Ideas for Active Online Learning

Heidi Beezley, instructional technologist at Georgia Perimeter College, strives to instill online courses with active learning, “providing opportunities for students to meaningfully talk and listen, write, read, and reflect on the content, ideas, issues, and concerns of an academic subject” (as defined by Meyers and Jones). To this she adds: “interact[ing] with realia, manipulatives, simulations, etc.”

Educators need to take into account the characteristics of the online classroom when trying to incorporate active learning into online courses, Beezley says. For example, the nonlinear nature of the online classroom and the lack of face-to-face interaction with its visual cues make it difficult to ensure that all learners are experiencing the course in the same manner.

“Face-to-face discussions are linear. Everyone has a shared experience. The conversation slowly builds, and hopefully by the end you’ve moved everyone from one level of understanding to a new level of understanding. In an online environment when you have students participate in a discussion through a discussion board, it’s not linear at all. There’s not necessarily a shared experience,” Beezley says.

Threaded discussion summaries
To help create shared learning experiences, Beezley has students take turns summarizing the threaded discussions. This helps create a common understanding, serves as a means of assessing students’ understanding of the content, and gives them the chance to actively engage with the course content.

Rather than posting these summaries to the discussion board, Beezley has students post them to a course wiki or to Google Docs. This increases the accessibility of the summaries, which can be important for future reference and to enable all the students to edit them in case the student who did the original summary overlooked or misinterpreted key concepts.

Beezley recommends discussing the summary (synchronously or asynchronously) with the students to assess its accuracy and prevent incorrect information from becoming ingrained in students’ minds.

Synchronous collaboration
Beezley is an advocate of synchronous sessions as a way to create active learning opportunities. She uses Wimba, a live classroom program, to facilitate synchronous collaboration, including discussions (chat and/or voice), polling, and breakout rooms in which students can work on shared documents and report back to the entire class.

Beezley prefers to have students actually talk to each other as they collaborate in the breakout rooms. As in a face-to-face classroom, the instructor can visit with each group to ensure that they are going in the right direction.

“If things are going well, I usually leave them to do what they’re doing and know that they’re going to be reporting back when we meet in the main room. I find that I can usually just be the observer because the conversations are going well. 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. Sometimes groups may not be done discussing before you pull them all back and ask them to report on whatever they did. [You need to] establish a culture of accountability, making sure that they need to use the time wisely, or they will run out of time and won’t be able to complete the task,” Beezley says.

As in the face-to-face classroom, spontaneous off-topic conversations are likely to occur in the synchronous online environment. While too much of this can detract from the learning experience, a certain amount of it is productive. “Some of my best learning in college occurred while walking out of a classroom when the class was over and asking, ‘Did you understand this part of the lecture? It was confusing to me.’ Conversations like that are hard to have in the online environment. When you put people together in small groups, sometimes they have those kinds of conversations. I think those conversations are a good thing.”

To help facilitate these collaborations, Beezley assigns each student to a base group of students who work together throughout the course. “Instead of having one large group, I like the idea of everyone taking part in the same discussion in small groups of five students who are always working together and talking things through and reporting back to the class.”

Ready, set, go
As a graduate student, Beezley participated in synchronous sessions facilitated by her instructor Peyri Herrera, who used a technique Beezley calls “Ready, set, go” to actively engage students.

It’s a simple understanding check in which the instructor asks students to answer a question in chat and to submit their answers simultaneously on cue. The questions can be simple or complex. They can test recall or higher-order thinking. The key is to have students hit submit simultaneously so everyone’s answer is revealed at the same time.

“As a student I really feared that I would be wrong, because when it’s live there isn’t as much time to think about a response as there would be asynchronously. I think that fear is a healthy thing for students to feel. It raises your level of engagement. It makes you pay attention. It really helped me learn because whenever I was right I felt validated. But when I was wrong, I would pay attention even more.

“When you have that opportunity for the synchronous exchange of ideas, I think the stakes are higher than when it is asynchronous. When it is asynchronous, you have time to think through your responses, and I think that’s a good thing to have those times as well, but I think in that asynchronous event you have to think on your feet and apply what you know quickly. As an instructor it’s a great opportunity to really see where your students are and understand how much they’ve learned,” Beezley says.

Excerpted from Ideas for Active Online Learning, Online Classroom, (December 2011): 1, 3.