Checking in or checking out?: Engaging distance learners by infusing active learning in the online “classroom”

Concurrent Session 4
Streamed Session

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

How do you prevent students from “checking out” in an online course? What are the challenges to designing an online course that engages learners in active participation? Join us for a discussion of key issues in active distance learning and brainstorm active learning strategies to engage distance learners. 


I earned my PhD in English from Northern Illinois University in 2016. I have been teaching college-level English composition and literature courses since 2008 and have taught in online, blended/hybrid, and face-to-face learning environments. As the Teaching and Learning Coordinator at Northern Illinois University, I research teaching best practices, deliver workshops on instructional practices, consult with faculty on improving their teaching, and help organize faculty development events, and I am currently in the process of updating our Faculty Development Instructional Guide.

Extended Abstract

According to EDUCAUSE’s 2019 Horizon Report, Higher Education Edition, “The transition to active learning classrooms and spaces in higher education has gained considerable momentum in recent years” (p. 11). Important considerations for active learning broached in the report include redesigned learning spaces, stakeholder (administrator, designer, professor, student) buy-in, and transforming pedagogical approaches (EDUCAUSE, 2019, p. 11). While the current, short-term trend is toward redesigning physical learning spaces for active learning, the report posits that “a commensurate focus on virtual learning spaces may be further out on the horizon.” Foci could include current capabilities for infusing online platforms with active learning tools to facilitate team-based learning and provide synchronous virtual meeting spaces, and even someday to utilize extended reality (XR) to enhance students’ individual learning experiences (EDUCAUSE, 2019, p. 11). With the push toward expanding active learning in higher education institutions, how do you decide which strategies, technology, or approaches will enhance student learning in your classes? 

Before professors can use active learning, they must see its value for student success. If those who are teaching do not buy into active learning pedagogy, how can they be expected to implement it successfully? For those with buy-in, why do you value active learning approaches to teaching online courses? 

Once buy-in has been achieved on an instructional level, the challenges and considerations related to planning and design, implementation, and facilitation of active learning for online courses must be addressed. What are the challenges involved in structuring an online course infused with active learning? What is involved in the planning stages? What difficulties are involved in implementing and facilitating active learning in an online course? 

A seemingly obvious component of active learning for online courses is the use of technology. Technology is necessarily a part of online learning, but its use can be limited or expanded according to faculty preferences, limitations, and innovation. How could you leverage technology to engage your students in an online learning environment? What have you used in the past and what were its successes? What were your challenges? 

An essential component of eliciting student buy-in and engagement with active learning approaches to online courses involves the three main pillars of interaction: student-faculty interaction, student-student interaction, and student-content interaction. Faculty must make a concerted effort to create purposeful, meaningful interactions in online courses. How do you balance the three main types of interaction to encourage active learning online? What are your strategies to promote each type of interaction in your online courses? How does “interaction” relate to “active learning”? 

One way to create interaction between students is through group work, but how can you ensure that students are actually interacting with one another rather than working separately and cobbling their individual work together? What kinds of interactive group work have you assigned for online courses? How did you make the decision to assign those tasks as group versus individual work? What are the barriers to assigning group work in an online class? What strategies or methods have you used for making online group work interactive and successful? What challenges have you encountered with students, and how did you address those issues? 

Finally, we must determine whether the active learning methods we employ in our classes achieve the desired effect and help our students meet our course objectives. How do you assess active learning online? How do you demonstrate its efficacy? 

All of these questions will be explored in this engaging facilitated conversation. Please join us for a lively discussion to probe the challenges that face faculty as they move to develop methods for engaging distance students as active learners in online courses. 


Level of Participation: 

This session is structured as a facilitated conversation. The panelists will begin with a brief introduction to the proposed issue of how to use active learning strategies in online courses for the purpose of engaging distance learners. Then, panelists will facilitate discussions on the key issues outlined in this proposal: value/buy-in, challenges in the stages of development, use of technology, promotion of interaction, assessment. Panelists will share their experiences with these issues from both instructional and faculty development support perspectives. Participants will explore the topic of active online learning by sharing their own experiences, concerns, and questions with the group and collaborating to develop approaches for implementing active learning strategies to engage online students.

Session Goals: 

Individuals attending this conversation will be able to identify why active learning is valuable for distance education. They will be able to explain the challenges active learning poses at each stage of the course (design, implementation, facilitation). Finally, they will be able to explore and appraise the utility of a multitude of active learning strategies that could be infused into online courses.