Immersed in Virtual Reality: iLRN June 2018

By Vic & Bonnie Sutton

There is growing evidence that immersion in virtual reality can improve learning outcomes for students.

This was the main conclusion from many of the papers presented at the fourth annual conference of the Immersive Learning Research Network (iLRN), which was held at the University of Montana from 25-29 June 2018.

Jonathon Richter, Executive Director of iLRN, introduced the conference as an opportunity to explore “what works” in immersive learning, drawing on high-quality research.

He proposed that the three main components of immersive learning are:

  • computer science,
  • gaming studies, and
  • effective learning outcomes.

The potential impact of successful immersive learning initiatives, he suggested, were good measures, good goals, and good outcomes across disciplines, cultures, and contexts.  

The conference provided an opportunity for researchers from many different academic institutions in Europe and North America to explore four different areas where immersive learning was being used in teaching practice: environmental science, augmented reality, climate change and disaster analytics, and the challenges of cultural heritage.

Professor Chris Dede, from the Harvard School of Education, presented a first keynote presentation. This (the first time he had made such a presentation) looked into “Virtual reality and unlearning — empowering transformation.”

Bonnie Bracey Sutton with Chris Dede

The goal, Professor Dede suggested, was to prevent the dead hand of the past from throttling innovation. In short, to learn new things, you have to “unlearn” the automatic responses that have become acquired habit.

Cognitive approaches do not work, he argued. Rational processing of information is insufficient for “unlearning” — you have to get down to the emotional level or the social level.

Only new experiences will bring change to attitudes or biassed identities and behaviors acquired through experiences.

Other speakers stressed the role of the community in addressing social challenges. As Kevin Feeman put it, “Complex problems require a community to solve.”

The other keynote speaker, Bonnie Bracey Sutton, focussed on the resources available to researchers interested in working for social change. These include online resources from organizations such as the Smithsonian Institution, ESRI, and NOAA.

Bracey Sutton also informed participants about potential funding through the federal Community Reinvestment Act, with more information available at the site

Xiuli Hwang presented a paper on the way that language shapes the way we think. Her experience using virtual reality as a teaching aid in Shanxi Province, China, showed that it is an asset for language learning by offering an immersive space.

Clearly, most of this research is work in progress. But from most of the papers presented, it was clear that immersive learning holds great potential. These questions will be explored again in iRLN’s next conference, which will be held in Westminster, London (U.K.) in 2019.

3 Responses

  1. Interesting report. I’m curious if there was any discussion or acknowledgment about the problems with accessibility for people with disabilities in VR. It has been a discussion point for the game development folks, but I haven’t seen it addressed in the education arena though there are requirements to make learning accessible to people with disabilities.

    • I’m not sure that that was addressed and it is a good point. Let’s see what Bonnie has to say.

  2. Dennis Beck, Associate Professor for Educational Technology at the University of Arkansas, has some experience with this. He is chief information officer for iLRN. You can reach him at

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