I have been thinking about how I might apply active learning to an online course. I took two courses entirely online this last semester. I got a 4.0 in each and I believe it was a good introduction to taking a course online. It also clearly gave me some ideas on how I would go about teaching a course online. There are some aspects of the courses I would emulate and some I would avoid. This leads nicely then into a question of how I might design a course to implement some active or collaborative learning ideas.
Bonwell and Eison (1991) argued that strategies that promote active and cooperative learning environments have five commonalities. The students are involved in class beyond listening. Lesser emphasis is placed on transmitting information and more effort is placed in developing the skills of the students. The students are required to participate in higher order thinking such as analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluation. The students are also involved in activities like reading, discussion, and writing. Finally, greater emphasis is placed on the exploration of student values and attitudes.
These five points would appear to be very important to active learning in an online environment. The student must be able to move beyond listening as lecture opportunities are more constrained than in an online course. The student must become engaged in the course or it will not work for him. However, since the students are physically separated from each and the instructor, the students must be able to participate in activities that allow to do things like analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluation without the students ever physically interacting. This brings into play very different course activities that one would use in a physical course. Not surprisingly, most of the activities I participated in the two online courses had active learning written all over them even if they looked very different from active learning activities in more traditional courses.
Another reason for using active learning in an online course is that non-traditional students in higher education (that is those that are older than 18-24) prefer it over lecturing. As most students taking online courses have statistically been non-traditional, this is a good point to remember. Slavin (1991) reported that traditional students have been lectured to their whole lives and expect it. However, older students have had the opportunity to work and have life experiences that have shown them that they can learn things on their own and can participate and interact with both other students and the teacher in the classroom. This would lead me to conclude that most online students are going to be able to adjust to online active learning activities.
Mind you, I am not arguing that traditional aged students are going to have trouble with a virtual course with active learning activities. These 18-14 year old students use Facebook, Ratmyprofessors.com, chat, IM, etc. almost daily. However, I think most non-traditional students will respond well to active learning because they are more oriented to active learning rather than any particular ability to adapt to technology.
Looking at what I did not like from the courses I took online, I would not require discussion board posts. Both courses required students to post weekly and then also make replies to several of the posts made by other students. Can you say contrived discussions? In essence, the teacher made students post a mini-paper each week. This is by itself is not very interactive although the writing itself can be beneficial. However, forcing responses weekly had the predictable consequence of poor discussion threads that were dominated by short obvious statements from students just trying to get the assignment done. Once people had two "response" posts, they were done. There were no lively interactive discussions that would to me mimic a lively in-person class discussion.
I much preferred other attempts at active learning. One of the courses I took required a group paper. I was assigned to a group with four other people and over a period of weeks we collaboratively wrote a paper. One of the people in my group was logging in from Iraq as she was an army supply officer in Baghdad. The group went well and there was tons of interaction even though we lived in different time zones and had radically different lives. Unlike the discussion board, there was a real project to work on and this helped us focus and work together.
I liked this enough that I would use it for an online class. The learning has many of the characteristics described by Bonwell and Eison (1991) for active learning. Frankly, this is very similar to a more traditional course. The students online will use the phone, e-mail, and chat to work out a group paper. Students in a traditional course may meet in person but they will also gravitate towards technology such as e-mail to write the paper. I believe assigning a group a paper online works very similarly to assigning a group a paper in an on campus course.
One approach that was not tried that I think would work for active learning would be to develop a WebQuest to include with the course. Dodge (1995) wrote that a WebQuest was a good method for getting online students to work in an active method albeit one that it is done usually in a solitary mode. Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WebQuest) notes, “In education, WebQuest is a research activity in which students collect information, where most of the information comes from the World Wide Web. It was first invented by Bernie Dodge and Tom March at San Diego State University in 1995.” Dodge (1997), wrote that a WebQuest is "an inquiry-oriented activity in which some or all of the information that learners interact with comes from resources on the Internet, optionally supplemented with videoconferencing."
I think I would use a WebQuest to encourage active learning in any online course I taught. The actual layout would depend on how the content of the course but I would design an assignment that required a student to have a guided surf of the Web to sites of interest. Through questions, I would require the students to write about what they discovered. In particular, sites and questions in the WebQuest would be coupled together to require the student to critically think and synthesize different concepts together. I would also use some multiple choice questions which would appear at certain points of the WebQuest to make some initial assessments but also to help "clue" the students into what they should be looking for as they are surfing and writing.
I would assess the group writing project for my online class in the same way I would for a more traditional physical course. Is the paper well written with good grammar and spelling? Does it address the assignment and meet all of the assigned criteria for completeness? Are the ideas well articulated? Was the paper turned in on time? Even though the assignment was done by an online group, it can still be graded in a standard format.
One additional step I would use for grading on online group written paper would be to have the group members assign each other grades. Group members who did not contribute or did not contribute well will usually be identified in this way. Courses taught on campus use this method but I think it is particularly important to do this for an online group to identify slackers on a project. Those I believe who did not contribute their fair share to the project would have their grade adjusted downward by me.
The WebQuest active learning assignment would have to be graded differently. Writing is a component of it so I would be able to grade that portion based on the criteria I listed above for the group writing assignment. However, as the writing during a WebQuest is less polished as it is written over a few hours time as the student completes the different steps, I would grade items like grammar and spelling less harshly. Instead, I would be mostly looking to see if the students made acceptable observations and found connections between different points. I would give little weight to the multiple choice questions unless a pattern emerged which showed the student just blew off that portion of the WebQuest.
The assessment of the WebQuest varies from how an assessment would be done in a physical class. The online course assessment is going to have to focus on the written output of the student that was created as the student worked through the various portions of the WebQuest. A similar activity in a physical course would allow the instructor to assess the student not only one written comments but also on items like interactions with others, contributions to group discussion, etc.
In summary, I believe active learning can be done in an online course and I think I have some ideas for doing it. The criteria identified by Bonwell and Eison (1991) are found in online activities even if these activities have a different look and feel to them. The two activities I would like to try (online group writing assignment and WebQuest) have real potential in this are I think. I may feel different after trying them out of course but I think they are worthwhile. In the case of the group writing, I think the assessment is almost identical to a more traditional class assessment. However, the WebQuest would require a different assessment track.
Bonwell, C. C. and Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. Washington, DC: George Washington University.
Dodge, B. J. (1995). WebQuests: A technique for internet-based learning. The Distance educator, 1(2), 10-13.
Dodge, B. J. (1997). Some thoughts about WebQuests. Accessed at http://webquest.sdsu.edu/about_webquests.html on 10 December 2006.
Slavin, R.E. (1991). Group rewards make groupwork work. Educational leadership, 48(5), 89-91.
Wikipedia. WebQuest. Accessed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WebQuest on 10 December 2006.