Why Active Learning?

Active learning is associated with the broad family of social-constructivist approaches that challenge educators to move from a direct instruction model toward more inquiry-based approaches, such as problem-based, project-based, and authentic learning opportunities (Chi, 2009). Some scholars criticize active learning for lacking strong evidence of effectiveness in comparison to traditional instructional methods whereas others have reported research support for active learning (Michael, 2006; Prince, 2004). Unfortunately, active learning as a quality standard of online course design (Lowenthal and Hodges, 2015) remains largely undefined. With online courses having become a much more widely accepted mode of instruction, especially during the pandemic that began in 2020, it is imperative to better define what active learning in online courses is and to provide evidence-based design principles for designers and teachers. 

Too few online courses incorporate active learning pedagogies in the design of learning tasks, and too many online courses still place the learner in the role of passive consumer of disciplinary content rather than in the central role of tackling authentic tasks that foster active knowledge construction (Herrington et al., 2010). Recorded lectures, preselected chapter readings, artificial discussions, and automated assessments too often make up the primary discourse of online courses instead of taking advantage of the pedagogical innovations made possible through active learning tasks mediated by technology (Falkner and Sheard, 2019).

Active teaching practices in face-to-face delivery do not seamlessly become active design practices for online delivery. There is a need to define clear design principles when developing the activities and assessments that will eventually guide the learners’ active participation online. The capacity of online courses to instantiate a particular pedagogical approach within the learning environment and automate this approach for ongoing use and reuse highlights the importance of upfront design considerations for active learning in online courses. We must reduce the persistent gap between what is known about the science of learning and what is practiced in online courses (Baum and McPherson, 2019; Berliner, 2008).

Defining active learning in the design of online courses thus becomes a matter of quality for online delivery because without clear principles of design, vague definitions regarding active learning in online courses will continue to be the only available indicators of quality. While multiple quality assurance frameworks for online learning in K-12 [INACOL] (2011), Bakken and Bridges (2011), [VLLA] (2019c) and higher education [Quality Matters] (2015), [NSQ] (2019), [OSCQR] (2020) exist, hardly any frameworks specifically mention active learning as a standard. Even fewer attempt to define active learning, and none make active learning measurable. In short, what exactly is meant by active learning in online courses remains a vague concept, and frequently a misunderstood goal. For example, the Quality Matters rubric (Shattuck, 2010), which has become a widely adopted set of peer-review standards in the United States and beyond (Lee et al., 2020), recommends in Standard 5.2 that learning activities provide opportunities for interaction that support active learning, but the standard does not go beyond the statement to articulate what precisely is meant by active learning. Clearly, it is time to define active learning in online courses through more precise design principles (Carr et al., 2015). This 3-year design-based research (DBR) study documented one design team’s intervention to address this research-practice gap. The first guiding principle of design-based research (DBR) is its “focus on a persistent problem of practice from multiple stakeholders’ perspectives” (Penuel et al., 2011: 332).