Does “Immersive Learning” really work?

How active immersive learning techniques can have a positive impact on difficult to reach young people

I usually begin my articles with a story, but this time what I have to say is the story. It’s about the results of using immersive learning techniques with disengaged young people and the positive impact it can have on them. The story I will tell comes from a Young Scot DigiKnow event that we were very privileged to be invited to be a part of. Our role was to run a “pop-up”escape game that could be used to teach over 150 young people about online safety and cybersecurity over the course of three one-day events across Scotland. But to paraphrase the legendary Douglas Adams in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, “to tell the story of the events, it’s best to tell the story of some of the people involved in them”.

Time was running short, the young people only had a few minutes left to save the Universe from a massive temporal paradox. To do this they needed to recover a crazy professor who had been trapped in time as a result of a hacker inadvertently breaking his time machine while he was in the past.

Two young girls, two friends, probably aged 12 or 13 sat quietly in the room. In front of them were 10 strange looking pieces of card. Nine of them looked quite similar and had strange letters and numbers printed on them. Around their edges were strange patterns. The tenth object was different, it was red and green, with arrows and nine rectangles in a three by three grid.

Their team-mates were close to completing their mission and now only needed a password to be able to save the professor. These objects held the key, but to the two young girls they just didn’t make any sense.

Usually the two girls would be sat in a lesson together at school. But today was very different from most school days. They were with their classmates, but they were doing something very different. When they had first heard their mission they were very quick to say that they thought they wouldn’t be able to contribute anything. They had both said …

“We’re not clever enough to do things like this!”

So to get them into the swing of things they needed a little bit of initial encouragement to try one of the puzzles. They were shown how they could talk to Alexa and how to ask her questions. When they did this they also saw how she could also ask them questions in return. Their first challenge was when Alexa asked them for the professor’s password. But they didn’t know what it was, their enthusiasm and energy started to dip. A little more encouragement was clearly needed.

“If the professor was lazy and forgetful, where might he leave his password?”

That was all the encouragement needed.

They thought for a moment and then turned the Alexa device over to reveal a password stuck underneath. They were quick to talk to Alexa again and this time responding to Alexa with the correct password. This led them to discover a puzzling series of coloured flashing lights.

Now engaged and working together well as a pair they quickly realised that the colours were the same as the ones on a lock that was attached to one of the Professor’s cases. They both knew exactly how the objects related, almost completing each other’s sentences as they explained it to each other. Together they entered the code into the lock. It popped open and a smile spread across both of their faces.

They were totally engaged, they were asking their team-mates what help they needed and by contributing they were now sharing in the success of the group. They worked on maths problems, geography and with letters. They learned about everything from 1980s technology to what good social media security settings look like.

As the end of the mission grew closer their newly found confidence started to drain away. There were still those pieces of card that didn’t make any sense. They didn’t know what to do next. They weren’t clever enough to solve it. So they backed away from it and sat together quietly in the corner.

Although, a temporal paradox was rapidly approaching and these young girls needed to save the day. They needed to re-engage.

Despite this, simply giving them the answer to this puzzle wouldn’t have meant success in this mission. The way forward was as straightforward as it was effective. Ask the girls a question. A simple one.

“Can you see anything similar about any of those cards you have in front of you?”
“No, it’s too difficult for us.”
“What about those patterns, did you look at them.”
“Well that pattern there is the same as the one on that card … and that one is the same as that one …”

Looking at each other they now sat down on the floor together and spread the pieces out in front of them. Then without another word between them, they set them out into a grid. The grid also happened to match the card with red and green on it.

Just then one of their team-mates spotted what they were doing and asked them if they had found a 4 character password anywhere. Quickly counting up the green squares on the card they realised that there were four of them. Maybe this was how they could find the password.

“If you take these 4 letters in this order then this might be the password?”

Excitedly they followed their team mate to a laptop attached to the professor’s time machine and entered the value they can worked out. The room held it’s breath and then cheered as the time machine came back online and the professor was returned to the present.

The feeling of accomplishment and success was written right across the faces of the two young girls. They had overcome a challenge that they initially felt they weren’t capable of solving. They had been a key part of their team’s success. They had a real impact on the world. They engaged and they learned.

Martyn is a founder of chronyko who have over 10 years experience building and running escape games and many other types of immersive training and skills development experiences. He has seen firsthand how immersive learning can have a measurable impact on some of the most disengaged young people in our society. He is a passionate believer in how we can all learn from these experiences to better support and grow all of our young people.