Experiencism: A Retrospective

by Michael MacKay

October 24th, 2020

A retrospective on experiencism: What is it and where do we go?

Educational technology, one of the few words that can inspire hope and produce disdain in educators worldwide. The educational field can attribute much of its innovations over the last thirty-five years to this unlikely, perhaps even, contradictory combination of words. It is reasonable to assume that educational technology’s uneasy marriage stems from its early integration, where the technology portion walks taller (Weller, 2020, p. 179). However, over the last ten years, the education piece has come into providence by focusing on pedagogy first technologies, the idea that technologies need to be designed and built with the pedagogical implications in mind. One great example of this approach and the focus of this article is Experiencism.

By the end of the twentieth century and into the early twenty-first century, many frameworks were being devised that could be loosely associated with Experiencism. During this time, the field of education was shifting from traditional instructional methodologies to student-centred models. Project-Based Learning (PBL) was one of the first frameworks to focus on reframing learning around the student experience by requiring learners to construct projects established in non-trivial task-based scenarios. Learners in a PBL environment must cognitively navigate complex tasks by engaging the material through research and conceptualization of ideas, often aided by technology to encourage realism and motivation (Blumenfeld et al., 1991). With the adoption of PBL, the education paradigm shifted from solely acquiring knowledge to the acquisition and application of said knowledge. Technology became imperative in the learning process.

Educators soon started to apply learning through making, sometimes referred to as the maker movement, by leveraging new, cheap, and commercially available technologies. The maker movement, like PBL, encourages learning by doing. However, unlike PBL, it focused on studying specific technologies through experimental play using a community of like-minded individuals, inspiring the investigation of science, technology, engineering, art, and math (Hsu et al., 2017, p. 589). New technologies like 3D printing and virtual reality (VR) became stables of educational institution’s maker spaces, the room devised for the sole purpose of making and completing projects. At this time, educators have been experimenting with holistic constructivist-based learning by implementing technology in their practice for nearly two decades, and their methodological approaches were becoming more refined. Educational technology specialists began to look for solutions that gave them more control over the technologies they were implementing.

In 2010, Dalgarno and Lee suggested one of the first frameworks that focused on learners’ affordances to effectively implement a specific technology. The framework, which focused on 3D virtual environments, distinguished two characteristics: (1) representational fidelity, the technical aspects of the media, and (2) learning interactions, the actions, communications, behaviours and constructions that the 3D environment enables (Dalgarno & Lee, 2010). Fowler (2015) refined Dalgarno & Lee’s model by stating that there was too much emphasis on the technology’s affordances, while the pedagogical significance was ignored. Using the learning cycle framework, which constitutes learning through three phases: (1) conceptualization, the interaction between the learner’s pre-existing understanding and new content, (2) construction, the process of building and combining new concepts through meaningful tasks, and (3) application, testing conceptualizations in their applied contexts (Mayes & Fowlers, 1999, p. 489), Fowler extended Dalgarno and Lee’s original model by unifying the two frameworks focusing on a design for learning approach (Fowler, 2015, pp. 417-418). Finally, Experiencism adopted Fowler’s model; it focused on the design for learning approach and emphasized the pedagogical, technical, and learner affordances at all levels of the learning design process, including the development of any associated tools.

Experiencism, at its core, is an educational framework used to deliver holistic educational experiences in realistic environments or contexts. It stems from the constructivism theory, in which the mind learns by creating meaning rather than acquiring it, acknowledging that learning is subjective and based on the learner’s unique reality (Ertmer & Newby, 2013, p. 55). An experiencist approach attempts to sway the learner’s reality by crafting an immersive environment with the sole purpose of creating a learning experience for a specific outcome or objective. This pedagogy-first approach moves “beyond simplistic dichotomies such as passive and active or tech as tool metaphors” (Southgate, 2020, pp. 38-39) to a more nuanced and educationally infused development cycle that becomes the foundation of the associated instructional design. To an experiencist, instructional affordances should be embedded into the tools and means of content delivery, inferring any associated technologies or media should be developed, at least in its purest form, with the sole intention of aiding the learner’s educational experience.

Today, VR and Experiencism have become synonymous in some educational circles. The affordances of VR allow experiencist educators to realistically craft environments and their associated behaviours and interactions, allowing learners to experience nearly any learning objective. Even learning activities thought of as unattainable, impractical or too abstract could become concrete realities. For example, The Mars Training Project, a hyper-realistic virtual environment, allows high school and undergrad students to work together to create a thriving Mars colony. Likewise, the Experiencism Initiative, an open-source VR charity enabled through creative commons licensing (Creative Commons, 2019), lower hardware costs, and 3D printing, allows many K-12 schools to create and develop their own stand-alone VR headsets, which empowers them to circumvent expensive commercial alternatives with their associated privacy concerns. Most educators today acknowledge the potential of VR and Experiencism, yet, there are still some growing concerns.

Despite lowering costs, VR equipment still requires a substantial financial investment and a high degree of expertise to implement an experiencist approach effectively. Movements, like the Experiencism Initiative cited above, have attempted to smooth this inequality, but there is still a dichotomy of those who have the means and those that do not. Using the replaceability challenge, the idea that if a different media can yield similar learning gains, educators must always choose the less expensive one (Clark, 1994, para. 3), some critics have attempted to argue that Experiencism can be achieved by cheaper means using in-person scenarios or alternative technologies. However, due to VR’s ability to create any environment, even the impractical or impossible, most critical papers have relented this approach. Still, there is a valid concern that zealous practitioners will begin to see VR as a universal tool that can solve all educational problems. Given the history of Experiencism and its humble beginnings as a way of infusing pedagogical practices into educational technologies, it is ironic to see possible misapplications of VR technologies facilitated through poor pedagogical practices derived from its adoption.

“There is no other technology like [VR], [i]t can transport a person to an artificial world which envelops their senses to such a degree that they feel as though they are really there” (Southgate, 2020, p. 121). It is for this reason that Experiencism owes its emerging popularity. Furthermore, Experiencism’s precursors, PBL and learning by making, helped embed a robust pedagogical foundation into educational technologies. Its associated frameworks helped change viewpoints from how can I use technology in my practice to what learning affordances a specific technology creates. Nevertheless, despite this healthy foundation, researchers and practitioners need to be vigilant. The saturation of VR technologies in education is limited at best, and even fewer specialists exist to imbue a pedagogy-first approach, increasing the likelihood of misunderstandings and abuse of VR technologies in the name of Experiencism. It is essential to understand Experiencism’s past and identify possible limitations so future discourse on the framework will involve and understand the technology, pedagogical, and human aspects that have contributed and will further contribute to its success (Weller, 2020, p. 186).


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