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Immersive learning environments may become the norm in training

Evolution has been the main motor of mankind since the beginning of time. Lately, this motor has been running faster than ever before, as we have the resources and technology to innovate in all aspects of our lives. The human brain, however, has stayed pretty much the same. We still tend to act on impulses and go with our “guts”. That’s because the center for all decision making is in our reptilian brain which works on impulses – you see, at the dawn of time, the most important decisions were whether to run from or confront the bear and a deep philosophical approach would have meant imminent extinction.

Learning is not based on impulses and happens in the cerebrum; this is where higher-ordered functions like memory and reasoning occur. Basically, through a network of neurons, sensory information is transmitted by synapses along the neural pathway and stored temporarily in short-term memory, a highly volatile region of the brain that acts like a receiving center for the flood of sensory information we encounter in our daily lives.

How learning works

Another recent study at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Department of Radiology, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that the structural core of the brain receives sensory information from different regions and then assembles bits of data into a complete picture that becomes a memory of an event.

This memory is strengthened by multiple sensory inputs. For example, if we both see and hear something, we are more likely to remember it than if we only hear it.

If we experience an emotional reaction to something - fear, anger, laughter or love - that emotion becomes part of the memory and strengthens it dramatically. In recalling memories, subjects who had experienced an emotional reaction were far more likely to remember the event and with higher accuracy than those who simply witnessed an event without any emotional attachment. That explains why highly emotional events – birth, marriage, divorce and death – become unforgettable.

Why immersion is so effective

So if we are looking for learning that sticks, we need to ensure that it engages all the senses and also tackles the emotional part of the brain.

Learning in immersive environments might just do the trick.

Just as the name suggests, an immersive environment allows learners to be totally submerged in a self-contained artificial or simulated environment while experiencing it as real. Immersive environments can offer learners rich and complex content-based learning while also helping them develop their technical, creative, and problem-solving skills. Because such environments are rich, visual, and appealing to more senses at once users show a high degree of engagement.

Since immersive environments can involve a number of internet-based applications, the term is rather difficult to define even for the most web-savvy. For example, immersive environments can include virtual worlds, virtual reality programs, Web-based games, multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) and massively multiplayer online games.

Regardless of what an immersive learning environment is made of, the task-oriented, collaborative, and communal qualities it holds may mirror much of what we know to be good models of learning, in that they are collaborative and encourage active participatory roles for users.

How immersion works

Virtual worlds offer a great range of specific learning opportunities in what is an adaptable and differentiated immersive social space. As a participation-based network, immersive environments allow users to build communities of practice, collaborate with peers in group work, and create and share content. In addition, learning is facilitated in multiple ways, from the community-managed etiquette of the various chat channels, to the didactic tutorials offered by the software used.

Digital games and simulations help learners develop problem-solving, decision-making, inquiry, creativity, and technology skills. Participating in a highly immersive, engaging, and challenging environment also helps users understand the learning process better thus improving both engagement and retention of information.

As the available immersive technology improves and high speed Internet is everywhere at a very small cost, immersive learning environments should begin to play more of a role as a supplement to or major component of professional learning.

This will prove particularly appealing to the Millennials who are children of technology and place a high value on interaction and innovation.

Immersive learning is not the future but the present

Immersive learning environments have the potential to function as a professional learning treat, making learning fun. Immersive learning environments mix the worlds of leisure and work or informal and formal learning. This good balance of work and play represents a major source of knowledge acquisition and competency development for professionals in all areas. Unlike traditional modes of professional development, immersive environments offer employees learning opportunities where control of learning rests primarily in their own hands and where learning may also come from opportunities to engage and collaborate in socially connected networks of peers and online services.

All in all, immersive learning is no longer the future, it already is the present. The results of such an approach to employee development are far better than those of old-fashion classroom training. It transcends time and location barriers and appeals to all learner types making information retention easier and a lot more fun.

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