Robert Appelman on Designing Experiential modes: A Key Focus for Immersive Learning Environments

NOTE: Like a few of the others I reviewed, this article comes from TechTrends Vol. 49 No. 3 edited by Sonny Kirkley. If I’m not mistaken, Robert Appelman is also another IU graduate and faculty member. This article is something of a heady read, but cites many of those I’ve been studying, such as Barab, Cuban, Dewey, Gee, Piaget, Prensky, and Salen & Zimmerman. Many of the articles listed in Appelman’s references are also explicitly constructivist, though this article is only implicitly so.

Appelman (2005) discussed a framework of Experiential Modes (EMs), which he defined as “both observable attributes (the physical surroundings, sentient beings, objects, systems and events that occur) and the non-observable perceptions of learners (the engagement, cognition, and affective responses)” (p. 64). He considered these “the smallest component of a learning environment” (p. 64).

The problem being addressed Appelman (2005) was that “the video game industry is leading the way in the development of rich virtual environments, but instructional designers are not prepared to design rich learning environments that incorporate such EMs, nor do they have any systematic models to guide them” (p. 65). Appelman aimed to address this need with his framework of EMs.

Much of the article was given over to discussion of learning environment design, differentiating learning environments and experiential modes, and experiential mode design. During this time he established vocabluary with which to discuss these things, including the concept of superstructure for observable attributes of an EMs, infrastructure for the unobservable attributes, and virtuality to “describe the degree to which any part of (an EM) is a representation of reality instead of ‘the real thing'” (p. 68). He also discussed the role of instructional design concepts such as content density and authenticity of content (p. 69), and he provided visual representations of these elements.

In the tradition of John Dewey, Appelman is interested in experiential learning (p. 65). As such, it seemed the holy grail for him was “the Star Trek holodeck level… full virtual sensory immersion and complete user control and manipulation” (p. 71). As the technology is not yet available for this sort of game or simulation, Appelman dedicated some time to discussing the use of existing technologies for new learning environments, giving the example of Sasha Barab’s work with Quest Atlantis at, and the use of existing commercial games as learning environemnts, as Kurt Squire explored with Civilization III in his dissertation.

Ultimately, Appelman concludes the following:

“Although Instructional Design has already turned toward a more learner-centered approach, the entire development process must also embrace the learner’s experience as it focuses on providing rich EMs that are created through an emergent and dynamic development process.

The design strategy of focusing on EMs for development resonates with new virtual technologies since their experiential components are so high.


Appelman, Robert. (2005). Designing experiential modes: a key focus for immersive learning environments. TechTrends. 49 (3) 64-74.