creativity, allows students to learn from their mistakes, encourages reflection and makes it easier to grasp difficult or abstract concepts. If you’re an educator looking to introduce AR with purpose, then the Experiential Learning Theory provides a great framework. It’s also worth remembering that students don’t have to be taught experiential learning – they do it automatically, because it sparks their curiosity and it’s fun.

About the Author

Phil Birchinall, Senior Director of Immersive Content at Discovery Education, leads his company’s efforts to bring the power of immersive learning to all students. To learn more visit Discovery Education’s immersive learning website here.