Active Learning Strategies for the Online Classroom

Concurrent Session 3
Streamed Session

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

It can be difficult to engage students in an online environment. Implementing active learning activities can increase student engagement. I will review the difference between active and passive learning activities, engage the audience in an active learning activity, and present a variety of resources for attendees to walk away with.


Desiree' Caldwell is an Assistant Professor in the Master Teacher program at Gwynedd Mercy University. She is also a dissertation advisor for doctoral students.    With a background in elementary education, her teaching experience spans 15 years and includes a variety of grade levels in both elementary and middle school settings.  Her primary focus at the middle school level was English Language Arts.  Desiree' also spent 5 years as an adjunct professor in the Master Teacher program at Gwynedd Mercy University before becoming a full-time faculty member.    Desiree' earned her Ed.D. in General Education from Northcentral University and her Master’s Degree in Education from Cabrini University. Desiree’ is also a Distinctive Mercy Graduate of Gwynedd Mercy University earning a Bachelor's Degree in Elementary Education.  Her research interests include effective online teaching strategies, faculty development for online instructors, and tracking the progress of student teachers from the beginning of their journey through their first few years of teaching.  Desiree’ serves on Gwynedd Mercy University’s Faculty Development Committee. Her professional memberships include Kappa Delta Pi, Kappa Gamma Pi, and PAC-TE. She actively participates in each professional organization by being Gwynedd Mercy’s Graduate Counselor for Kappa Delta Pi, a judge for the Cornaro Scholarship for Kappa Gamma Pi, and a peer reviewer for PAC-TE's journal.     Desiree’ has presented at local, national, and international conferences on various topics including active learning strategies for the online learning environment and the Response to Intervention Process at the middle school level. Her publications include two chapters, which she co-wrote with her colleagues, in the book titled Handbook of Research on Creating Meaningful Experiences in Online Courses.

Extended Abstract

Student engagement is an important component of online learning. Active learning is an activity that goes beyond passively listening to a lecture or video. It is a learning technique that challenges students to engage through mental contribution, hands-on activities, or the process of investigation, discovery and interpretation. Actively engaging students can be difficult for faculty who teach in an asynchronous online environment. When teaching in an online program, instructors are usually provided with a master course and accompanying guide, which contain the learning materials, discussion forums, assignments, and assessments for the course. Faculty who teach online often search for ideas on how to personalize their master course and increase student engagement. Many faculty express concerns about students who are disconnected. Personalization of master courses increases student engagement while allowing students and instructors to feel more connected during the course.

In an online environment, engagement is a necessary component for learning to take place. Students who actively participate usually learn more than those that do not. Strategies for incorporating active learning into the online learning environment can include synchronous online meetings, cooperative group work, flipped classrooms, adaptive assessments, virtual interaction, and problem-based learning activities. Faculty who teach online must intentionally develop and implement strategies that increase students’ engagement with the course content, with the instructor, and with their peers. 

Faculty should create learning communities within the online classroom to build relationships amongst students. Improving the collaboration among peers will establish a community of inquiry. Socialization is integral to the educational environment. Despite the distance within an online environment, active and collaborative learning can occur. Group assignments encourage deep engagement with content through active and social learning. Successful group assignments allow students to exercise collaborative skills in order to create something together that individually they could or would not.

In addition, learners must feel confident and comfortable with their peers in order to share information and become involved in discussion. Socialization allows students to build meaningful relationships and connect in the online environment. Socialization is a necessary component for open communication which will help develop group cohesion, ultimately leading to active learning. The relationship between the instructor and the student is also boosted through social presence. Instructors can establish social presence by building and developing purposeful relationships with students online. By investing time and energy to establish communication with students, instructors can enhance learning and confidence.

Students want available instructors who are willing to provide timely feedback, listen to concerns, and guide them through learning activities. Instructor presence is visible through responding to all or almost all of students’ discussion postings. This presence allows the instructor to push discussions forward and keep them on track. Students feel a sense of caring when the instructor frequently posts in discussion forums, invites students to ask questions and provides a quick response to those questions, provides detailed feedback on assignments, and asks for feedback about the course.

To be successful in the eyes of the students, an online course needs to be lively. One way to enliven a course is to integrate multimedia material such as interactive exercises and audio-visual materials. Students report a higher level of engagement when instructors incorporate live audio and video chats using web conferencing software such as Adobe Connect, Zoom, Teams, and Skype. There are also a variety of free technological tools, including Kahoot!, Trello, and Calendly, that can help increase instructor presence. 

Faculty who teach online should establish a community of learners. One of the ways to build a community of learners is to increase student-to-student interaction. There are several evidence-based strategies to consider when building student-to-student interaction. Asynchronous online discussion boards have a positive impact on student-to-student interaction. Role play activities also support student-to-student interaction. Another strategy is the use of peer review. In courses where students are working on projects, lesson plans, presentations or writing pieces, the components can be chunked in such a way that students complete drafts. While the instructor would typically review and provide feedback on these drafts, having students share their work with a small group of peers allows for the student to receive praise, critical review, suggestions for improvement, and support from a variety of perspectives. Students then have an opportunity to revise their work based on the peer reviews before submitting their final versions. The peer review process also allows students to provide supplemental subject-matter and writing support resources.  

While student-to-student interaction makes learning more fun and enjoyable, many students question the effectiveness of this type of interaction. Students are typically more concerned with course content rather than student-to-student interaction. Despite the importance of this type of interaction, many students prefer to work alone on assignments. How to do instructors get these students to buy into active learning activities?

Student engagement is imperative to enhancing online learning. Instructors must utilize a multi-level approach to engage students. It is important to consider how to engage the student with the course content, with the instructor, and with the student’s peers. All of the active learning strategies mentioned above will be explored during this hands-on and engaging education session. Come and join me for a lively discussion on how you can increase student engagement in your online classroom.

Level of Participation:

The content of this session will be presented in a variety of ways. The session will open with a mini-lecture introducing the topic. The next component will involve the attendees having to get up and move around while engaging in self-reflection paired with peer discussion. The session will continue with a hands-on activity using a particular active learning strategy (attendees will need a mobile device for this). The session will end with a review of resources that can help attendees replace at least one passive learning activity with an active learning activity in their next online course to help increase student engagement.

Session Goals:

Individuals attending this education session will be able to identify the difference between active and passive learning activities as well as the importance of increasing student engagement in the online environment. They will be able to reflect on the types of activities they currently use in their online courses and discuss the topic within a small group. Attendees will experience participating in an active learning activity that they could integrate into their online courses from a student perspective. Lastly, attendees will start to plan how they will change one passive learning activity currently used in their online courses to an active learning activity using the resources provided.