The 4 Pillars of Active Learning Practices for Online Instructors

Written by: Christie Forgette

Online courses may not seem like an obvious environment for active learning, but they can be, says Jennifer Qian, a professor of education at Louisiana State University. 

“A great educator is a great educator, no matter the course delivery mode,” she explains. “Active learning should be the goal in all environments. It’s the best way to engage students in the learning process.”

At Louisiana State University, Qian serves as the program lead for the Master of Arts in Education–Educational Technology and the Graduate Certificate in Educational Technology. Her research and teaching areas include emerging technology, instructional/learning design for active learning, and academic innovation.  

“The opposite of active learning is passive learning, and no one wants that,” Qian says. “Even with the traditional one-way, lecture-based instruction, the students who are truly learning are the ones actively processing and thinking about the lecture material.”

Qian considers four essential elements in active learning: think, interact, create, and reflect. “These pillars are intertwined and operate together to fully engage students in their learning.”

Active Learning through Thinking

Thinking activities address the disengagement that can be persistent in large-enrollment lecture formats. An example of a thinking activity could be by prompting students to imagine approaching a problem the way an expert in the field would. 

“Teachers need to guide students in the thinking process of a field, not just cover the content,” Qian says. “We need to guide students in thinking about ‘Why are we learning about this content, and what are we going to do with it?’” 

Even a remote learning format that relies on video-based lectures can be more interactive than commonly assumed. For example, with H5P, users can weave pop-up quizzes, polls, branching scenarios, and other interactions into videos in their LMS.

Active Learning through Interacting

Interactive activities empower students to co-construct knowledge through interaction with the environment, the instructor, and peers. (Qian refers here to Lev Vygotsky’s social constructivist learning theory.) This often happens already in online contexts when small-group projects and discussion formats are well designed.

Qian advises faculty to watch for how emerging technologies may facilitate more interactive learning. Augmented reality and virtual reality tools, often referred to collectively as XR (extended reality), potentially help students visualize and work with abstract concepts and processes in virtual labs.

“Progress seems slow so far, but it will happen soon,” Qian says, much like artificial intelligence tools seemed to be a long time in coming but are suddenly ubiquitous since the public release on November 30, 2022, of the generative text tool ChatGPT. 

Active Learning through Creating

Creative activities ask students to put their thinking and knowledge into practice, and faculty may already be relying on this in the form of papers and presentations.

“But if we think deeper into the learning activity of creating,” says Qian, “teachers could be more creative in engaging this generation of learners who grew up with digital technology such as social media. There are many ways other than papers and PowerPoint presentations to demonstrate learning.”

The possibilities for creative projects are vast and growing every day as new tools emerge for developing in media such as interactive videos, animated explainer videos, online games, infographics, and podcasts.

Qian assigns students to create videos that teach about the course content. The videos can be presented in an in-person class meeting, remotely during a synchronous class meeting, or asynchronously.

Active Learning through Reflecting

Reflective activities encourage metacognition about how one learns. Again, many faculty may already incorporate this approach by assigning written reflective essays or reflective journals, and again, digital media tools offer a growing universe of possibilities. Video journals, also called vlogs or video blogs, can be used for regular reflection.

One activity Qian recommends is visual reflection in which students “make learning visible” using infographics, diagrams, and mapping tools. As mentioned above, students thus summarize what they learned, but they also reflect on course material by, for example, “connecting the dots” visually between weekly topics, concepts, and skills.

Related reading — “First Time Teaching Online? 13+ Resources to Help Implement Your Course”


Planning for Active Learning

Ensuring that learning activities incorporate thinking, interacting, creating, and reflecting takes thoughtful planning and design. For example, Qian cautions against an uncritical approach to group work, which is not by definition active learning. 

“Faculty might think, ‘I’ve put them into small groups so I can check off active learning,’” Qian explains. “But the devil is in the details. It’s how you implement and design the group work that leads to active learning.”

Problem- and project-based learning, as well as service learning, are also good opportunities to promote the four pillars of active learning. Recently, Qian has been asking her students to examine artificial intelligence and the challenge of deepfake videos. Organizing activities around that problem creates opportunities for students to think like experts, co-create knowledge, create presentations in a variety of media, and reflect on their learning.

Qian, who recently joined the CourseGateway Product Advisory Board, works with her graduate students to explore how emerging tools like Powtoon, H5P, and Google’s Teachable Machine can be used to implement active learning in online classes. Some instructors may feel these applications are out of their comfort zones or require too much time to learn, Qian acknowledges. She advises faculty to consult their institution’s center for teaching and learning or instructional technology office to learn more about these tools and how to adopt them in their own classes. 

“Go slowly and just try one new application,” she says. “If it goes well, next year you can add another.”

As someone who teaches in-service educators from around the globe in her online graduate courses, Qian is always thinking about trends in education and the role of emerging technologies in innovating teaching and learning. She views active learning pedagogy as essential and central to the future of good teaching, online or otherwise.

“There is no better way to teach than to actively engage your students,” Qian says. “Teachers who implement active learning strategies are setting their students up for success.”  


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