Four-Step Strategy to Create Active Learning in any Learning Space—Online, F2F or Blended

In a recent article The 3 Instructional Shifts That Will Redefine the College Professor, the ‘dynamic classroom’ was listed as number one. The dynamic classroom is where faculty “do practically anything other than lecture” (Craig, 2015).  A meager definition but the idea is right on—active learning, where students apply concepts through discussion, debate, writing, hands-on experiments, etc. produces better learning results. Numerous studies back up the claim; a recent paper shows student performance increased by just under half a standard deviation with active learning compared with lecturing (Freeman et al., 2014). In this post I share a four-step strategy that instructors can use to make learning active for online, blended or face-to-face learning spaces. Readers will find instructive examples and resources on active learning in the photo gallery (below) as well as in the list of resources at the end of this post.

Active learning is not a theory but a teaching method that supports learning. The method uses techniques such as writing reflections, discussion, problem solving—activities that promote analysis, synthesis and evaluation that guide students towards achieving learning objectives. Typically tools are used to support the activity, for example handouts, whiteboard, chalkboard, smart phone apps, platforms such as Google Drive or Twitter. The choice of activity and tool are (or should be) determined by the learning goal, as well as other factors that include, time available, location (in-class or online), class size and others that are specific to the students, such as their skill level and access to tools.

Another way to define active learning is to consider the opposite—passive learning where students are recipients of knowledge, are expected to record and absorb knowledge  delivered by an expert—a faculty member or textbook (McManus, 2001). Passive learning aligns with behaviorist theories where the student is viewed as an empty vessel waiting to be filled. In contrast active learning aligns with the constructivist perspective of learning. The constructivist view embraces the idea that knowledge is actively constructed by the learner and integrated with his or her existing knowledge and experience.

Active Learning Photo and Resource Gallery
Click on an image below to open up the photo gallery. Each image is captioned with a link to further information about the method featured.

Four-Step Strategy for Making Learning Active
Below is a four-step framework for re-designing a lesson or unit to make learning active. Integrating active learning requires a skill set that goes beyond skills required for facilitating the traditional lecture format; numerous institutions provide professional development for faculty and instructors looking to incorporate active methods given the time and skills required. This framework below is a starting point; it features the bare bones principles of making learning active. An important note, the lecture method still has a role; lectures are an effective method to deliver information, yet it’s using lectures (and active learning) strategically as a method along with others that creates a comprehensive instructional strategy (“150 Teaching Methods”).

To illustrate the framework an active learning scenario featuring a group of nursing students in a face-to-face (F2F) course is used and described in the ‘application’ section of each step.

1. Identify learning objectives for the lesson/unit. Considering the learning objective or goal ensures the activity aligns with the course objectives and the lesson itself. If the unit/lesson doesn’t have a specific goal, but the course has overall learning outcomes, create one by considering the question—what should students be able to do or know after the lesson that will support them reaching a (given) course objective? A useful tool for identifying and writing learning objectives is a Bloom’s Taxonomy resource from UNCC ‘Writing Objectives Using Bloom’s Taxonomy’.

Application: Using the nursing students scenario the two goals for the learning unit on eating disorders are: 1) identify symptoms associated with disordered eating, and 2) determine a patient’s symptoms on the eating disorder continuum. These goals support one of the course objectives  • Analyze patient behaviors to determine presence of disordered eating on the eating disorder continuum, and helps students gain the knowledge and skills needed to meet this learning outcome.

2. Identify core concepts students need to learn. List key concepts— frameworks, formulas, theoretical principles etc. students need to learn. Determine the breadth and depth of knowledge required—the level at which students need to know the concepts, e.g. familiarity or mastery. Consider students’ current level of knowledge on the topic; this  helps determine how concepts will need to be presented to students before they engage in the activity.

Application: In the scenario nursing students need to recognize symptoms of disordered eating and determine which patient behaviors are normal and ones associated with eating disorders. Students need to know characteristics of eating disorders and be familiar with the ‘eating disorder continuum’.  Faculty determined that knowledge of the students is varied, thus assigned a textbook reading prior to class and selected a short video to show prior to the activity that illustrated key concepts.

3. Consider options—select activity and tools. This step has two phases. First determine types of activities that could work for the concepts given the learning context—class size, learning space, time constraints, etc. The activity might be a debate, mind map, or small discussion. Next identify the tools needed to support the activity, while also considering factors such as students skill level and access (to the tool). If skill level could be an issue, consider providing instructions, tutorials for students to learn the tool and build learning time in accordingly. If the learning curve is deemed too high given the time allocated, consider an alternative tool.

Active nursing class

Nursing students work on concept boards in small groups in School of Nursing class at University of Wisconsin-Madison (2014). Picture by Jeff Miller.

In the nursing face-to-face class of 150 students a concept board activity was chosen. Students worked in small groups after watching video about a woman struggling with binge eating. The activity was introduced by professor with questions to guide the discussion. The groups collaborated using a white board to create their concept board.

This activity can be applied to online setting—student groups can create a concept board using Google Draw program on Google Drive. Students can work on the concept map asynchronously or synchronously.

4. Articulate activity instructions in detail. Instructions that highlight the goal of the activity and its purpose frame the activity and prepare students for learning. Instructions for F2F and online environments need to be specific, clear and detailed and should include three components, 1) goals of activity, its purpose and expected outcomes, 2) details of the assignment: requirements, due dates, concepts to incorporate, format for product, etc. and 3) execution details: group or individual assignment, how groups will work together, e.g. group etiquette, collaboration strategies,  tools and platforms to use (more so for online classes).

Closing Thoughts
Active learning is a proven method that supports learning. Yet it’s one of several that supports knowledge building and creation that engages and motivates students. Below is a list of resources for educators looking to incorporate active learning strategies into online, blended or F2F course.



On the Horizon for Education: Blended Learning, New Learning Spaces, OERs & Cross-Institutional Collaboration

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What’s on the horizon for education? What technologies and trends will drive changes in curriculum development and teaching in one, two or even three years? New Media Consortium’s latest Horizon Report (2015) written by an international team of educators, gives readers evidence and insights into how developments in education will (and are) influencing changes in teaching and learning. 

In last week’s post I discussed the report “Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States” which presented data and analysis on participation trends in online education, MOOCs, as well as perceptions on the value and legitimacy of online learning. The news was rather dismal, quite depressing really. This report by New Media Consortium and EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative released this week, is not only more upbeat but is instructive and forward-thinking. It takes a different approach; it gives educators insights into trends and behaviour patterns in online and face-to-face education influenced by technology. The report is the result of a collaborative research effort where the panel worked in the ‘open’ via a public wiki where they shared, discussed and identified the education’s most pressing issues. The panel identified six trends, categorizing each by the level of challenge for implementation and time frame. (image below).


Six trends identified in the 2015 NMC Horizon Report, pg. 2 via cdn,

What the Blended Learning Trend Means for Educators and Institutions
I suggest the blended learning trend is the most significant and challenging. Blended learning has numerous definitions, though common to all is the concept of a student-focused education approach where learners access content, instruction/or and learning communities via the Web to augment or supplement education delivered in the classroom. Yet ten years from now, I predict that the concept of blended learning will fade away—not the learning approach but its description. The technology will become invisible. Learning won’t be classified as blended, or online, but just ‘learning‘. In the short-term however, there are barriers to overcome. Today the idea of using a web-enabled device and the web itself to replace or augment structured learning disrupts traditional practices of education— higher education and K-12. The NMC report suggests that in order for education institutions to adapt and respond effectively to educational tools and platforms, continuous visionary leadership is required. I agree. Integrating technology takes thoughtful planning, analyzing current practices, professional development and a supportive culture that embraces change.

Authors ranked blended learning into the ‘solvable’ category, as opposed to ‘difficult or ‘wicked‘; I rank blended learning as ‘difficult’ and though it is solvable, the challenge is the many dimensions of learning affected when integrating technological tools and methods that include: curriculum design, instructional delivery, professional development and training, IT services, policy development and infrastructure. Even the design of the physical classroom space and type of furnishings is impacted. The latter, ‘Redesigning Learning Spaces’ is another of the six trends identified in NMC’s report.

‘Advancing Cultures of Change and Innovation’ is another trend identified, yet it’s ranked long-term. I see a culture of change as necessary now—it’s essential to make the transitions and changes needed to deliver quality learning experiences.

All over the world, universities and colleges have been gradually rethinking how their organizations and infrastructures can be more agile. The thought is that if institutions are more flexible, they will be better able to support and promote entrepreneurial thinking — a long-term trend.  NMC Horizon Report, page 7

How Educators Can Prepare for Change
As our culture changes in response to technological innovations and economic shifts, institutions and educators (ideally) should adapt according. The NMC Horizon Report is a starting point for educators wanting to keep ahead of developments in education—to anticipate change, be proactive rather than reactive. This report is an essential read for educators, institution leaders, administrators, policymakers, and technologists who want to do just that.


Is Blended Learning the Best of Both Worlds?

Research has found that blended courses have the potential to increase student learning outcomes while lowering attrition rates in comparison with equivalent fully online courses.Blended Learning’, EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research

globe_mouseBlended learning is a method that has proven to be not only effective in terms of learning outcomes, but ranks high on ratings of satisfaction with students and instructors (Dzuiban, Hartman & Moskal, 2004). Yet there has been little coverage of blended learning in higher education news in recent months. It seems we’ve gone from zero to one hundred without passing GO and collecting $200—where ‘0’ is traditional classroom learning, and ‘100’ is 100% online courses. There has been little consideration of the blended approach, which falls somewhere along the continuum of learning modalities.

Blended learning, also referred to as hybrid learning is a combination of learning modalities involving face-to-face instruction and Web-based learning delivery, and is carefully designed using a customized instructional strategy that leverages the strengths of each. When implemented effectively, a blended learning program can make better use of instructional resources and facilities, and increase class availability thus speeding up the pathway to graduation for students (Dzuiban et al, 2004). This kind of program could be at least part of the solution to California’s current crisis in its public higher education institutions.

With the impressive results and options of blended learning, and in light of the current crisis within several state universities, it appears that this modality deserves further exploration. Over the next few posts, I’ll be focusing on this hybrid approach from an instructional design point-of-view, and will share with readers the latest research on blended learning models, design principles and the pedagogical principles that underpin successful programs. My aim is to also share the best practices in blended programs by examining institutions that have been successful with their own programs.

Definitions of Blended Learning
Definitions of blended learning vary. Below is table presented in Blending In: The Extent and Promise of Blended Learning in the United States (2007), where the definition relies upon a ratio of web to traditional instruction.

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The Sloan Consortium defines blended learning as a course where 30% to 70% of the instruction is delivered online. While this is a useful guideline, it may not be sufficient to define fully an institution’s blended program.

The ratio definition should be viewed as a guide, I prefer the descriptions by University of Central Florida (UCF), which approaches blended learning somewhat differently.  UCF describes mixed-mode or blended learning as a modality that “combines the effectiveness and socialization opportunities of the classroom with the self-directed and active learning opportunities that the online environment offers” (Dziuban, et al, 2004). At UCF blended learning is offered in two out of the five modalities available through the school’s Center for Distributed Learning.  Both options, use different formats, 1) video streaming lecture content, labs, web activities and select face-to-face interactions including proctored exams, and 2) instruction that has both required classroom attendance and online interaction, activities and content delivery.

Purpose of Blended Learning
A critical element to the blended learning concept is reduced seat time. Reduction of time that students spend in a face-to-face, traditional classroom format serves several purposes that offers several benefits including:

1) Institutions have the potential to manage instructional and facility resources more efficiently, teaching more students within a semester.
2) This approach is beneficial for students, providing the convenience and flexibility associated with online learning, freeing up time for work, family obligations or extra-curricular activities.
3) Blended learning develops a skill set for students that otherwise would not be possible in exclusive face-to-face instruction. Skills include digital citizenship, information management skills, self-directed learning, and web research and collaboration skills.


Blended Learning’ by giulia.forsythe, Flickr

Implications of Blended Learning on Institutions
Implementing a blended learning initiative is a significant undertaking, more so than beginning an online initiative. Institutions that have implemented successful blended programs are explicit about the implications and the work and collaboration required among departments, administration and faculty.  This excerpt from the Blended Learning report highlights this:

The transformational nature of blended courses creates complicated interactions among many components of the university similar to those found in the literature regarding complex and social systems theories. Forrester offered insights about interventions in complex systems (such as universities), suggesting they have the following common characteristics:

  • Predicting the way interventions will impact the institution is virtually impossible.
  • Final outcomes are often counter-intuitive.
  • Unanticipated side-effects, both positive and negative, must be confronted. At times, those effects have more impact than the originally planned outcomes. (Dziuban, et al, 2004).

A blended program can be the best of both worlds, and though a significant undertaking, once implemented successfully, such a program has significant benefits for the institution and students. Students embrace flexibility, embrace being in a connected world that the web provides, it’s no wonder that blended programs rank high in learning outcomes and  satisfaction.  UCF also discovered that faculty give high marks to their instructional experience with a hybrid model. Blended learning programs truly are the best of both worlds for students, instructors and the institution. My next posts will delve into the instructional design models for blended programs.