Learning Online is not a Spectator Sport: How to Make it Active

“Learning is not a spectator sport.” Chickering & Gamson, excerpt from the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, (1987). Principle number three, ‘Good practice encourages active learning.’

Agreed! Studies prove time and again that college students do not learn when listening passively. To clarify further, twenty minutes of listening to a lecture is the maximum amount of time that students can process information effectively according to research cited in Does Active Learning Work, A Review of the Research (Prince, 2004).  The method of lecturing as we know it may be coming to an end. In my last post I examined the concept of active learning, where students are engaged and involved in the learning process. I provided several examples of active learning in college classrooms across the nation that are replacing traditional lectures. But what about active learning in online courses? What does active learning ‘look like’ in a virtual environment when the face-to-face component is missing? This post will provide educators with course design strategies for implementing active learning principles in online environments that will lead to rich learning experiences for students. I’ll also include specific examples of active learning activities in general education courses delivered in the online format.

What is Active Learning in the Online Environment?
Active learning is defined as “students [that are] engaged in more activities than just listening. They are involved in dialog, debate, writing, and problem solving, as well as higher-order thinking, e.g., analysis, synthesis, evaluation.”  The authors of this definition (Bonwell & Eison,1991) were defining active learning for the face-to-face classroom, as was Chickering and Gamson, authors of the opening quotation.

Yet active learning in the virtual environment is no different than learning in face-to-face classrooms; we can apply the same definitions to online learning communities. The goal is to encourage students to dialog, write, think and evaluate no matter what learning environment the student occupies. If we consider Bloom’s Taxonomy of cognitive development, we want students to employ skills that go beyond the entry-level skills of knowledge and comprehension. We want students to develop and use higher order thinking skills of application, analysis and synthesis. Before we move to the design steps, I’ve listed the types of active learning which will help with the course design process.

Categories of Active Learning Online

1. Individual learning activities are types where the learner applies course content that is read either online or through course materials through writing, diagrams or concept mapping.
2. Cooperative learning can be defined as a structured form of group work where students pursue common goals while being assessed individually.  Examples include discussion forums where students respond and engage with fellow classmates and peer review projects. Click here for a resource on cooperative learning.
3. Collaborative learning refers to any instructional method in which students work together in small groups toward a common goal. Examples of collaborative learning activities are case studies, debates in teams using discussion forums, reports or essays that are created collectively then evaluated as a group.

Instructional Strategy Design Steps
In the multiphase approach of instructional design (ID), the instructional strategy phase comes after the development of the learning outcomes and the objectives for the course (which should support the overall outcomes). The instructional strategy builds upon the learning objectives, then the delivery system or instructional vehicle and the type of learning activity are selected (click here to read more about the ID process). Below are the components of an effective instructional strategy for active learning in the online course:

  • Identify instructional objectives that will support students in reaching the overall learning outcomes for the course. The instructional objectives will dictate the complexity of the active learning selected – for the purpose of this post we will work with instructional objectives typical of general education undergraduate level courses. To read more about creating course objectives, click here.
  • Decide what kind (category) of active learning activity will best suit the objective(s) taking into consideration other factors such as time, complexity of execution, weight of grading (as applicable).
  • Evaluate alternatives for the learning activity and select the best fit.
  • Develop instructions for the activity. This is a critical step, including detailed, concise and clear instructions. Also necessary, is a brief paragraph introducing the activity which includes an explanation of its purpose.  Students, especially adult learners, want to know why they are doing something and how it fits into the overall learning objectives. Another reason for including an introduction is that it establishes an element of motivation for students, which increase the chances that students will complete the activity successfully. Below is an example of the purpose clearly outlined in the introduction of an activity:

Introduction to a Group Project in an Online Science Class (Sample)
“ For the Group Challenge Assignment which begins in module four, you will be working in groups of three.  Below are the groups…..The purpose of doing a group assignment is two-fold: first to help you to communicate and articulate your thoughts and beliefs about …. and second, to be able to consider alternate viewpoints that may differ from your own. Being able to successfully accomplish both, will allow you to engage in a thoughtful and meaningful discussion about science that is consistent with….”  Detailed instructions follow this introduction.

  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the activity from various perspectives after implementation. In most cases there will a product which is representative of students’ work, which can be used for evaluation. Other methods to assess the effectiveness include soliciting student feedback through a survey tool or assessment of the overall quality of student work.

Active Learning Examples
One of the benefits of online learning is the accessibility to resources on the Web. Many educators are wary of using online sources for content and learning activities, however I am an advocate of this method because of the interesting and authentic open resources available that can supplement instruction. But it is the careful selection of the media and applications that is critical, selecting those that are the right fit for the instructional objectives.

1) Individual Activity Example
Course: World History II   Activity: Interactive Timeline of Revolution History
Introduction for Student: The goal of this activity is to describe the historical significance of one revolution that occurred between in 1770 and 1970 in terms of its political influence on subsequent events.

Instructional Vehicle: Online Discussion Forum
Instructions for Student (appear in blue text):
1) Click on the image below to go to the PBS website which links to this interactive map.
2) Roll you cursor over the shaded areas on the map once you are on the website [details here that describe the technical aspects of how to use the map].
3) Select one of the revolutions on the map that interests you or … [further options here].
4) To participate,
‘add new discussion topic’ in the forum and write three paragraphs about the revolution you chose and its historical significance by describing: its causes, the political climate at the time, the outcomes, and the revolution’s impact on subsequent political developments. For example … [guidelines provided here which also mention consulting the course textbook]  This is a graded activity. Please see the grading guidelines and rubric for further details [this establishes the expectations].
5) Do not duplicate what a classmate has already posted.

2) Collaborative Group Activity Example

Course: Foundations of Science   Activity: Group Position Statement [on a controversial issue]
Introduction for Student: Refer to statement I included in the design steps section
Instructional Vehicle: Online Discussion Forum for each group
Instructions for students (abbreviated):
How you will work together:
This is an asynchronous activity (not in real-time), which means you can participate at times that are convenient for you through your groups’ discussion board and through the messaging system within … This activity allows students to participate across time zones and personal schedules.

  • Watch the video from ‘Ted Talk’ (link below) by ….. [topic is a controversial one].
  • Work with your group to discuss the video’s content, then begin to create your group ‘statement’ using your group discussion board to get started… [we suggest students move to using Google docs to work on their position statement].
  • Detailed instructions follow which I did not include in consideration of your reading time.
  • Then second-half of the assignment is continued the following week where each group posts its position statement, and a class discussion ensues on the content of the group statements. Controversial issues usually generate much discussion, but does require instructor moderation.

Examples from other Institutions:
Mind the Science Gap: This class for public health students involves writing an article each week about a public health issue and posting it to the class blog Mind the Science Gap. Several mentors volunteer their time (myself included) to give feedback to students. Anyone can be involved and feedback is often from the general Web ‘public’. The course instructor does an excellent job of outlining the purpose of the assignment, and guidelines for giving students feedback on their articles.

Concept Mapping: I have read several journal articles about the use of concept mapping for group work, though I have not used it within our program to date. The idea appears to have potential, however all of the above principles of design would need to be incorporated. Click here for a blog post with a list of free concept mapping tools.

Active learning that involves students, that puts them in the center of the learning experience is possible in the online environment just as it is in the face-to-face classroom. We also see how active learning that takes advantage of the abundance of tools and applications available on the Web can make learning relevant, yet no less rigorous. Course instructors however are the key to successful learning outcomes by their involvement in instruction and development of active learning that adheres to pedagogical principles. Thanks for reading!

Photo Credit: Bloom’s [modified] Taxonomy by Ryan Somma, Flickr

Interactive Activities in Online and Hybrid Courses, Teaching Geosciences Online, Resources
How-to Make Learning Relevant with Active Learning, Online Learning Insights

9 thoughts on “Learning Online is not a Spectator Sport: How to Make it Active

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  7. Micheal

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    1. onlinelearninginsights Post author

      Hi Michael. Thanks so much for commenting and for reading my blog! I write for readers like you who find something of value in what I share. I always am thankful for readers who do comment and even those that don’t. Thank you for inspiring me to keep writing :). Debbie



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