You may know or have been in a classroom in which you read from a text book and then answered questions at the end of each chapter. If you were lucky the teacher assigned the odd problems so that you could “verify” you answers in the back. And most days looked the same, you checked your homework from the night before, you opened up your book to the next chapter and watched the clock until the bell rang. If you were a self driven learner, this may have seemed to work for you, but would you classify it as a powerful learning experience?

Realizing True Potential

Critics of digital learning argue that students are simply being placed in front of a shiny new tool. There is a fear that the relationship with the teacher is deemphasized and students are basically experiencing what is described above, but just in a new 21st century kind of way.

In order to realize the true potential of technology we have to ensure that those fears are not the reality, but a myth. In order to do this, we have to get away from digital content and curriculum that replaces a textbook or puts a lecture online. In the same way that we would encourage teachers to think beyond the textbook and lecture, we must demand that digital content actively engage students with material, and we must support teachers in finding meaningful ways to connect the digital course work back to the classroom.

When it comes to digital instruction, we can’t allow this to be an online version of bad teaching. What we need is online tools and resources that support the strategies and best practices for teaching that we have long known to be true. If your digital curriculum is simply digitizing your textbook, then you are missing out on the opportunity for genuine personalization, active engagement and increased outcomes.

We believe that the formula for driving active learning comes from the synergy of blending three key elements; product design, instructional design and school design. If you are serious about active learning in a blended context than you need to think about it in these three ways.

Product Design. How are the tools and curriculum I used designed in order to support active learning?

A key component to any blended learning implementation plan is to identify the platform and content that will best support your goals and best align with your strategy. When thinking about active learning, you must think about the experience of your students while online. Active, blended environments should offer students online experience that require them to engage in meaningful, authentic tasks. Online courses and tutorials should not assume students are passive listeners who are merely consuming content, but instead create learning opportunities with students as active participants in the learning experience.  We asked our friends at Apex Learning, how they ensure they are creating content that supports active learning and they pointed out that it comes down to what the students are doing online. Are they observing, inquiring, creating, connecting and confirming? Content should help students build anticipation for knowledge and should require analysis and critically thinking.

Instructional Design. How is my classroom and my instruction helping support active learning?

Do students have an opportunity to talk about what they are doing online? Are online lessons sometimes used as a catalyst for whole class or small group discussion? Do students reference online work in comprehensive projects? Do online projects have physical components and opportunities to collaborate?

At the classroom level, teachers should have specific strategies that make digital curriculum a successful component to the active learning environment. Teachers should make regular and meaningful connections to digital content. Students should have regular opportunities to talk about the work that they are doing online (ie. Teachers may choose to use specific components of online lessons to initiate whole class discussions) Lessons and projects should be designed to make the connections between the digital and physical environments.

We can see the importance of these connections even in the definition of blended learning. The Clayton Christensen Institute recently changed their widely-accepted definition of blended learning to include a third component that emphasizes the importance of connections:

The definition of blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns: (1) at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace; (2) at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home; (3) and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience

It is easy to have a high engagement, active classroom, but rigor plays a large part as well. Educators should aim for authentic engagement, quality work products, and challenging work that teaches young people to use their minds well and often in order to prepare young people for the world they will inherit.

School design. How is our school supporting active learning?

When you think about your school’s culture are students, teachers, parents, and school leaders all on the same page? Do all stake-holders know how school works? What we mean by this is that there is a clear understanding of norms, expectations and culture. Is everyone aware of what students should know and be able to do? Is there intention behind how and why students collaborate with other students?

School Design is all about a series of implementation efforts that are closely connected to goals (e.g improve student access, personalize learning, create more deeper learning experiences, etc). These efforts include the careful selection of content and curriculum as well as attention to the development opportunities for staff.  Active learning has to remain a key consideration. Measurement is the key indicator that ensures movement toward such goals and should therefore be regular and intentional.

Making significant impact is a team sport and an effective active learning community requires whole school involvement and high investment from school leadership. School leadership should design efforts that support active learning across the building. Although what happens in the individual classroom has a huge impact on how students learn and process information, teachers who feel supported at a building level will be able to take greater risks and make more significant changes to their practice. School design that supports active learning empowers both the teacher and the students. Resources are readily available to all school community stakeholders, as are professional development opportunities. There is a high degree of choice and collaboration.

Good schools, good teachers, relationships, engagement, rigorous and challenging assignments, honest and frequent feedback, tapping student interest — we know what makes a quality learner experience. The challenge is that it is difficult to do at scale. Technology can help in terms of creating the high engagement, high rigor, high support environments that we know we need consistently and at scale.


This post is blog is part of an upcoming paper on defining active learning in our digital world and is in partnership with Apex LearningFor a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

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