Unlocking the potential of VR in education requires a comprehensive view of immersion

Immersion is one of the main affordances of virtual reality, but, ‘Despite the multitude of application areas, there is no common understanding about what makes VR immersive’ (Winkler et al., 2020).

However, it is important to understand what exactly it means if we want to design educational VR applications or learning experiences that make best use of this affordance. 

How is immersion in VR defined? 

Many of the definitions of immersion are of a technical nature. Not surprisingly,  the technology company Qualcomm (2015, p. 4), defines immersion as:

‘The three pillars of immersive experiences are visual quality, sound quality, and intuitive interactions. Full immersion can only be achieved by simultaneously focusing on the broader dimensions of each pillar. Too often, the focus has been on specific dimensions, such as pixel quantity, rather than other dimensions, like pixel quality, which may be equally or more important for specific use cases.’

Bohol et al. (2009, p.2) define VR as 

‘an ever-growing set of tools and techniques that can be used to create the psychological sensation of being in an alternate space… The hardware and software used to create a VR system are designed to replicate the information available to the sensory/perceptual system in the physical world. In other words, a computer and its peripheral devices produce outputs that impinge upon the body’s various senses, resulting in convincing illusions for each of these senses and thus a rich, interactive multimedia facsimile of real life.’

According to Freina and Ott (2015, p.1), 

Spatial immersion into virtual reality is a perception of being physically present in a non- physical world. The perception is created by surrounding the user of the VR system with images, sound or other stimuli that provide a very absorbing environment.’ 

In a small-scale systematic literature review, Wilkinson, Brantley and Feng (2021, p. 1001) found that immersion was defined as 

‘the technical qualities of a system that aide the feeling of presence. 

Similarly, Slater and Sanches-Vives (2016, p. 5) say that

‘Immersion describes the technical capabilities of a system, it is the physics of the system.’

These technical definitions of immersion all relate to just what Sherman and Craig (2019) call physical immersion in their list of…

‘defining features of virtual reality’:

  • ‘It is a medium of communication.
  • It requires physical immersion.
  • It provides synthetic sensory stimulation.
  • It is interactive.
  • It can mentally immerse the user.’

Physical and mental immersion in VR explained

As we can see, Sherman and Craig, they distinguish between two types of immersion: physical and mental. What is meant by physical immersion is the sense of presence – the feeling of physically being in a place that we are seeing virtually when we put on a VR headset (Sherman and Craig, 2019). For example, if a person is seeing a scene or 360° video of the Louvre Museum in Paris, they can feel as if they are really there. 

Mental immersion is easiest understood as being mentally (hence the name) engaged with a story, such as when we are reading a book but are transported into the world of the book’s narrative and can imagine or visualise the places, characters and events, and feel the emotions that the characters are going through.

It is only physical (or technical) immersion that we hear mostly about when the immersive quality of VR is discussed. My hypothesis is that this combined with the fact that most edtech companies are lead by engineers often results in educational VR applications that consist of replications of university campuses, school buildings, classrooms and lecture halls. The belief seems to be that the technology itself – in this case VR with its capacity for physical immersion – enhances learning. 

Purely technical definitions of immersion are not sufficient to make learning happen in VR

Technical immersion alone  (and the consequent feeling of presence) does not lead to full immersion. It does not promote learning in itself either, just as moving to a country where the language a person is learning  is spoken on its own does not help them learn the language. It’s the interactions with the environment and people through actively participating in daily life that do.

Immersing learners in a virtual lecture hall to listen or watch a lecture does not do anything more than lecture-based learning in a physical setting. All it might add, is some extra discomfort from wearing a headset.

Edtech companies are not alone at fault. Educational institutions and teachers who are experimenting with immersive learning also often tend to replicate environments and learning activities from the physical world, even though few are content with education as it is. 

Transforming education with VR

It is perhaps understandable that we start with what we know and improve and innovate once we know the medium well. However, immersive technologies and learning has been around for a while now; it is not necessarily an emerging technology anymore, even though the technology has been evolving and physical immersion has improved. 

We need to move away from substitution or replication towards redefining and transforming education with VR. We can only do this when we fully understand the affordances of a technology, in this case immersion. 

Only taking account of technical or physical immersion would also exclude other types of access to VR, such as desktop VR, from being considered as immersive. The two types are often juxtaposed as immersive and non-immersive VR, or high versus low-immersion VR. But focusing on the device alone is not very helpful as we have just discussed. Therefore, we need to look at other factors that also create immersion.

VR immersion frameworks provide expanded definitions

There are expanded definitions of immersion that are more complete and much more helpful when discussing educational uses. 

Framework 1

Winkler et al. (2020) argue that ‘Immersion goes beyond the mere technical aspect of VR and includes users’ perceptions as well as the VR setting.’ There study results support other research that say that ‘immersion is an outcome of a combination of factors. The table below summarises the predictors of immersion under three categories.

Framework 2

Enyedy & Yoon (2021) also agree that immersion is more than just the sensory experience created by the technology. They say that the subjective experience is neglected which is a mistake. Combining sensory and subjective experiences creates the immersive experiences that are best for learning.

They propose a framework that includes the four known immersive qualities, plus their fifth, emancipatory immersion – with the acronym SANSE: 

Sensory immersion

Actional immersion

Narrative immersion

 •Social immersion

Emancipatory immersion

Emancipatory immersion is a new type of immersion the authors would like to add. It is ‘tied to  narrative and social immersion, but extends them both,’ and is a tool for ‘identity development’. Immersive experiences types 1–4 are good for making information and knowledge accessible. Type 5 experiences inspire and engage learners, where the immersive experience leads to empathy, attitudinal or behavioural change, taking action, or becoming part of a new community. The authors believe that this is where immersive environments have the most potential for learning.

Can desktop VR be immersive?

The authors, provide us with an analysis of how these immersive qualities are present in different types of VR. According to this, in desktop VR, sensory immersion can be experienced through avatar customisation. Actional immersion relates to how a person navigates through the virtual world via moving their avatar. Narrative immersion exists in terms of the whole story line that a virtual world is based on, as well as opportunities for agency and choice (where to go, what activities to do). And finally, social immersion is achieved through opportunities for meeting, chatting and doing things with other users/learners.

Framework 3

Won et al. (2023) adapt a framework by Dede (2009, 2017) for their framework (similar to Framework 2 above), which includes two technical and two pedagogical design features of immersion – sensory, actional, narrative and social – which are explained in the following table:

Framework 4

Makransky and Petersen (2021, p. 940) agree that

 ‘It is not the medium of IVR that causes more or less learning, but rather that the instructional method used in an IVR lesson will be specifically effective if it facilitates the unique affordances of the medium.’

They synthesised previous research on immersive learning and have come up with three factors that lead to learning outcomes: technological factors

IVR (immersive VR) affordances, affective and cognitive factors. Their Cognitive Affective Model of Immersive Learning (CAMIL) is summarised in the figure below.

Looking at these frameworks, we can see that besides the technological or sensory immersion factors, there are quite a few mental, or affective and cognitive factors. Only if these are combined well in a learning experience, can VR lead to better learning outcomes.

Mental immersion: crucial for immersive learning experiences

This is important when designing learning experiences, but at the same time, these mental factors play an important role in making desktop VR highly immersive. Where desktop VR lacks in some areas of technical immersion, we can enhance its immersiveness and consequently the learning outcomes, if we lean into mental immersion factors. For example, if the narrative and social immersion is high through the inclusion of engaging, meaningful and authentic tasks that learners can collaboratively work on, and if there are lots of opportunities for learners to interact with each other and the environment.

In fact, such a well-designed learning experience accessed through desktop VR can often be more immersive and thus more effective in terms of learning outcomes than a VR headset-based experience in which learners sit in a virtual classroom instead of a physical one and listen to a lecture, which is often presented as innovative way of teaching with VR.


When we look at the various factors that are repeatedly mentioned as important for immersion in VR, such as social interaction, agency or interaction with the environment, narrative or contextualised learning with a real purpose, etc., we can easily see how the same factors are important for good learning experiences as well. Only when we consider all these factors for VR immersion, does it become clear why it is such a good medium for learning.

Looking at the expanded definitions and frameworks for VR, we can also see that most of the factors for immersion can apply to both desktop VR and HMD (or headset) VR. Which means that immersion can happen in both if the experiences are designed well. We cannot say per se that one or the other is more immersive. What we should be doing is to look at how many boxes of the immersion factors one or the other device ticks.