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

Online groups – Cooperative or Collaborative?

“Work teams Cooperate; learning teams Collaborate

What is the difference between collaborating and cooperating? Online communities and group work in particular has generated much discussion lately, and I’ve written several posts about group work, peer evaluations and more. Interesting, though the definitions differ ever so slightly, [cooperate: the process of working together to the same end, versus collaborate: to work jointly on an activity to produce or create something] yet how each is executed in the online learning environments differs significantly.

I’ve experienced both as a student in online communities – there is a stark contrast between the two – the process, experience and outcomes were all different. Most group work happening online today is likely cooperative in nature. Cooperative group work is not a negative – essentially students are engaging at a different level of cognitive skills (in context of Bloom’s Taxonomy). When online groups cooperate they apply, plan, develop. When collaborating, students analyze, synthesize and construct knowledge, problems are solved collectively. Higher order thinking skills are engaged.


When virtual [online] groups cooperate, it’s a ‘divide and conquer’ approach, usually each group member is responsible for completing his or her ‘section’, which usually involves discussion and negotiation. From this point on, the work is done individually, and an ambitious (and gracious) team member puts all the various sections together and attempts to create a common ‘voice’ and consistency.

How do you create Collaborative (or Cooperative) group activities?

As most online educators know, creating virtual teams, and placing students into groups within the online learning platform, and providing assignment guidelines does not make cooperation or collaboration happen. From experience both as a student and as instructional designer, the type of interaction and learning (and success) of the group experience depends in a large part on the instructional strategy. A good place to start is by asking the question – ‘what learning objective does the assignment need to achieve’?  It is at this level that the instructor determines what kind of activity can be developed, and which approach is most effective in context of the learner (i.e.level of course, experience with online format etc.), and online environment. Choosing what one wants the student to do to achieve the objective, (i.e. synthesize or analyze) drives the instructional strategy, in that the group activity is constructed incorporating actions around the content to be learned or problem to be solved. See Bloom’s taxonomy below for ‘learning in action’ verbs.

SVG version of http://commons.wikimedia.org/wi...
SVG version of http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Bloom%27s_Rose.png by John M. Kennedy T. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Can Collaboration work in online environments?

Several educators have suggested that given the barriers of space and time, collaborative work in groups online is virtually impossible. I disagree, challenging – yes, impossible, no. That being said,. according to research it is how the the group task is structured, communicated and supported — that collaboration happens, thus higher order thinking skills are engaged (Paulus, 2005).

Collaborative learning – closing thoughts…

  • Learning happens in the dialogue, the conversation the problem solving (or not solving)
  • When groups come together to solve a problems, they need to use online tools to collaborate, Skype, Google +, Google Docs, Elluminate Live., and need to be introduced to the tools early in the course and have time to practice with them
  • Instructor support for students ‘dialoguing’, is critical to collaboration – this may mean professor prompting discussions among groups and/or providing encouragement and further direction to students at the beginning of the group process.

Related Posts
The Difference between Collaboration and Cooperation, antecdote.com
Why we need Group work in Online Learning, onlinelearninginsights
Making Peer Evaluations work in Online Learning, onlinelearninginsights
Teaching and Learning at a Distance, Collaborative vs Cooperative

Paulus, T. M. (2005). Collaborative and cooperative approaches to online group work: The impact of task type. Distance Education, 26(1), 111-125. doi:10.1080/01587910500081343

Providing relevant learning online…outside the [LMS] Bubble

Let’s face it – the learning management platforms (i.e. Moodle, Blackboard) as they exist today, are restrictive, limiting for both the learner and online educator. The flexibility, value and learning potential available with Web 2.0 tools far exceed the teaching limitations that exist within the LMS platform. CT’s s recent article, Rebuilding the LMS for the 21st Century reaffirmed what I’ve written about before – working within an LMS platform feels as if I’m trying to communicate (from the student perspective) and teach (educators’ perspective) through a brick wall – I said A BRICK WALL – can you hear me? Sorry for the big caps, but that is how it one feels inside an LMS – the need to shout.

Now more than ever as LMS platforms merge into one (Blackboard recently acquired Moodlerooms)* educators need to be independent for lack of a better word, move beyond the walls of the LMS, explore and embrace the multiplicity of tools available to teach, instruct and foster learning online. The agility of  innovative software developers to provide new tools and  applications for collaboration far outpaces what traditional LMS providers can offer, in fact this says it better than I could,

 “Web 2.0 enables and accelerates the transition to a more connected world in which open, user-centered and self-organising networks create value, including public [educational] value. That’s the Web 2.0 proposition with which…people …around the world are experimenting to see ….eGovernment Resource Centre

Why use Web 2.0 tools in Online Teaching?
Just as in the classroom, utilizing a multiplicity of tools and methods is part of instruction though with online there are additional reasons, relevancy, and learning through collaboration with peers. A blog reader, a professor of communications class, shared her approach, “I believe they [students] should be using web applications and not be inside the LMS silos … learning how to make use of the possibilities offered on the web.joanvinallcox.ca. Exactly – an illustration of relevant learning.

This clever illustration below uses Bloom’s Taxonomy with its levels of cognitive learning domains presented in the familiar pyramid image, but inserts applicable web 2.0 applications into each, which illustrates Web 2.0 tools that support instruction. I would like to reiterate here, that it is only through a sound instructional design strategy that instruction is effective, with appropriate tools chosen to support learning objectives (my model of choice: Dick, Carey and Carey).

Bloom's Taxonomy and Web 2.0 Applications, by Samantha Penney

The other reason, emerging research suggests students learn better when there is a visual representation of course content to work with, [beyond the text] either through knowledge maps, or graphs with text within boxes [used in context of the visual mapping] (Suthers et. al., 2006). Though the research focuses on collaborative learning and interactions with knowledge maps, this is an interesting concept to consider.  What it does suggest is that online learning needs to move beyond the threaded discussions in the LMS platform.

Where to start…
There are a plethora of tools available and I will admit it will take some legwork to find relevant and applicable tools to meet the needs of the course objectives – I will provide just a few examples below to get you started. Also consider revisiting the instructional strategy, reviewing the learning objectives, the course content, and select learning activities that will support student learning. Next, I like to identify the appropriate level within Bloom’s Taxonomy, which helps with my choice of appropriate tool. Using the verbs associated with the learning level are also helpful – for example, analyze, synthesize will require different learning activities than verbs such as identifying or describing.

  • A collaborative mapping tool, MindMesister
  • Mindamo, Online Mind Mapping Software, available in Google Apps
  • Collaborative Data spreadsheet tool (think Excel), EditGrid
  • 35 Best Web 2.0 tools for Teachers, Edudemic

Keep Learning 🙂

Related Post: The LMS Divide
* Correction to my original post which incorrectly stated that Blackboard had acquired Moodle, it should have read Moodlerooms.  Moodlerooms is a support provider to Moodle, an open source platform.

Suthers, D.D., Vatrapu , R., Medina, R., Joseph, S., & Nathan Dwyer. (2008, May). Beyond threaded discussion: Representational guidance in asynchronous collaborative learning environments. Computers & Education. Volume 50, Issue 4, pp 1103-1127

Creating Rich, Robust Discussions in Online Learning

Part 2 of a 2 part series on Instructor involvement in Online discussions.

Who doesn’t love a stimulating, thought-provoking and engaging conversation? Online learning is a [potential] hotbed for such rich discussions – yet it takes deliberate instructional planning to develop, guide and teach effectively within online discussion forums. In online learning, the student is in the center, not the professor, yet here’s the irony –  the skills of the instructor and/or instructional designer, are needed just as much, if not more to create a pedagogically sound course using discussion effectively. Furthermore, efforts to simulate traditional face-to-face classroom methods in the asynchronous online environment through the use of ‘interactive’ discussion forums, miss the point. We need to create a new way of learning and designing courses, start from scratch. Let’s press on…

Goal of the Online Discussion
I like to start with the instructional design theory before we get into the practical methods –  if we start with a model of design, such as Dick, Carey and Carey model, we see that online discussion forums are a part of an overall strategy that support learning objectives. A good question to ask is ‘what purpose does the discussion serve’?  With good intentions, forums have been incorporated to create interaction, even fill a void and in an effort to mimic the social component from face-to-face. Discussions purposefully included however, using an instructional strategy are most effective for the student’s learning, promoting higher order thinking skills as per Bloom’s Taxonomy. In a college level course for example, we want to move the learner from the knowledge phase, at the bottom of the pyramid (recall, memorizing, listing etc), to the analysis and synthesis levels. It is at these levels where the student is challenged — he or she  compares, describes, classifies, contrasts using the course content. It’s the skillful instructor that can push the student up the taxonomy.

The Foundations
Let’s review and look at what needs to be in place to set the stage for good discussions:

  • In my post, part I, I introduced some fundamentals – here are two more:
  • Include an introductory forum where learners have an opportunity to meet one another, by sharing interests, backgrounds . One of my favorite student introduction activities is when the professor had us, (students) write a brief paragraph, then share three of our favorite websites, and explain why they were so. Introductory forums are an important component to set the stage for the learner feeling socially accepted and comfortable, which sets students up for success in the discussion forums, where real learning takes place.
  • Create a Rubric for the student. A rubric, grading tool that sets the standards and expectations for the student is an excellent tool because of its specificity.

Role of the Online Instructor
I’ve read numerous articles and even written a couple about the role of the instructor – who is the guide, mentor or facilitator?  Yes, yes and yes. The online instructor is all and more. The role is challenging, and most face-to-face instructors receive little or no support or development in the art of creating and supporting online discussions. What is most challenging for the instructor is knowing when to be involved in the discussion, to promote and guide discussion, and when to back off and observe to let the discussion evolve and develop without students feeling hindered and reticent with too much instructor presence. It’s a balance —  a skill and an art. That being said below are tactics and strategies to create rich and robust discussion:

  1. Create discussion questions which promote dialogue, by: keeping questions fairly short, beginning with ‘how’, ‘what’, and at the end of the question, add ‘Describe’ or ‘Explain”.
  2. Encourage discussion by rewarding the first couple of participants that begin the discussion, by commenting, ‘thanks [name of student], for getting us started off… that’s an good point – have you thought of….what do others think …..” This reinforces early participation, and models for students the behaviors required.
  3. Refocus discussion when needed by acknowledging the students viewpoint and providing an alternative viewpoint, then ask for feedback from students. Being supportive is critical in the online environment. Written text is always at risk for being misinterpreted.
  4. Encourage other students to build upon each other posts through the forum, by asking others for their comments, and by including this requirement in the rubric.
  5. Remove any offensive posts immediately (this rarely has happened in my experience), and contact student directly, by Skype, or phone to explain why.

Resources for Further Development
There are many, many resources for building skills in this area. Though I would say the very best method, is to participate in an online course as a student. Experience the other side! I’ve been fortunate to have some amazing professors, each with very unique and different approaches to online discussions. I’ve been able to use and share my experiences in my workplace which hopefully has helped other professors and students experience rich and robust discussion. Here are a few resources I found to be quite good.

Bloom’s and Web 2.0

Today I came across a creative rendition of Ben Bloom’s taxonomy on the Educational Technology Guy’s blog. I am not sure what Ben would have thought of how his classification system of cognitive levels of thinking (and learning) would look decorated with icons representing web 2.0 applications, but I think it is terribly clever (created by University of Southern Indiana under Creative Commons). I am a huge fan of Ben’s work – I sound on familiar terms with this innovative and influential educator, but his traditional taxonomy introduced in the 1960’s is on my office bulletin board and I refer to it often when working on courses. The complexity of thinking and learning increases as you go up on the taxonomy, thus ‘creating’ engages the highest level of critical thinking skills.

Bloom's Taxonomy and Technology

Resource for Teachers
Since Dr. Bloom introduced his now famous taxonomy, it’s been revised, manipulated and adapted many times over. See my previous post, Blogs and Bloom’s for an adapted version of the taxonomy. The version above is a tremendous resource for educators seeking to engage learners with applications that have the potential to support learning and achievement of learning goals.

Keep Learning! 🙂
Source: http://www.usi.edu/distance/bdt.htm

Blogs and Bloom’s

In my recent post, Blogging to Educate I introduced the concept (and value) of student blogging in educational settings, and today I stumbled upon an article, Strategies for Blog-Powered Instruction (Demski, 2011) prompting me to explore how blogging can develop student writing, and higher order thinking skills. Blogging is similar to ‘journaling’ in that students record thoughts, impressions of identified course content, yet in a ‘digital’ space, a space where  students can ‘publish’  their writing to either the  class, small group or even to the public via the world-wide web (as we saw in Mind the Science Gap blogging project described in a previous post). In a world of status updates, Twitter and texting jargon with sentences that would make any English instructor cringe  – idk, wut do u think we should do? (translation: I don’t know, what do you think we should do?), blogging can encourage authentic writing expression.

Blogs and Blooms Taxonomy
The blog space provides more than a place for personal expression. The student goes through the process of thinking about what to write, reflecting on course content and potentially analyzing course content using higher order thinking skills. If we examine  Bloom’s taxonomy, we can see how the blogging activity, if well structured mind you, has the potential to push and challenge the student up on the scale in a way that Twitter and Facebook cannot.

‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’ source: http://edorigami.wikispaces.com/

Assessment of the Blog
When it comes to assessing the student’s blog activity, I like to attach a point value (or grade) to the assignment, which supports the overall ‘purpose’ of the assignment as discussed earlier. One approach is to include the blog in the participation grade, with a rubric outlining the basic requirements. We use a rubric which includes the specific number of posts, and a minimum number of words per post, though we don’t go too much further than that. I would recommend not grading each individual post (as you would an essay), as this could quell creativity; but grade collectively at the end of the course. Another option, is to divide students into small groups where group members give feedback to one another. Feedback from peers is an excellent way to encourage class involvement and can raise the bar! 🙂

Components of an Effective Blog Assignment

  • The assignment supports one or more of the course objectives, otherwise it loses value and becomes busy work.
  • Instructions for students are clear and concise and describes the purpose of the assignment and how it relates to the course. This helps to ensure the student engages in the blogging process.
  • Guidelines for students outline how to complete the blog – and avoid instructing the student to simply ‘summarize’ a reading or discussion.  Instructions push students further by asking the student to give their opinion on the content in light of _____ (analysing), or encouraging students to apply the lecture material to a real life problem etc.
  • ‘How-to’ instructions walk the students through how-to create a post, navigate the menu etc.  These instructions are separate from the guidelines, as some students may not need to read the ‘how-to’ instructions.

Blogs have the potential to be a valuable educational activity – if the assignment meets certain criteria: aligns with course learning objectives and its purpose is articulated in order that students do not view it as ‘busy work’, but as a beneficial and worthy endeavor. Learn more, about blogging at WordPress.com.

Demski, Jennifer. Campus Technology, Strategies for Blog Powered Instruction. January 2012