A Closer Look at Immersive Learning

By President Harry J. Elam, Jr. Marc Campos

President Elam examines the history—and future—of immersive learning at Oxy

In an article this spring, the influential Chronicle of Higher Education addressed the phenomenon of college students’ post-pandemic alienation and anxiety, as manifested in their disconnection from conventional curricula and pedagogical approaches. The answer to students’ alienation, anxiety, and apathy, the article suggests, is immersive learning—the kind of experiential education that gives students “a place to discuss the big questions bouncing around in their heads, learn a vocabulary to describe what’s happening around them, engage with the messiness of the world, and navigate their place in it.”

Immersive learning is in Occidental’s DNA. Lab work in chemistry and physics, field work in marine biology and geology, studio art courses, performance in the Glee Club, music classes, and theater—all of these are high-impact practices that date back a century or more. Our overseas study program began, however modestly, in 1916 with an exchange program with Hanchow Christian College (today’s Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China). In the years since then, we have continued to build the immersive experience at Oxy through such signature initiatives as the Kahane United Nations Program, Undergraduate Research, Campaign Semester, Center for Community Based Learning, New Play Festival, and paid internships offered by the Hameetman Career Center, Oxy Arts, and Urban & Environmental Policy Institute, among others.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that immersive learning is a centerpiece of Occidental’s new integrated strategic plan, which was endorsed by the Board of Trustees in April. As the Chronicle points out, immersive courses “have been shown to have a positive and often profound impact on students’ lives. They can be more absorbing, creative and self-directed than traditional courses.” Over the next decade, we plan to ensure that Oxy’s engagement with the world continues to foster excellence through an immersive education that is hands-on, project-based, community-engaged, and interdisciplinary.

Because Occidental is one of the country’s few liberal arts colleges in an urban setting, our immersive methodology has been animated by our location in Los Angeles. The new strategic plan endorsed by the Board of Trustees renews our commitment to the city, deepening and expanding our partnerships with the Los Angeles community and civic and industry partners. The combination of our locale and our immersive approach makes it possible for us to offer students a particularly distinctive and potentially transformative educational experience.

Tim Sanford ’75, whose significant artistic achievements as the head of New York-based Playwrights Horizons were recognized with an honorary degree at Commencement on May 21, credits his singular immersive opportunities at Occidental as critical to his success. “To me, the Oxy theater program was the model for undergraduate and even graduate school programs,” he says. “I’ve been exposed to many programs, and there’s almost nothing like it. ... At Oxy I did everything. I wrote a play and put it on, directed four or five plays, acted constantly—it was a very rich experience.”

As Tim’s example and that of many other Oxy alumni show, immersive education has a strong heritage at Occidental. Still, as the Chronicle points out, “Immersive learning has plenty of champions, but it still remains on the periphery of the college experience, for reasons large and small.” A majority of American college students have experienced just a few immersive classes by the time they graduate—or none at all.

This does not mean all courses must become immersive. Rather, in the wake of the pandemic and the massive disruption it caused, immersive education demands a closer look. Our new strategic plan, The Occidental Promise, coming at a time the Chronicle calls “a decisive moment” for higher education, will do just that. It promises to build on our strengths and undertake a more expansive liberal education that includes immersive practices. This approach offers us exciting prospects and positions Occidental well for the future.

Above: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson receives an honorary doctorate from President Elam at Commencement on May 21.