Principles of Practice

Active Learning Online

As instructors and designers, we've moved from traditional approaches to transmitting knowledge. Active learning is a teaching method or approach that strives to involve students in learning to achieve more than short-term retention of information. Students are asked to read, write, discuss or solve problems and engage in more complex levels of learning that involve analysis, synthesis and creativity.

Active learning strategies in online course design are important in keeping a student "connected" to the online learning environment and help them to succeed in achieving the outcomes of a course. We'll explore active online learning activities in greater detail in Week 3, as you begin to develop your prototype online learning activity.

When designing for active learning online, keep in mind the Community of Inquiry model and the changing roles of instructor and learners (i.e., instructor becomes more of an guide and facilitator of learning through cognitive and social interactions, and the students take on more responsibility for their own learning and contributing to the online learning community). A related area of research is Terry Anderson' Interaction Equivalency Theory that identifies three important types of interaction between

  • students and content;
  • teacher and students
  • students

Further research by Robert Bernard and colleages (2004) indicated that increasing any of the three types of interactions increased student performance.

While the role of the instructor is still critical in scaffolding deeper learning online, designing a variety of activities, that involve the learner in self-directed and collaborative activities is an effective design strategy. Some key elements to keep in mind:

  • offer different types of interactive activities
  • build sequential activities in which each builds on the preceding one
  • provide timely constructive feedback, from the instructor and from peers
  • allow time for reflection and assessment of learning progress

While much of the current course design and development in higher education follows a constructivist model, the evolving "new" learning theories like connectivism, and related concepts of networked learning and "21st century learning", rely on creating safe learning environments and enabling or supporting learners to explore and create learning with peers.

Learning takes place between instructors, students and content in the online "classroom" and beyond as students increasingly seek out meaningful learning through personal learning networks and social media platforms.


Anderson, T. (2010). Interactions Affording Distance Science Education. In D. Kennepohl & L. Shaw (Eds.), Accessible Elements: Teaching Science Online and at a Distance (pp. 1-18). Edmonton: Athabasca University Press.(p10) Retrieved from