According to the research findings summarized by Chickering and Gamson (1987), good practice in undergraduate education encourages active learning. R.R. Hake studied the role of active learning in 1997 by comparing traditional courses to courses using active learning techniques and concluded: "the mean gain was more than twice as large for active learning classes, so you could say that courses implementing active learning are more than twice as effective as traditional courses in building basic concepts." Allison Carr-Chellman and Phillip Duchastel (2002) observed that synchronous online activities "yield a more direct sense of interaction, increased collegiality, immediate resolution of problems, and better team building." Duncan, Kenworthy, and McNamara (2012) noted that synchronous online activities had a positive effect for students on both final exam performance and overall class achievement. Oztok, Zingaro, Brett, and Hewitt (2013) recently concluded that students who interact with their instructors in synchronous online sessions also read the discussion forums more closely, respond more thoughtfully to forum prompts, and spend more time reading course materials.
Even with evidence of its effectiveness, it's sometimes difficult to incorporate active learning into online courses because the temptation to isolate as in instructor is strong. You feel alone and it's awkward not to lecture, to wait on the "invisible" class to respond and learn for themselves. Here are some tips from active learning advocates.
Breakout Room Collaboration. Heidi Beezley, instructional technologist at Georgia Perimeter College, advocates having students talk to each other as they collaborate in breakout rooms. "I think the trick is to try to pull them back to the main room before they get to the point where the discussion has died down... [You] need to establish a culture of accountability, making sure that they use the time wisely, or they will run out of time and won't be able to complete the task." She assigns each student to a base group of students who work together in groups of five throughout the course.
Ready, Set, Go (or One, Two, Three): Put it in the Chat Box! Peyri Herrera and Larry Green arrived at this method independently, as far as I know. They both use a spot check with a countdown to have students answer a question in chat, simultaneously. The important point is to have everyone answer at once, so that the instructor can guage how well they're understanding the concept, but also to encourage students to think in real time, to pay attention, and to be present.
Communicative Activities. Planning to involve students in the Confer session has the greatest potential for creating an active learning environment. Chat is effective, especially if you seed it, but so is using the whiteboard for brainstorming. Allowing students to role play or debate can be effective, and a spot poll makes sure everyone is paying attention.
Think, Pair, Share. This method from North Carolina State University has gather ideas about a topic (Think), choose partners with similar interests (Pair) and work together on a presentation they will deliver to the class (Share).
Be Quiet. Waiting for students to respond is hard, perhaps especially so online. But if you don't wait on them, you may not get them to respond. Learn the value of silence online.
Greet Your Students. Believe it or not, simply calling your students by name and acknowledging their presence has an effect on their participation. It's too easy to hide online: greeting them makes them feel less invisible and encourages them to get involved.
Give Them Control. My favorite technique is to reverse roles with a student. I like to explain a technique, demonstrate it, and then invite a student to try it out by giving desktop control to that student or inviting them to use the whiteboard to illustrate the concept. The student chosen is, of course, an active learner, but the rest of the class tends to become engaged because there is always the possibility (probability in my case) that one of them will be asked to reverse roles next.