August 17th, 2008

Active Online Learning Prepares Students for the Workplace, Reflects Changing Learning Styles Preferences


Changing workplace demands and student learning style preferences require that instructors rethink their courses. No longer can students passively absorb knowledge. They must become active learners — interacting with peers and designing and implementing the learning, says Jane Legacy, MBA/MBE chair at Southern New Hampshire University’s School of Business.

Legacy uses active learning techniques such as group inquiry, online field trips, asynchronous debate, and Web quests in her online courses — in organizational leadership and human relations, research and technology, and online learning — to prepare students for the types of learning situations they will encounter on the job and to reflect the changes in the ways students prefer to learn. “If we want our students to be successful in the workplace, we’ve got to model what we want them to be like,” Legacy says. “If the ultimate goal for us is to prepare people to learn, unlearn, and relearn the rest of their lives, they have to start having fun, and we need to make them accountable. And the only way we’re going to give them that opportunity is to not be so rigid with our instructions.”

In addition, Legacy says, today’s students are less interested in lectures and prefer more variety in the instructional methods used in a course. “They love to be active participants in the learning process, and the research says also that students learn better from other students than they do from teachers,” Legacy says.

Because of the changes in students’ preferred styles of learning, Legacy recommends that instructors change instructional strategies every 15 to 18 minutes, whether the course is on campus or online.

Legacy’s courses are set up as modules on a Wednesday to Wednesday schedule rather than Sunday to Sunday to give students more time on the weekends to complete their work. Each module consists of 15-minute increments. For example, students may read for 15 minutes, then spend 15 minutes in a group activity, followed by 15 minutes in the discussion forum. (A three-credit course typically requires students to put in approximately nine hours a week.)

The first step in creating an active learning environment online is to get students to relate what is going on in the course to their lives, which helps them problem solve and think critically, two skills that are essential in the workplace.

This concept is played out in a variety of ways in Legacy’s courses. She begins each course with a pre-assessment of students’ skills and abilities by taking all the course’s learning outcomes and having each student rate himself or herself on those outcomes. Legacy also does a personality assessment, and based on those two assessments, she puts students in groups so that each group has a cross section of skill levels and personality traits.

From the beginning of each course, each student’s work is visible online to others in the course through an e-portfolio. Students also critique each others’ work using a set of rubrics. This helps students be more creative in their work, and it also gives them ideas for how to approach their own projects. “It’s all about students designing, implementing, and evaluating their own work using other people’s work as resources,” Legacy says.

Legacy also has a section discussion board in Blackboard in which students each week are asked to reflect on their “deliverable” for that week. “I change the word ‘assignment’ to ‘deliverable’ because the word ‘deliverable’ puts the responsibility on the students,” Legacy says.

Discussing the deliverables “teaches them that there is always a reflection in work.” It gives students a chance to analyze what worked and what didn’t.

The goal of Legacy’s courses is to relate the material to real-world situations, which motivates students to learn by emphasizing the things they will need to know when they are in a particular career. It also gets students to relate the material to their own lives and to seek other people’s perspectives.

For example, Legacy might include an “expert witness” in a course, someone who works in a field that is relevant to the course. If it’s a law class, the expert witness might be an attorney. Legacy will have the students read a relevant chapter and follow up by asking the expert witness how the material relates to the real world or how his or her experiences compare to what the students read in the textbook.

One of the keys to getting students to take an active role in their own learning and their peers is a set of clear rubrics. For group projects, the rubrics list all the things students need to accomplish, and for each group project students assess each others’ participation.

The rubrics remove the subjectivity of the grading process and give students the responsibility of selecting the grade they want. For example, in threaded discussions, students know that in order to get a C, they must respond with information that comes from the textbook. To get a B, they must use information from the textbook and another resource. To get an A, they must respond with information from the textbook and two other resources.

Like all learning situations, the success of active learning techniques depends largely on the dedication and skills of the individuals in the course. Legacy teaches at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Legacy’s graduate students, who are generally in the business world and understand the value of active learning because it closely resembles how they conduct themselves at work, are more inclined than her undergraduates to “dive into” active learning. However, the undergraduates generally have less fear of the technology.

Contact Jane Legacy at