Immersive learning experiences

The most effective way to learn.

Matthew Phillips
Immersive learning experiences

The most impactful learning experiences I’ve encountered centred on building. Rather than focus on content, they created a context that fostered earnest intent to learn by building.

I first encountered an experience like this at university. I was studying neuroscience, and the first two weeks were a bootcamp. To bring the students together and get us thinking creatively about intelligent systems, we were tasked with designing and building a robot that chased and popped balloons. The task was fun and technically challenging enough to be deeply engaging. We teamed up in groups of two and competed to see who could pop the most balloons in a minute. We had to put together the hardware, write the code controlling the robot, and do so while trying to beat the others.

A similar experience was during Entrepreneur First, a startup accelerator in London. They bring together a group of people who want to build a startup, but who don’t have an idea they’ve started working on or a co-founder to do it with. The program works by people forming teams, stress-testing the team by working on ideas together, and if successful, forming a company. A unique aspect of the program is the friendly competitive spirit it creates. Having not been in the startup world previously, it drove me to learn at a pace I’ve never experienced in my life before.

In comparison, every other higher education experience I had was lacking. They followed the same model: a series of lectures, sometimes with assignments, and an exam at the end. While I did learn from these courses, the progress I made in the intensive, plunge-right-in experiences was an order of magnitude greater. I call these ‘immersive learning experiences’ - where you learn by jumping right into actually performing tasks in the area you were learning about.

They were also deeply social. Everyone was in a team, striving towards a goal together. That goal was clear and measurable. It was competitive and motivating. I wanted to learn from other teams’ approaches, and share what I had learned. This made for a richer experience, closer to how we solve problems in day-to-day life.

These immersive experiences were both centred around giving you control over a system. The first was a robot. The second was a proto-company. This leads to direct feedback from your actions from the system itself. By comparison, in a standard university lecture course, feedback is delayed and doesn’t arise from a system you are controlling directly.

Both immersive learning experiences included explanatory content, but this wasn’t the focus. Instead, the focus was on building. In concrete terms, this meant celebrating progress and embracing failures. More effort went into producing this culture than into producing explanatory content. The most useful explanations arose from discussions. The cultures produced were remarkably similar; they had an intense and collaborative atmosphere.

What would a product built around these principles look like? It looks like what we are building at Delta Academy. Our courses are organised into cohorts, with students forming teams. Every week, after completing interactive tutorials they compete to build an AI based on what they’ve learned. The culture that arises captures the best of what I experienced in my PhD bootcamp and on Entrepreneur First: intense, motivating and creative.