The Nature of Immersive Experience: An appreciative inquiry Norman Jackson Introduction


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The Nature of Immersive Experience:

An appreciative inquiry

Norman Jackson
Immersion is a metaphorical term derived from the physical and emotional experience of being submerged in water. The expression, ‘being immersed in’, is often used to describe a state of being which can have both negative consequences – being overwhelmed, engulfed, submerged or stretched, and positive consequences – being deeply absorbed or engaged in a situation or problem that results in mastery of a complex and demanding situation. Being immersed in an extremely challenging experience might be very uncomfortable but it is particularly favourable for the development of insights, confidence and capabilities for learning to live and work with complexity and messyness. It is in these situations that we need to draw on both our intellectual and our creative resourcefulness and this is where we might usefully explore possible links with Mihayli Czsentmihayli’s concept of ‘Flow’. Because of these intriguing and educationally important dimensions to the idea of immersive experience, the concept is worthy of exploration.

Norman Jackson January 2008 Introduction to the Power of Immersive Experience Conference Programme
This paper summarises the findings of an appreciative enquiry undertaken in January 2008 as part of a conference held at the University of Surrey. The conference was deliberately structured to facilitate enquiry, conversation and story telling about personal experiences

Participants to the conference were invited to tell author a story about an experience that they had had which they believed engaged them in an immersive way (an immersive experience). The stories are available at:

Participants were invited to say something about:

  • the context/situation/challenge

  • the particular characteristics of the situation that engaged them in an immersive way. 

  • the forms of learning / personal development / change that emerged from the situation

  • the words/concepts/feelings would you use to describe the immersive experience

  • the principles or lessons that can be drawn from the story. For example, how could this story inform designs and enrich opportunities for learning through immersive experience in higher education?

A series of Working Papers were created, based on the content of these stories and this report summarises the Working Papers. The list of contributors is provided in appendix 1. Without their contributions this synthesis would not have been possible.

What is an immersive experience?

The vocabulary used to describe experiences that participants feel are immersive (Table 1) provides a clue. The vocabulary is rich and reflects the complexity of the experiences and their emotional effects on participants. Within this rich vocabulary a number of conceptual patterns can be discerned.

Situations that require an intense level of engagement and lots of concentration and energy

Words like – absorbing, consuming, determination, discipline, driven, engagement, energetic, intense and intensive, perseverance, powerful, self motivation, self reliance, spell-binding, staying power, steep learning curve, time consuming.

Situations that require emotional engagement

Words like – anxiety, doubt, emotional, enjoyment, joy, exhilaration, fear, frustration, happiness, lonely, pride, sadness, satisfaction, feeling stressed, uncomfortable.

Table 1 Vocabulary of immersive experience – words used to describe the experience












Brilliant ideas



Changing me



Competing interests

Completely uprooted

Complex - Complexity

Confidence boosting











Distressing sometimes



















Familiar, yet new

Fear of failure

Feeling de-motivated



Freedom to learn and be myself



Full of potential

Fun, but scary

Goal driven





Hidden perspective

Highly rewarding

Highs and lows
















Highs and lows




Life changing





Magnificent landscapes



Need for reassurance
























Self motivation

Self reliance



Staying power

Steep learning curve








Taking risks


Time consuming




True facilitation




Unknown smells







Work-life balance


Situations that are extremely challenging, sometimes difficult to describe in ways that capture the complexity, in which risk and fear are often associated

Words like – alarming, all-encompassing, anxiety, frequent use of challenging, competing interests

complex – complexity, demanding, exciting, exhilarating, fear of failure, hectic, indescribable, messiness, overwhelming, preoccupying, taxing, taking risks, terrifying, time consuming, unexpected, unexplored, uuncertainty, unnerving.

‘for me the level of immersion seems to be in inverse proportion to my ability to talk about my thinking’.
Situations that are uncomfortable or frightening

Words like – alarming, anxiety, cold, distressing, lonely and lonliness, scary, terrifying, uncertainty, unnerving, worrying. ‘I continually felt out of my comfort zone’. ‘I was forced to exist out of my comfort zone.’

Situations where people do not feel in control

Words like – chaos, completely uprooted. ‘I felt out of my depth’.

Situations that are not known and require exploration

Words like – unexpected, unexplored, uncertainty, exploring, familiar yet new, full of potential, hidden perspective, strange, surprising. ‘We explored the concepts.’

Situations that stimulate and require reflection and discovery of self

It made me reflect on my own skills and attitudes..

The impetus to appreciate reflection...far more constructively than hitherto

To recognise the importance of feedback

My questioning and exploration of self
States of perplexity

Words like – bewildering, confused, doubt, uncertainty

Situations that require creativity

Words like – adaptability, creativity, creatively stimulating

A sense of personal change, growth and gain

Words like – achievement, awareness [greater sense of], beneficial, ‘changing me for the better’, developmental, empowering and empowerment, enlightening, enriching, freedom to learn and be myself, growing, insightful, integrative, invaluable, learning, liberating, life changing, new understanding, nurturing, releasing, revelatory, self-affirming, self motivation, self reliance, transcendent, transforming.

A sense of satisfaction, confidence and happiness in coming to terms with or mastering a difficult situation and a new sense of wellbeing

Words like – celebratory, confidence boosting, empowering, happiness, rewarding, satisfaction and

satisfying, pride.

What sorts of contexts do people associate with immersive experiences?

Part of the answer to the first question is embedded in the contexts of the experiences that people describe as being immersive. Contexts identified in personal stories of immersive experiences include:

  • Challenging language/cultural situationslike travel, voluntary service or work in other countries typically compounded by lack of knowledge about the society and language and sometimes compounded with issues like poverty or poor security. Finding yourself as a white middle class teenager in a black African-American urban culture.

  • Challenging work situations – particularly first jobs or new roles, planning and overseeing major events, engaging others, and creative work challenge like writing a book

  • Intensive learning processes and environments that others have created

  • Intensive self-created learning processes particularly relating to postgraduate research

  • Highly engaged participation in a religious/political activity

  • Intensive engagement in leisure activities

  • Intensive engagement in artistic enterprise and performance

The stories of immersive experiences show that the experiences that were selected to embody the idea of immersion were predominantly experiences of choice. Most stories involve people putting themselves into new/unfamiliar and challenging, even risky situations. Many story tellers deliberately and voluntarily put themselves into challenging environments like taking on a job in another country (with no knowledge of the language or culture) or a new organisation, or they have chosen to engage in particular work, educational, self-study or leisure activities that they have found challenging.

In some cases story tellers made a familiar place unfamiliar in order to enhance the challenge of the experience - like the story of off-road cycling at night. Here a familiar environment was rendered unfamiliar by the loss of sensory information as a result of riding at night. The experience demanded other that other senses become heightened.
Most of the stories are positive and affirming in the sense that even when the experience was uncomfortable good things generally emerged but we also have to recognise that there are circumstances for immersive experience where good things will not emerge. We must also recognise that there will be situations where people find themselves immersed in something for reasons beyond their control ie they have not chosen to be in the situation, where life suddenly moves in a direction that was not anticipated and they are precipitated into unfamiliar territory.
Based on the stories of immersive experiences we can define two sorts of overarching contexts Figure 1.
Figure 1 Contexts for immersive experience

Immersion as an essentially solitary enterprise - contexts for immersion are self-constructed and personal e.g. reading, riding a mountain bike at night, individual creative and sporting enterprise

Immersion as a co-created (social) enterprise contexts for immersion and contexts are co-created with others (eg work, people in other cultures, playing in sport/on-line games, religious/political communities)

Immersion a chosen form of engagement in a context of individual choice and control

Immersion a chosen or enforced form of engagement in a context that has been created by circumstances outside a person’s control

Immersion a chosen form of engagement in a context of individual choice e.g. grappling with a new job, a demanding role, formal learning process or personal research process and team based artistic performance, living and working in another culture

Immersion a chosen or necessary form of engagement to cope with in a situation that has been created by circumstances beyond an individual’s control egs chaos at work, severe illness, bereavement, coping with extreme situations like natural or manmade disasters,

Many experiences are likely to contain a mix of solitary and social activity.

The first category embraces those experiences where immersion is essentially a solitary enterprise (ie the individual creates the experience through their thinking and actions and does not seek to involve anyone else). The experience of being immersed in a book, the athlete immersed in a training programme, the musician rehersing for a concert, the scientist undertaking laboratory research that doesn’t involve engaging other people, riding off-road at night, playing sophisticated games against a computer, are all examples of such experiences. We might envisage two situations for immersive solitary enterprise: 1) where an individual constructs the environment and conditions for immersive experience 2) where circumstances or the environment strongly influences or demands an immersive response from an individual. For example stories of endurance and survival in hostile environments might fall in the later.

The second overarching category is where the immersive experience is much more of a social enterprise - it is co-created through complex social interactions and collaborative enterprise. Again we might envisage two scenarios: 1) where an individual places themselves in a challenging social situation and chooses to engage in an immersive way – examples might include grappling with a new job or complex work problem, engaging deeply in a learning process or team based artistic performance, prolonged travel / exposure in another country/culture with a partner ; 2) where rapid and significant changes in circumstances or the environment require an immersive response in order to get through/survive an event – examples of situations might include severe illness within the family, death of a loved one, coping with natural or manmade disasters.
Types of immersive experiences

Three different types of immersive experience can be distinguished in the appreciative enquiry:

  1. those which are essentially pleasurable and risk free and do not encounter conditions that are stressful or distressing – like being immersed in a book.

  2. those experiences that may contain within them pleasurable experiences and outcomes but which also contain physically, intellectually and emotionally challenging, stressful or distressing situations (a majority of stories are of this type);

  3. the murky side of immersive experience in which an immersive situation is intended to ‘block out the light’ rather than lead to enlightenment. Here immersion has ‘links with homogenisation and the repression of difference.’

But not all immersive experiences are good experiences or have beneficial outcomes in terms of making a positive difference to someone’s life. So to these must be added a fourth category.

4) experiences that are far from pleasurable. They are stressful and distressing, they are dominated by emotional low points and outcomes are not positive or beneficial.

Why do people to engage in an immersive experience?

Understanding what compels people to voluntarily enter an experience that is likely to be immersive or to turn an experience into one that is immersive by engaging in it in an immersive way is important if we are to create conditions for immersive experience in higher education. It might be anticipated that committing to a level of engagement that participants recognise as being immersive will require powerful motivational forces particularly if the experience is sustained over a period of time. The stories participants chose to tell of their immersive experiences were overwhelmingly self-motivated and positive in the sense of fulfilling personal needs, desires and aspirations. In a few stories the reasons for participating in an immersive way was not clear.

Some of the more overt sources of motivation are listed below.

  • Need / desire for personal development / profound change /

  • Taking on a significant new challenge requiring adaptation/re-invention – motivations to understand/survive/master.

  • Necessity /need to invent (typically connected to taking on a new/significant challenge)

  • Desire to exploit an opportunity (typically connected to taking on a new challenge)

  • Desire to learn a language/culture (specific and frequently cited new challenge)

  • The need for stimulation (generic reason for a new challenge)

  • Necessity /need to invent (typically connected to taking on a new/significant challenge)

  • Need desire to conduct research (specific context for new challenge)

  • Passion/excitement/happiness

  • Experiencing effects

  • Doing something for others

  • Being inspired by others
  • Modelling immersive behaviour in order to engage others in an immersive way

  • Coping with situations that were imposed / outside of the control of the individual

Strong and sustained self-motivational forces are likely to involve a combination of forces like for example the need desire for change/personal development, might be connected to taking on a new challenge, seeing and exploiting a new opportunity then experiencing the effects on self and others.

We must also appreciate that an overt motivational force may camouflage other motivations which although unspoken might be as powerful. So needs and desire for change/personal development might also be connected deep down to unarticulated desires for a happier, more fulfilling or spiritual life.
Motivations are also likely to change through a complex experience. An immersive experience may begin with an obligation or sense of duty, it might encounter anxiety and fear as a source of negative emotional energy but might progress through senses of satisfaction and enjoyment as difficult situations are mastered and new insights are gained.
Only a few immersive experiences appear to have been ‘driven’ by circumstances beyond the control of the individual, although the environment and participants’ engagement with it is a key feature of most immersive experiences.
In summary, the overwhelming sources of energy and commitment to engaging in an immersive way with a complex situation seem to be intrinsic in nature seemingly triggered by needs for new experiences and challenges through which people develop themselves. Higher education is not very good at recognising individually designed, self-motivated experience in its pre-planned, formalised approaches to education and this might be a barrier to further development of immersive experiences.

How do people learn through immersive experiences?

Learning is an active process: people learn by doing and experiencing things

  • Learning by observing, experiencing, listening, participating, searching for information, asking. I started by wandering around in the clothes I arrived with, then I got an office on someone else's island, then bought my own land (and sold some), then took delivery of our own island which I prepared for the students, to carry out their activity last semester. I attended conferences and discussions, and then organised my own discussion series in the office and now on the island. I spent a lot of time shopping and opened my own shop. I found I was devoting rather a lot of time to living in Second Life ...

In such situations people learn from the experiences of others

  • At the same time, learning from the experiences of others (such as my two French colleagues) was invaluable in helping me to understand this foreign landscape.

  • structured reflection with my coach-mentor

  • the opportunity to discuss issues – and crucially my reflection on issues

Learning is experiential and reflective

  • The forms of learning were initially experiential; later, after the event, predominantly reflective.

Learning involves seeing and making new meanings

  • for me the gain in experiential and reflective learning was much greater. In particular, I was struck by the final wonder…….. this triggered a personal exploration of a situation in which I currently find myself. Through it I was able to explore a range of possibilities. The situation is still uncomfortable but I am now more at peace with the way things are working out.

What do we learn through immersive experiences?

The learning that participants report raises the issue of what counts as learning: what emerges is a very rich

and diverse visualisation and representation of what learning derived through these sorts of intensively engaged experience means.

We learn a lot through experiences that we describe as being immersive.

  • Learning by observing, experiencing, listening, participating, searching for information, asking.

  • [I learnt a] huge amount of a broad/general and subject specific knowledge acquisition happened as a result of this immersive experience.

Situations often demand that we learn quickly and they may force us to make and learn from mistakes

  • I had to learn a lot very quickly, and learn by making mistakes as well

We learn complex things – like a new language or how a society or culture works.

  • I learnt to speak fluently but at the same time, understood how difficult it is to be completely illiterate -- deaf and dumb in some ways of

  • immersion enabled me to get inside another culture and I take pleasure from this experience even to this day.  It has left an enduring mark, a language competence and a deep respect for Italy, particularly the South.

  • I developed considerable verbal fluency in Russian, moving from an initial lack of confidence and reluctance to open my mouth for fear of making a mistake, to thinking (and sometimes dreaming) in Russian,

  • I learnt that the British approach to life wasn’t the only way, so I learnt how to unlearn. I figured out which parts of my Britishness I wanted to hold on to and which were better discarded. I found out what was really important to me and treasured values like kindness, cheerfulness and courage that go beyond culture.

We learn subtle things

  • A recognition of the power of the smile and the importance of humour in negotiating and in tense situations.

Situations encourage self-reliance and resourcefulness and encourage people to push themselves beyond their comfort zones

  • The situation, which was highly stressful at times, made me more self-reliant.

  • It made me engage in huge amounts of a priori reasoning, reflection, planning and practice, in the absence of any prescribed, agreed approaches or even content.

  • My own predispositions and interests were encouraged by the circumstances, so that these could be used as resources

  • I discovered resources in myself of self-reliance, resilience and staying power, even through the difficult times.

  • I soon discovered that …I just needed to be self-reliant and get on with the job

  • Shown me the importance of risk taking and moving out of one’s comfort zone

We learn physical things

We learn complex skills and competencies

  • I learnt to gather and synthesise complex evidence and make judgements about what I had seen and experienced.

  • An apparent capacity to appear patient and calm while inwardly panicking!

  • I also developed skills for embracing differences.

  • I learnt how to build relationships and when to choose not to.

We encounter ah-ha moments:

  • Not exactly eureka moments, more ah, hah moments as something falls into place, links with something else or I understand more about a situation or experience’

We learn about how other people behave and become more sensitive to seeing the world from other perspectives

  • I learned how individuals construct their own changing perspectives in learning situations
  • An understanding that some people just do not see the detail and that it takes hard conscious thought to work with people who have very different thought processes and working patterns when in an immersive situation.

  • On reflection, changes that emerged include a greater respect for others who encounter challenges on a daily basis, particularly people who live in absolute poverty and suffer from terminal illnesses, yet do so in a dignified manner.

  • I learnt to empathise with the front-line teachers and managers that made our education system work

We learn to think with complexity, with deeper wisdom and new senses of knowing

  • Negotiation and decision-making based on whole-person, complex models of what learning is and what it is for

  • An acknowledgement that there needs to be vision to create such events, and a realisation that even the smallest of details are important and need to be considered at the visionary stage in order for the big picture to appear complete

We learn how to reflect more deeply and how to make sense of complex situations through this process.

  • This provided the impetus to appreciate reflection as a practitioner far more constructively than hitherto - and within that to recognise the importance of both peer feedback and an understanding of peer perspectives.

  • It made me reflect on my own skills, attitudes and highlighted my strengths.

We learn how to create new senses of order

  • Sense-making is an ongoing project

  • A feeling of creating order, making sense out of material that was both very familiar to me but which seemed at the outset to be very fragmented.

We learn to see things differently through the forms or learning and the personal meaning and connections we make in our lives

  • for me the gain in experiential and reflective learning was much greater. In particular, I was struck by the final wonder: “I wonder what God was doing while Abram & Sarai were wandering back and forth in the desert?” this triggered a personal exploration of a situation in which I currently find myself. Through it I was able to explore a range of possibilities. The situation is still uncomfortable but I am now more at peace with the way things are working out.

  • the learning was about being reminded how teaching and facilitating a learning experience can actually be a trigger for one's own learning - and for the reassertion of one's own learned experiences.

We learn to work with, use and control our emotions

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