What defines active approaches to learning is that they require the learner to exhibit a degree of agency and self-regulation that is not usually fostered when learners remain passive recipients of content knowledge transmitted to them by lecturers, readings, etc. It is when learners engage in an authentic activity, reflect on the new knowledge inherent in completing an authentic task, and share their findings in a polished product or performance, that knowledge is actively constructed (Herrington et al., 2010).
Active learning course design begins with an understanding that “learning is an activity carried out by the learner” (Schneider and Stern, 2010: 82) and that knowledge is built based on previous learning (National Research Council, 1999). As such, traditional knowledge such as the laws of classical mechanics, the Cartesian coordinate system, or the mechanisms of photosynthesis remain inert until the learner employs this knowledge in order to solve a real-world task and create meaning. “The more connections a learner sees between the educational world of learning environments and the outside world, the easier the knowledge transfer will be” (Schneider and Stern, 2010: 83).
An active learning course design provides thoughtfully scaffolded and designed learning experiences that carefully guide the learners’ knowledge construction through action, reflection, abstraction, and application (Swan, 2004). Active learning requires connecting academic knowledge beyond the disciplinary focus to consider how this knowledge will impact real-world contexts in which social systems, culture, and complexity apply. The constructive, situated, self-regulated, and collaborative nature of learning is well represented by the principles for authentic e-learning (Herrington et al., 2010).