Tag Archives: Active learning

Dear Professor, I Really Enjoyed the Online Course But….

Some of the most worthwhile feedback for instructors is student responses on end-of-course surveys that give constructive suggestions. Analyzing student responses collectively from our end-of-course, anonymous surveys at the institution where I work reveals rich, qualitative data that helps us determine how we can better support students. In this post I share the patterns that emerged after we examined over 100 student response forms from our most recent session of fifteen general education courses [survey response rate was just over 60%].

The students’ voices jumped of the pages of data; students were loud and clear about what they want from their learning experience, which we categorized into two areas, 1) specific and constructive feedback from the instructor, and 2) active involvement within the online course through discussions and activities. This is not a scientific analysis per se, but other educators may find value in what students have to say and perhaps take away ideas to apply to their own online programs.

About the End-of-Course Survey
Our survey includes twenty questions: seventeen that are a mixture of multiple choice and Likert scale questions, and three open-ended response questions as follows:

  1. What did you like most about the course?
  2. What did you like least about the course?
  3. How could we improve the course?

Theme One: Students’ Want Instructor Feedback
Student responses suggested they want constructive and specific feedback from their course instructor, and the timing of the feedback is also critical. Quick turnaround times  on grading are crucial for courses with condensed time frames of eight to ten weeks where assignments build upon the other. Below are a selection of comments that are representative of the many.

  • “I felt that the professor could have communicated more critically on our assignments.”
  • “My personal preference would have been to receive more timely feedback regarding our written assignments. My preference is to receive feedback during the course than once the course is over.  Doing so provides the student with the necessary feedback and constructive criticisms that can be incorporated into the future assignment.”
  • “He [course instructor] was involved [in the discussion boards] but he did not get all of my grades back to me very quickly, especially the discussion forum grades. I did not get any of the three grades back for those until after I had finished all of them. He also did not participate very much in the class discussion forums. But he was …. great communicating with me individually.”
  • “I would like to have had feedback from the professor on my papers. I would get an email saying feedback on a certain paper can be seen, but when I would click on the link …. I would see my grade but no comments.“

Theme Two: Students Want Interaction
For the most part, students appear to want to interact in the online class. They want to be ‘active’ either through discussion forums, and/or class assignments that involve interaction such as a peer review assignments or collaborative assignments where groups create an essay or presentation.

However, the onus is on the course instructor to construct group assignments and discussions that result in quality exchanges that support the desired course learning outcomes. Students are sensitive to busy work, or assignments that don’t create meaningful learning. On the other hand, assignments may have the potential to be quality, but require the instructor’s guidance and involvement.

  • “It was hard to find study partners; I did miss the camaraderie of classmates.”
  • “I honestly do not like the forced discussion forum, though I understand that it is necessary. I have never liked forced discussions, they always feel fake, and usually leaves you trying to rehash something someone else has all ready said, because so many students can only come up with so many things pertinent to the topic at hand before things start to become repetitive.”
  • “It would be nice if the instructor were more active with the question board.”
  • “More wiki assignments and class activities would not only strengthen the student\’s knowledge by exposing him to the opinions of others, but also make the course more enjoyable.”
  • “I did not like the group project. It was very difficult to get a hold of my team mates. I would have preferred writing the essay on my own.” [Often group assignments require instructor involvement to ensure students participate].
  • “I enjoyed the group project and the discussion in the discussion boards.  I really had fun talking with the other classmates there.”
  • “The small amount of students in this course made it difficult to communicate and discuss things with them.” [Instructor involvement to get the discussion going with a small group may be needed].
  • “I honestly wasn’t expecting to like this class very much … I have taken a class from Dr. Smith [name changed] before [in a face-to-face setting], and he wasn’t my favorite teacher then, but his interaction through this course (which I think is more of ‘his element’) even helped me grow to enjoy him personally as a teacher more.” [This instructor has established his online presence successfully :)].

Analysis and Application
What is heartening after completing this analysis is recognizing that student responses suggest they are eager to engage in the learning process. Research also supports this fact, to students a course is a course regardless of its modality (Cavanagh, 2012 ).  We can consider teaching by the same token, teaching in the online environment in a structured course has the same goal as teaching face-to-face, albeit the methods are different. A different or modified set of skills set are needed by the instructor in the online environment, yet acquiring this skill set need not be a daunting process. Developing skills  can begin one class at a time with simple actions such as: asking for, then reviewing student feedback, monitoring student progress, trying new tactics, talking to colleagues, etc. The list goes on. If you have suggestions you would like to share with readers about what you have learned, please post a comment.

Cavanagh, T. The Postmodality Era: How “Online Learning” Is Becoming “Learning,”  Chapter 16 in Game Changers (Diana Oblinger, ed.), EDUCAUSE Publications, May 2012.

5 Tools and Strategies that Support Group Collaboration Online

Collaboration, where students work towards a common goal, interact and co-create is an essential component of online learning, yet the challenge for the course instructor is how? How can instructors create activities where students collaborate effectively in groups when separated by distance and time? In this post I review strategies for implementing collaborative activities, and review tools that can be effective in supporting students work within their virtual groups. I’ll begin by highlighting why educators might want to consider investing time in creating collaborative activities in the first place.

Why Collaborative Activities?
It takes considerable time and effort to develop group learning activities for the online class, which begs the question, is it worth it?  Absolutely, and for several reasons. One is that group activities in online communities support learning as described in Garrison’s Community of Inquiry (COI) model. According to Garrison’s model students who “collaboratively engage in purposeful, critical discourse and reflection will be more likely to achieve a successful educational experience” (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000).

From another viewpoint, a recently introduced learning theory by Siemens and Downes connectivism, supports the idea that collaboration is critical in our networked world. From this perspective, learning in the digital age is no longer dependent on individual knowledge acquisition, rather it relies on the connected learning that occurs in social networks and group tasks (Brindley, Walti & Blaschke, 2009).

Whether you agree with these above mentioned principles or not, collaborative activities should be included in online learning communities if only for the fact that it ‘forces’ students to engage with peers in a digital context which is a required skill for students and workers of the 21st century.

Strategies for Group Learning Activities
In a previous post Online Groups – Cooperative or Collaborative, I reviewed briefly how to create effective group activities as part of an overall instructional plan, and in the following strategies I focus on practical implementation. I’ve included strategies that I have used in my work with online course development that have proved to be successful in supporting group work.

  • Create Transparency of Expectations and Purpose: Make the activity relevant for students by describing how and why working within a group will help them [the students], and be of benefit. Clarify what is expected in the syllabus. Outline the requirements for participation and the process for participation that includes a description of the online tool(s) students will use for facilitating group communication. Identifying the tool will also allow time for students to become familiar with the application as needed.
  • Provide Clear Instructions: Barriers to successful group work include lack of clear objectives and vague directions. Taking the time to explain the purpose of the activity, providing clear due dates, and outlining instructions is essential. Also, a due date that is near the end of the course is recommended as this allows students to complete the orientation phase and establish relationships within the group.
  • Form Small Groups: Small groups are most effective for online activities – three or four students is ideal. With larger groups [over five participants] students can lurk in the background and not contribute. There is literature for online instruction that suggests it is beneficial to have students create their own groups, though as a student I always preferred that the instructor create the groups.
  • Monitor and Support: It’s important that the instructor be available to answer questions and ‘be there’ for groups, especially for those that are struggling. Holding synchronous video sessions with groups is an effective method of instruction. I experienced this type of support as a student with a difficult group project; it was helpful and appreciated.
  • Include Etiquette Guidelines: Create guidelines for students that outline how to  participate effectively in an online group. Highlight the difference between cooperative work and collaborative work, cooperative is individuals giving input to peers, yet collaborative is group work where ONE product is created, submitted and graded as whole.

Five Collaboration Tools
The tools below are just that – tools that are designed to support group collaboration, which is the discourse that is the means to their learning. For that reason I’ve selected tools that are highly rated, but at the same time are easy to use, with a minimal learning curve. The one exception is BigMarker, I have yet to work with this tool and for that reason I reserve judgement on its ease of use, but it looks promising.

  1. MindMeister:  This tool allows groups to work on one mind map document that can be used in the early phases of group work for planning or brainstorming, or it can be used as the primary collaborative document for the duration of the project depending upon the nature of the assignment. There are numerous templates, mind maps, project planning, SWOT analysis and more. It can be used asynchronously, but also includes a live chat feature.
  2. Google Docs: Another excellent tool given its ease of use, flexibility and comment tools which are conducive to group work. I worked with this tool throughout graduate school for group projects, and still use Google Docs for project management at my workplace. It includes several document types, including Word, Presentation and Excel. It also features live chat.
  3. BigMarker: A new tool, it looks comprehensive, it includes live synchronous video chat (useful for groups wanting to discuss in real-time) with the added capability of recording which can be viewed by group members unable to attend the live chat, and collaborative document sharing similar to Google Docs for asynchronous communication. It looks powerful and promising.
  4. SlideRocket: A top-rated application that creates ‘stunning’ presentations that allows groups to work collectively on one presentation document. The application is easy to embed within discussion forums of the Learning Management System platforms or web pages.  Each document has a unique URL, which can be submitted to the instructor for viewing.
  5. Skype: Tried and true, Skype was one of the first video chat tools offered for free, and is reliable and easy to use. Another benefit is that students are likely to have Skype accounts and be familiar with it. It is a synchronous tool, a negative factor, however in many cases group members can agree upon a convenient time.  Skype is also an effective tool for course instructors to have video meetings with groups or individual students to discuss progress or concerns.

Collaborative group work is present in any workplace, face-to-face college classroom or K12 institution. Implementing group work activities in online learning is necessary, almost a given in today’s learning climate, though it is challenging due to time and space barriers. With thoughtful instructional design and implementation strategies, and use of tools that support student communication seamlessly, online students can benefit from the enhanced learning and skill development that group collaboration can offer.

Collaborative Learning, R.I.T. Online Learning
The Importance of Collaboration in Higher Ed, opensource.com

Pearls of the Week: How to Get Students to do Their Reading and More Good Ideas

Image representing Pearltrees as depicted in C...We have heard the complaint or issued it ourselves one too many times: “They don’t read!”  This quotation from one of the Pearls [bookmarked resources using Pearltrees] that I’ve collected this week that shares methods to encourage students to learn – actively.  I’ve selected the best of the Pearls that focus on two areas, active learning which is consistent with my most recent posts, and the need-to-know developments with Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs.

Active Learning: Teaching ideas, Theories and More

How I used Wiki’s to Get Students to do their Readings, Ulises A. Mejias, Learning Through Digital Media Experiments in Technology and Pedagogy. This professor shares a creative and innovative method to encourage students to complete their readings prior to class. Instructors considering this method may want to consider using Google Docs in place of the Wiki tool the author suggests, since the article was written two years ago and recent improvements to Google Docs make it a more effective collaborative tool. Though Wikis and Google docs are only the tools, it is the assignment itself that is of value.

Introduction to Active/Cooperative Learning, a brilliant resource for active and cooperative learning created by the not-for-profit organization Foundation Coalition. And though this organization focuses on science and engineering studies, one of its initiatives is to improve curricula and learning environments for educational environments of all disciplines. A well-designed site with a plethora of resources, including research that supports active learning principles and practical ideas for the classroom.

Active and Cooperative Learning for the College Classroom, Donald Paulson and Jennifer Faust. A thorough resource for educators wanting to incorporate active learning into their classroom but aren’t sure where to begin. Numerous feasible suggestions for individual and group activities. There is one section devoted to critical thinking and how to encourage and develop higher-order thinking skills in students.

The Problem with Lecturing, Emily Hanford, American RadioWorks. A good article giving the reader the background information on active learning and how it became the focus of research for a small group of Ivy League professors in the 1980’s.

Education Site Expands Slate of University Courses, Lewin, New York Times. Coursera adds 17 new university partners, four of which are International schools, to the already robust list of universities. The new schools to join Coursera as announced on September 19 are:

Berklee College of Music
Brown University
Columbia University
Emory University
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Mount Sinai School of Medicine
Ohio State University
University of British Columbia
University of California, Irvine
University of Florida
University of London
University of Maryland
University of Melbourne
University of Pittsburgh
Vanderbilt University
Wesleyan University

What is encouraging are the number of humanities courses available including, Greek and Roman Mythology, Aboriginal Worldviews and Education, Women and the Civil Rights Movement to name a few. I’ve signed up for the Sports and Sociology which has a start date of April, 2013. Click here to see a full list of the humanities courses.

MOOCs: What role do they Have in Higher Education? Randy Riddle, Center for Instructional Technology at Duke University. An excellent perspective on the educational value of MOOCs in three areas, 1) the casual course, 2) professional development and 3) as a supplement to secondary education.

To view my Pearltrees, please click here.

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

How-to Remain Relevant in Higher Ed with ‘Active Learning’

Active learning…. the topic frequently polarizes faculty. Active learning has attracted strong advocates … looking for alternatives to traditional teaching methods, while skeptical faculty regard active learning as another in a long line of educational fads.(Prince, 2004)

Is active learning a fad? Flipping the classroom, peer teaching and collaborative learning are active learning methods that appear to be ‘in’ right now. Should educators incorporate these active learning methods to keep up and not become irrelevant?  In this post we’ll address these questions – define active learning as it applies to higher education and examine what it ‘looks like’ in face-to-face settings. I’ll also review how educators can stay relevant by incorporating active learning principles into their own teaching without compromising academic integrity. My next post will be specific to online courses; I’ll provide how-to instructions for incorporating active learning activities into the course design.

What is Active Learning?
Active learning is most familiar to educators in K12 environments given that several learning theorists advocated learning through play [Piaget] and collaborative learning [Vygotsky]. It is through these forms of interaction that children develop cognitive and other higher-order thinking skills. However, active learning is not nearly as prevalent in higher education settings; it is the lecture method that dominates.

Yet the lecture method is proving to be problematic in today’s digital culture. It is not uncommon for instructors to cite disengaged students surfing the web, checking Facebook and sending text messages during class. The problem is a nagging one, how can educators engage students and appear relevant without compromising academic rigor?  Bonwell and Eison authors of Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom (1991), describe active learning this way:

When using active learning students 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 words, ‘involved’ and ‘problem solving’ are worthy of emphasis; active learning is not busy work, but is purposeful instruction that guides students towards learning outcomes. In recent years, numerous educators have studied and measured the effectiveness of the traditional lecture method. Results consistently show that students retain far fewer course concepts when sitting passively listening than when they are actively engaged in the learning process.

These findings are consistent with Harvard’s Professor Eric Mazur, a pioneer of active learning who developed a method called Peer Instruction. Mazur has conducted his own research since implementing his method in the mid 1990’s, proving that active learning is more effective not only in retention of knowledge, but for developing critical thinking skills.

Active Learning in Higher Ed
Before examining instructional techniques, we need to define the role that lecture plays in active learning. The lecture is not eliminated entirely from active learning, rather the instructor ‘lectures’ for a shorter time, in ‘chunks’, and usually for no more than twenty-minute segments. Anything longer, research finds, student attention drops off dramatically.

I think the answer to this challenge [reaching students] is to rethink the nature of the college course, to consider it as a different kind of animal these days… Students now tap into a course through different media; they may download materials via its website, and even access a faculty member’s research and bio. It’s a different kind of communication between faculty and students.  Eric Mazur as quoted in The Twilight of the Lecture, by Craig Lambert

Peer Instruction Method
Outlined below is an overview of Professor Mazur’s Peer Instruction teaching method:

  • Students complete work prior to the lecture by reading lecture notes and assigned course readings, and then answer questions individually by logging onto the course website to record their answers. This method builds in student accountability.
  • Mazur begins his class with a student question [which he obtains from the course website after reviewing student answers and/or questions] to test comprehension by asking students to think the problem through and commit to an answer. Each student records his or her answer in class by using either their smart phone or laptop. Student responses are compiled and delivered instantaneously. Mazur is then able to see the collective results on his laptop (click here for an example of a class polling tool).
  • If between 30 and 70 percent of the class have the correct answer [Mazur seeks controversy], he moves on to peer instruction. Students find a neighbor with a different answer and make a case for their own response. Each tries to convince the other.
  • After two or three minutes, the students vote again, and typically the percentage of correct answers dramatically improves. Then the cycle repeats.

The Flipped Classroom at Yakima Valley Community College
Two professors at Yakima College re-designed their face-to-face course when they determined students were arriving at class unprepared, appeared disinterested during lectures and were unable to synthesize the course material effectively. The result was a revised course that included a weekly schedule that involved collaborative learning activities. Professors designed the course ensuring that students played an active role, and were responsible for their own learning. Below is an image of the weekly class schedule from the revised course (click image to expand). For more details about the course development phases and how the class schedule works, click here.

How-to Remain Relevant with Active Learning
Incorporating active learning into current instruction begins with revising the instructional plan for a selected course. To begin the planning process start by:

1) Reviewing the expected learning outcomes of a given course.
2) Identifying potential pedagogical methods to achieve the learning outcomes.
3) Selecting the method (learning activity) which is feasible and appropriate for the learner and the learning environment (context).
4) Developing a strategy to implement the method into the class.

I use the Dick, Carey and Carey instructional design model for course design, and according to this model, one important component of instructional planning is analyzing the instructional options that are available [learning activities] that support the achievement of the course objectives. The next phase involves choosing from the options, an activity that is appropriate for the learner and learning environment. Here is where relevancy comes into play – choosing a learning method that is relevant to the learners’ context [in our case young adults who are engaged with technology] and the learning environment [lecture or classroom setting, or the online environment].

Categories and Types of Active Learning
For those educators planning a revision to the instructional strategy, it will be helpful to identify the type of active learning that will fit in with the course plan. There are three broad categories of active learning listed below. Following the categories are links to websites that provide helpful resources for active teaching activities in higher education settings. In my next post I elaborate further on each type, providing examples of learning activities in the online learning environment.

  1. Individual
  2. Collaboration
  3. Cooperative

Moving Away from the Sage on the Stage, Minnesota State Universities and Colleges
Mid-course Adjustments: Using Small Group Instructional Diagnoses to Improve Teaching and Learning, by Ken White
Active Learning for the College Classroom, Paulson D. & Faust, J.

Closing Thoughts
Active learning is not a fad, but a dynamic alternative to passive learning; learning where students are actively part of the process. Educators today are more important than ever – we are the experts in our chosen areas, the leaders and the role models for our students. It is up to us to ‘reach’ students with relevant and current methods, set the standards high and teach students to be life-long learners. For the next post in this series, Learning Online is not a Spectator Sport: How to Make it Active, click here.


Photo Credit: No Lecture. UC Berkley, jasonjkong’s photostream Flickr, Creative Commons

Why we need group work in Online Learning

This post is 1st in a 3 part series on the topic of group work in online learning communities. Post 2 will be about strategies for effective group work, and post 3, successful evaluation and outcomes.

Group work. Students groan when they find out there’s a group assignment that’s part of the grading for a given class [ I’m no exception]. Students learning online don’t feel much different, and given the time and distance barriers, it presents even more challenges for these students. What is it about group work that is so distasteful? Many students cite lack of cooperation, work equity and dependency on others as major factors in disliking team work with classmates. Ironically, this is precisely why group work is essential for learning.

The future IS Collaboration
Collaboration goes beyond, two or more people working together towards a common goal – in today’s terms,  collaboration is about open, learning, relationships, sharing and innovation. Though there are numerous benefits to groups working together in an online learning community, below I’ve highlighted the three most important reasons (I think) why group work is essential to any e-learning environment.

1. Essential skills for the 21st Century
Nothing describes ‘why’ collaboration is needed than a living example – of several, I chose Atlassian as an illustration, an innovative software company featured in Forbes Magazine this past month, who’s $100 million business is built on the concept creating collaboration platforms for companies. The client list is impressive, and company executives “are serious about spreading the idea of collaboration and transparency in how people work and how companies are fun”.

Another organization P21, advocates 21st century skill development and claims that employers identify that it is “Critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation, collaboration, and communication skills [that] will become more important in a fast-paced, competitive global economy.

Collaborative skills, developed through effective communication in online environments is, and will be essential to workplaces in the 21st century.

2. Innovation and growth
I won’t elaborate too much here, this short, but clever video illustrates beautifully why collaboration is fundamental to creativity, innovations and development.

Where do Ideas come From?  by Steven Johnson

3. Social and Active Learning
Learners learn, really learn when they engage with classmates, when they connect, share, communicate and collaborate with each other. Learning from and through peers is a dimension of learning both in the class and online that is often negated. In previous posts, I’ve also discussed the need for social presence as one of three dimensions of the Community of Inquiry model, which is foundational to successful group work. Students’ ability to express themselves confidently online is necessary for effective team learning.

Further more, time and again we see examples of active learning, where students learn through purposeful, and planned group activities. Harvard Professor, Eric Mazur is an advocate for peer learning, and incorporates this pedagogy into his own instruction, as well as giving seminars to colleagues across the country about his methods. You can read more about Mazur’s [social learning] approach in Twilight of the Lecture – an interesting read.

This innovative style of learning grew into “peer instruction” or “interactive learning,” a pedagogical method that has spread far beyond physics and taken root on campuses nationally. Last year, Mazur gave nearly 100 lectures on the subject at venues all around the world. (His 1997 book Peer Instruction is a user’s manual).  Harvard Magazine, 2012

For e-learning and online educators, incorporating group work into courses is a non-negotiable, given the demands and needs for collaboration and [online] communication skills. Check back early next week for post 2, strategies for creating effective group work online.