Friday, July 24, 2009

Active Learning

"Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing pre-packaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves. " (- Chickering and Gamson)

In our study of Web conferencing for instruction, Shufang Shi and I found that instructors associated application sharing with the pedagogical principle of active learning more than they did any other tool in the Confer toolset. But if you use application sharing only to demonstrate to students, you're cheating them out of rich online learning opportunities. Make your session interactive by allowing students to complete pre-designed exercises, giving them cursor and desktop control. If you pass control from student to student, allowing them to complete steps in a problem or series of problems, your entire class will pay attention. The process itself - not just segments of the process or individual parts - will be absorbed. One caveat: students aren't always able to understand what they're seeing in application sharing sessions. You may want to explain who's got control of the screen, where they should be looking to find the cursor, or how to navigate at a pace that refreshes the screen on all students' screens without being disorienting.

I've mentioned the value of breakout rooms in a previous note. At least one other strategic advantage is that you can facilitate more active learning in small groups than in large ones. Groups of three-to-five participants will demonstrate greater individual participation than will large online classrooms.

The Chat tool can also be used to ensure active learning. Students find it difficult to listen actively: so do instructors. Move them to the chat area for discussion of a topic in order to re-engage them and to break up the content delivery. Polling students - forcing them to make decisions about the learning content - also encourages active learning.

The Whiteboard's drawing and annotation tools are a wonderful resource for reinforcing active learning. Don't just present your visuals: engage students in them. Instead of simply describing a chart or graphic to the class, ask students to type their reactions - either in the chat area or (if space allows) directly on the whiteboard itself. You can even design visuals with "cartoon balloons" or other cues to encourage and support class annotations.

I'm sure there are hundreds of other ways you use to encourage active learning. Tell us about them!


  1. True, “learning is not a spectator sport.” Learners need to be the players. They are even more motivated and “empowered” when they take charge of the play. Last semester in my technology class (graduate level, most were in-service teachers), I let students take turns to be in charge of their class blog (each group moderated one week of their class blog). The group in charge designed and posted open-ended weekly discussion questions. They then moderated the discussion, and in the end they organized an in-class interactive discussion. The blog became much more lively than when the instructor was in charge. About learning new technical skills. Instead of me being in charge, I let students take charge. Each individual/group designed one mini-lesson on a new piece of technology. They had to gather all the possible resources (including recruiting their peers as Teaching Assistants – I was a TA by default). Being digital immigrants, many of these in-service teachers were tech phobic. Putting them in charge gave them a can-do attitude through these teaching rehearsals with me as a guide on the side (instead of a sage at the stage) and a positive learning community.

  2. Excellent example! Thanks for sharing.


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