Active learning online? Yes you can!

The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai

Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”. After almost a year of online teaching, it’s time to go beyond the synchronous- asynchronous conundrum and take a more in-depth look at how students learn online and how we can best stimulate their curiosity and creativity. “Active learning” is a catchall term, I admit, but it does speak to a level of engagement that we ideally expect from our students. Besides, there’s nothing wrong in having a more versatile approach and keeping an open mind while searching for learning activities that suit our courses and our student cohorts. Below you can read some of my thoughts about what is important to keep in mind when designing and running active learning activities online as well as some very useful resources that can help you get started. Hope you enjoy reading and find it useful. As always, your comments are more than welcome! Enjoy the weekend!

Active learning?

Active learning can take many different shapes, but the core element is students being engaged with the content of the course and with the learning process at a deep level and in an active manner. It can be collaborative or independent learning (or both), it can be short and spontaneous (e.g. a 15 minutes activity in class or during a live online session) or take a more structured form, like in the case of Problem-Based Learning or Project-Based Learning (often both called PBL, somewhat confusingly). In this latter case students are assigned different roles and need to organise their work effectively, while instructors act as facilitators of the process.

More importantly, this student-centred learning approach combines collective and self-directed learning and thus provides students with a set of valuable skills to use in their professional life. Moreover, active learning activities often include an aspect of authentic learning, whereby students are becoming familiar with the way certain processes take place in the “real world”. The fact they see the task as relevant increases their motivation and commitment to the learning journey.

Active learning online? Why not!

Because of their versatility, active learning activities can be designed and conducted in a variety of environments and formats. As we are getting more familiar with teaching and learning online, we discover various possibilities to actively engage students throughout the course. It does seem quite daunting, especially because it feels like these activities are more difficult to accomplish and monitor virtually. But leaving those fears aside, here are my thoughts on what we need to be mindful of when using active learning in our online courses:

  • Design the activity with your students in mind. Ask yourself how much previous knowledge of the topic they have and whether they are independent learners or not (yet). This will help you build in the right amount of instruction and guidance for their level. You can use this survey to get to know your students better and read more about using empathy to map students’ journey through your course here;

  • Think about what type of activity works best in your course. There is no right or wrong answer here. Sometimes, short activities throughout the course can really keep students on their toes and re-energise them. Other times, a semester-long project, can motivate them at a deeper level and enhance their commitment to your course. In case you choose longer activities, it is best to structure them at least to a certain extent (no need to use a full PBL approach but if it suits you, why not?) and think of suitable platforms that can support students in their learning. Breaking them down into smaller activities is also an option, but in this case make sure there are clear connections and students don’t get lost on the way;

  • Try to use the various tools the online environment offers to provide structure and constant support. Create collaboration spaces, provide clear activity instructions and templates (when applicable) but also be ready for spontaneous interaction. More importantly, be flexible and ask for feedback. Have a dialogue with your students about what worked and what didn’t;

  • An important thing to consider is how you are planning to assess these activities. Active learning lends itself well to formative assessment, where feedback plays a key role. How and when will you provide feedback? Remember peer feedback is also an option. Summative assessment is also possible, and in this case you need to be mindful of whether you are assessing the outcome or the process (or both). Here technology can be of help, as the interactions can be captured better than in the face-to-face environment and support you, as teacher, in monitoring, scaffolding and evaluating the process;

  • Remember that online it's very important to communicate clearly and provide extra scaffolding. This may go against the very idea of your activity, but think twice before dismissing it- ultimately what you want is to ensure the success of your students. Writing clear activity prompts and making your expectations explicit is a good starting point. Find more ideas about communicating with your online students here;

  • Be there. Yes, active/inquiry-based learning means the teacher is taking a step back. But the nature of the online environment makes teacher presence a crucial aspect. You can find some ideas about establishing teacher presence online here.

As an educator who is used to teaching using active learning methods in the classroom, it might feel that being so involved in the task goes against your role as facilitator. But because the nature of interactions is different online, you need to actually rethink your role. Being more present and guiding the students through the activities does not take away student agency and ownership of the task. On the contrary, it can help them build the confidence and skills they need to become independent learners. And this is so important now, with the majority of students studying online without having chosen to. This is something we need to keep in mind as we are starting to consolidate our online teaching practices.

Active learning does work online. But rather than translating face-to-face activities to the online environment it is more effective to design them for the virtual learning space and for student cohorts that are learning remotely.


Active Learning Design Tool- a great tool that can help you choose active learning activities based on the requirements of your course; you can filter activities by the number of students, learning outcomes, preparation time, learning space, etc;

Teaching Tools: Active Learning while Physically Distancing- a crowdsourced document with examples of active learning activities you can do online (asynchronous and synchronous) and face-to-face in a socially distanced context;

Engaging Learners- Online Lecture Toolkit- the basics of active learning online from the Online Learning Toolkit;

Creating an Active Learning Lesson- Online Lecture Toolkit- a useful template to design your active learning activities;

Active Learning in Hybrid and Physically Distanced Classrooms- a piece by Derek Bruff with examples of active learning in a hybrid mode and in physically distanced classrooms.