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Incorporating Active Learning into the Online Classroom

Teaching Strategies and Techniques

Incorporating Active Learning into the Online Classroom

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Gary Ackerman, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Mount Wachusett Community College, works with faculty to incorporate active learning into their online and face-to-face courses, and while there are differences in these learning environments, active learning can be implemented just as well online as face-to-face.

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Gary Ackerman, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Mount Wachusett Community College, works with faculty to incorporate active learning into their online and face-to-face courses, and while there are differences in these learning environments, active learning can be implemented just as well online as face-to-face.

Ackerman encourages faculty members to use the following active learning approaches in their online (as well as face-to-face) courses:

  • Collaborative group work
  • Writing to learn
  • Questioning
  • Scaffolding
  • Discussion

A common element of these active learning techniques is interaction. Ackerman and several colleagues charged with leading this active-learning initiative “understand learning to be a social activity, and from our point of view, if students are not interacting with each other they're not learning,” Ackerman says. 

A key challenge in applying active learning to the online classroom is having to renegotiate time. For example, a discussion that might have occurred in 45 or 50 minutes in the physical classroom may take place over several weeks online in order to give everybody the time they need to reflect and have meaningful exchanges.

This asynchronous communication gives students the opportunity to revise their understanding of concepts over time as they interact with their peers. They also can review archives rather than having to rely on their memories of what was said.

The nature of the online classroom demands careful design and facilitation in order to realize the full benefits of active learning techniques. An important element of design is selecting the appropriate tools to implement the active learning techniques. In addition to the affordances of the technology, Ackerman recommends considering variety. “The literature is pretty clear that if students have the same thing over and over again they get bored with it. We have found that even simple things like using VoiceThread as an alternative for just one or two discussions makes it different enough and interesting enough so that students will pay attention in ways that they didn't previously,” Ackerman says.

Discussion boards

When faculty members ask Ackerman about active learning, they tend to focus on the discussion board, and when asked about their previous experience with discussion boards, they mention a lack of focus and frequent confusion on the part of students as to who they are responding to.

“Teachers struggle understanding the differences between modeling an online discussion and an in-person one. If a [face-to-face] discussion is veering off, the instructor can nudge it back in another direction. That's difficult to do if it's online and happening over a couple of weeks, because by the time you realize it's veering off, it might be too far gone,” Ackerman says. “We've been working with faculty to think really seriously and purposefully about how to begin a discussion. We think about it almost like taking a golf swing. You want to be sure to line it up right and get it on the right footing with some really good prompts.”

In addition to starting a discussion with good, open-ended prompts, Ackerman recommends providing scaffolding so that students' responses are more structured and thoughtful than “I agree.”


Discussion boards are not appropriate for all interaction. For example, when an instructor asks students to list the three most important parts of the chapter, Ackerman finds that a wiki works better “because you get to see the responses evolving as a document. Everybody is seeing it. We don't have to go back and say, ‘Oh yeah, that's something Sally talked about three threads ago,'” Ackerman says. Once students have provided a collective response that meets the learning objectives for that activity, the instructor can lock the wiki and then move on.

Shared documents

Ackerman recommends using shared documents as a way to engage in the active learning activity of collaborative group work. Google Docs is a good platform for collaboration. “We try to get our faculty to understand that the work of creating an online document together is not cheating. It's the type of interaction that students are going to have anyway. The question is how can we structure this interaction and make it a bit more active?” Ackerman says.

One way to make working collaboratively on a document more active is to use templates so that students have structure when they start working on the assignment, which can help prevent students from heading in the wrong direction, Ackerman says.


Blogs can be an effective platform for discussions as well. Ackerman helped a business instructor use blogs for a case study assignment that had students look at ethical questions from several perspectives. An initial prompt presented the case and students were asked to come up with a solution. Follow-up prompts asked students to consider the case from other points of view, for example, from the perspective of a human resources professional. The blog format enabled students to clearly see a variety of perspectives on a single issue.

Synchronous chat

Due to scheduling issues, most active learning in an online course is likely to be asynchronous; however, Ackerman recommends considering synchronous activities as well. One tool that he likes is watch2gether.com, which enables students to view videos and comment on them in real time.

Recommendations for starting with active learning

Incorporating active learning techniques into an online course depends on the course's learning goals as well as the instructor's teaching style and comfort level with the technology. “I see it as a continuum. … To me, the more active learning, the better. … I try to get faculty moving along the continuum and every little bit helps. When I work with a faculty member, I always start the conversation with, ‘What's something that's brand-new in your curriculum? What's something that you don't think works very well?' Those are the places where I try to find an entry point. I try to improve those rather than having the active learning strategies be an intrusion into something that the instructor already values and that works pretty well. We look for something the instructor is uncomfortable with. Once we get that established, we hope that the next semester it's going to be something they will continue doing and maybe stretch it a little more.”