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Immersion and Engagement in Self-Directed Learning

written by: Shey Marque•edited by: Sylvia Cochran•updated: 5/19/2011

Self-directed learning in online courses is a popular mode of adult education, especially for those interested in life-long learning. This article discusses the benefits of self-directed learning and the type of pedagogy best suited to online education.

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    What is Self-Directed Learning?

    Contemporary online learning methods are placing additional pressures on online students, but the increased demand also serves to stimulate the intellect. Self-directed learning shifts the power and responsibility for learning closer to the student. For many online courses, self-directed learning requires that students:

    • Plan and participate in their own learning activities
    • Identify requirements for problem solving and reaching the learning objective
    • Develop self-discipline and time management skills
    • Seek critical evaluation of performance
    • Communicate with peers for information exchange

    The most often talked about problem is the lack of face to face interaction and non-engagement by some students. Motivation and learning are inseparable, so it’s important to assess online course content to determine whether it is designed to retain a student’s interest and motivation. Both immersion and engagement are integral to self-directed learning.

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    Immersion versus Engagement

    Online learning promotes self-directed learning.

    Immersion is when we become absorbed into the narrative of a book, film, game or other text, whereas engagement requires something more. Engagement is the more effective stage of learning because it stimulates the participant into free thinking, problem solving and individual thought processes, which are connected closely to constructivist learning.

    The more educated or widely-read individuals may find it easier to engage with an issue or learning objective, extract personal meaning and, therefore, maintain long term retention of learned material. “Readers who enjoy engagement also tend to enjoy confronting situations for which they lack scripts, as these provide opportunities for learning, as opposed to merely performing one of a series of scripts within a conventional framework (Hargadon and Douglas 2004)."

    This suggests that it is beneficial to become ‘well-read’ in order to maximize engagement of online learning material, because prior exposure to a wide variety of schemas, scenarios or scripts facilitates acceptance and understanding of postmodern narratives in particular, which deviate from ‘long-familiar conventions and patterns’.

    An increase in thinking agility results in the development of a more natural affinity for hypertexts and online learning methods applicable to self-directed learning.

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    Engagement with Hypertext

    Engagement is necessary in order to learn from hypertextual scripts in online learning environments in which individuals may choose the learning path that resonates closely with their particular interests and natural learning processes. Immersion at the beginning of a learning activity leads the student into the engagement phase.

    It’s interesting that educational games and activities shouldn’t appear to be educational because this is thought to interfere with the process of immersion (Leyland 1996). So there is the problem of creating an educational activity that doesn’t feel like we’re being asked to learn something. Allowing the student to choose their own learning path within hypertexts is one way of avoiding the traditional authoritative educational approach.

    So that learning materials do not merely lead the student into a simple interest in exploring alternative narratives, interactive features are necessary for true engagement to occur. Adding solvable problems to an issue, or activities that require self-reflection, are ways of achieving this objective. Self consciousness needs to be maintained rather than a disappearance into complete immersion.

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    Who Benefits from Self-Directed Learning?

    We are all self-directed learners to different individual extents. Self-directed learning, reinforced by the emergence of online education, is a timely antidote to the dumbing down of the population both in a general sense as well as within learning institutions. People have largely forgotten how to think. A major problem with traditional regurgitative learning methods is that they require a perfect memory. With increasing age and stress levels leading to poor memory retention, and the trend towards lifelong learning in order to cope with our rapidly changing society and technology, we had better learn how to learn. Online learning methods that center on self-directed learning have positive effects on learning.

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    Online Learning Methods that Stimulate Engagement

    Online role-play

    Role play activities are well established in education curricula in the traditional classroom. Online role play is becoming increasingly popular as both a means of entertainment and education. The student-centered activity requires that the students control the learning process, a key criterion for self-directed learning.

    Online role play simulations ‘encourage a socio-cultural approach to learning by way of collaborative learning’ where students construct personal meaning from the learning objectives (Coll-Garcia and Linser 2006). Their online role play, which relates to learning foreign languages, promotes engagement and interaction with learning material resulting in an efficient extraction of meaning.

    Specifically they note ‘positive attitudes, motivation, a learning environment that favors immersion, fluency development, integration of communicative skills and culture, development of critical thinking skills, and active participation on the part of the learners’.

    An Australian company, Fablusi, produces software for creating comprehensive online role play simulations in a variety of subject areas for online education that are available commercially.


    Creating a Mystory is another online learning method for increasing immersion and engagement in online education. The Mystory is a personal journey and, as such, a student-centered activity where the student enters a self-directed learning path and creates a hypertextual script. Further discussion on the theory and examples of how to create a Mystory can be accessed in the article “Mystory: Educational Pedagogy for Online Learning."

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    • Coll-Garcia JF and Linser R 2006, Web-Based Role-Play Simulations and Foreign Language Learning: An Attitudinal Survey. EUROCALL 2006, Integrating CALL into Study Programmes, Granda, Spain.
    • Fablusi, The Online Role-Play Simulation Platform,
    • Guglielmino LM 2008, Why Self-Directed Learning? International Journal of Self-Directed Learning, vol 5, no. 1, viewed 18 June 2009,
    • Hargadon A and Douglas J 2004, The Pleasures of Immersion and Interaction. Electronic Book Review, viewed 18 June 2009,
    • Leyland B 1996, How can computer games offer deep learning and still be fun? A progress report on a game in development, viewed 21 October 2008,