E-Learning for the BC Tech Industry 

An opinionated monthly column exploring the current use, future potential, and commercial value of e-learning in BCs high tech sector.

Online Pedagogies for Active Learning: October 17th, 2003


By Paul Stacey


Many forms of e-learning emphasize creation of online content and the migration of passive old forms of teaching and learning to the web. Canned lectures, presentations, course notes and self-study online are often the default pedagogies of choice. Adopting these methods provides e-learning developers and adopters with cost savings largely by reducing the role of the teacher and replacing human interaction with computer mediated learning experiences.


It should come as no surprise that learner's themselves do not find this experience entirely fulfilling.


While I think e-learning "content" is important I'm convinced the market demand side of e-learning is for more "active" forms of learning. I thought it might be interesting to explore pedagogical alternatives to lecture and presentation - approaches that reinsert the "human" back in to the learning equation.


Pedagogy is the study of how people learn and, by extension, how to teach. Pedagogy actually refers to how children learn, and andragogy to how adults learn, but most people use the word pedagogy to refer to both. The wonderful thing is we actually know quite a bit about pedagogy and andragogy.


My colleagues Tom Calvert, John Nesbit, and I recently co-authored a chapter called "Learning in an e-Connected World" as part of a book "The e-Connected World". John wrote an excellent summary on Pedagogical Approaches and Models of Learning, breaking learning theories down into roughly three classes. The:

  • pre-theoretical models

  • classical behavioural and information processing theories, and

  • contemporary constructivist and socio-cultural theories

I think a basic understanding of these theories is so essential to online learning I've taken the liberty to include a portion of Tom's writing from that chapter below:


"The instructional models used in most of the schools, colleges and universities around the world can be regarded as pre-theoretical. They assume that learning takes place when information is transferred from the instructor and from instructional materials to the learner, as, for example, when a learner receives information in a lecture. It has been known for some time that one-way presentation of information does not effectively sustain the attention of most learners for more than a few minutes. Learners often must copy notes during a lecture to study at a later time. This practice tends to postpone learning to a time and place where there may be no instructional support.


The classical behavioral and information processing theories of learning introduced analytical models in which a complex learning goal is broken down into simpler components. They emphasized the importance of interaction and feedback, and served as the foundation for systematic approaches to instructional design. Instructional design methodologies have been widely applied to the development of self-paced, individualized courses in distance education, military training, and corporate training. Computer-based learning programs using multimedia are often designed on principles originating in the behavioral and information processing theories. Although many computer-based learning applications of this type have been highly effective, only minor gains in learner achievement can be reliably obtained by this approach.


These theories underlie the instructional models used in most schools, colleges, and universities around the world. In simple terms, it is assumed that learning takes place when information is transferred from the instructor and from instructional materials to the learner. This can be accomplished when a learner receives information in a lecture, for example. The role of the teacher consists of setting learning goals, planning learning outcomes, preparing and sequencing learning materials, delivering instruction to learners, assigning activities, evaluating the student's products, and giving feedback. The behavioural theory, based on a stimulus-response model, assumes that learning takes place when associations are strengthened between a stimulus and a correct response. While almost any learning environment will make some use of methods which can be explained in terms of these theories, there is strong evidence that virtual learning environments can be more effective if they do not try to recreate the classical information transmission of the lecture model.


Constructivist and socio-cultural theories gained in influence throughout the 1980s and 90s as alternatives to the classical learning theories. These theories are an alternative to the classical learning theories and were developed following the work of Piaget and others in the '50s and '60s; they have gained popularity in the '80s and '90s. Constructivist theorists do not believe that knowledge is a constant for each object or event, but rather that it is constructed by individuals as they interact with an object or an event in relation to their past experiences, their beliefs, and their current mental structures.


For constructivists, learning is the process by which information is transformed into personal knowledge. Socio-cultural theories extend these basic principles to the development of the collective knowledge of a community as contrasted with the individual's development of knowledge within the community. In a learning environment based on constructivism, teachers serve as coaches and guides and learners are given significant cognitive responsibilities: analysis, synthesis, problem-solving, and creativity. It is believed that learner activities should be authentic, that is they should be realistic, meaningful, and relevant to a community of practice, complex, and information rich."

Knowing the theory how can we move away from the default approach of trying to create lectures and course notes online?


Here then are my suggestions for online pedagogies for active learning:


Engage the Senses


The very first online course I ever took was "Enjoying Wine". Over a period of weeks we moved from learning about types of wine glasses, how to serve wine, and types of grape varietals to actually sampling champagne, white wine, red wine, port and dessert wines.


The "homework" each week involved purchasing a couple of bottles of a specified type of wine and then smelling, taste testing and recording observations in the discussion area of the online course and with the course tutor. What was interesting for me was the way the sense of smell and taste were incorporated into an online course.


I tended to do my course work at the end of my work day, just before dinner. I'd bring my "homework" to the dinner table and discuss what I was learning with my wife and kids. Sharing my learning with my family was social and fun making for great dinner conversation. Pedagogically we know that verbalizing your learning with others helps you retain and apply it.


The taste of ice cold champagne with popcorn on a hot summers day and the smooth complexity of port are but two of the wonderful sensory experiences I first experienced with this course and continue to enjoy to this day.


Collaborative Peer-to-Peer Cohorts


When learning goes online students can not only have access to course materials and content but, in my view even more importantly, each other. Pedagogical approaches that have students learning online in an autonomous self-study fashion unnecessarily create a kind of impersonal, isolating environment. Its far more exciting to pedagogically bring students together online by creating collaborative peer-to-peer cohorts. One of the things learners like most is learning from each other.


Cohort based learning provides opportunities for students to learn not just from course materials and an instructor but from each other too. At its most basic peer-to-peer cohorts provide an opportunity for sharing of expertise, support, and help. I can speak from experience in saying that the bonds and friendships that form online are equally as powerful as those formed face-to-face. Having a cohort of fellow students you can turn to when you are stuck with a homework problem or even thinking about quitting is a resource essential to success.


E-mail and instant text messaging are basic learning technologies for collaborative cohorts. More advanced collaborations can be supported through list servs, synchronous online meeting rooms, and discussion forums.


Threaded Text Based Discussion


I think threaded text based discussion is one of the most successful and effective online pedagogies for active learning available. Pedagogical use of discussion involves structuring learning activities that require students to discuss and collaboratively investigate course material.


In a lecture or presentation the number of students who actively participate is small - typically restricted to a few keeners who put up their hand with a question or comment. In an online threaded discussion, participation can be structured to include everyone, jacking participation levels way up and creating a much more active experience for everyone.


Text based discussion is an easy entry, low threshold application. Virtually everyone is willing and accustomed to communicate online by typing messages. In addition the asynchronous nature of threaded text based discussion allows time for reflection and crafting of a thoughtful response. Even those who are too shy to speak out in a class situation can find their voice in online discussion.


Discussion needs to be structured and facilitated. Typical pedagogical approaches for structuring discussion have students not only making their own postings in the discussion forum but also reading and commenting on others postings. Facilitation can be provided by students themselves (with appropriate preparation and guidance) or by the instructor.


My experience of threaded discussion is that it provides for a rich range of multiple perspectives and tends to drive learning deeper than the superficial surface information gleaned in a lecture. There is something truly wondrous when a discussion thread "takes off" generating an outpouring of response. Online students everywhere are all familiar with posting something and then eagerly checking back regularly to see who has read and commented. This kind of discussion is highly engaging and motivating.


There are lots of different discussion forum learning technologies. For large scale use with hundreds of postings it helps if the discussion forum is "threaded" where postings are typically indented if they are a reply to an earlier posting. Threading facilitates searching, tracking and management of the discussion.


Storytelling - Blogs


Storytelling has a long history as a pedagogical practice including its use among indigenous cultures. Weblogs, or blogs for short, are a contemporary online form of this tradition. While blogs still have yet to make their way into common online learning use, they will.


Blogs make online self-publishing easy and accessible to all. Typically written informally as a form of daily journal, blogs combine web links, commentary, musings, and analysis. Blogs convey the authors personality and are frequently used to capture what I think of as "learning moments" - the daily a-ha's we all have.


Blogs have immediacy and little if any lag time. By that I mean that they typically recount events and learning happening "right now". There is no waiting 12 months to get something published or weeks waiting to get through some editorial process of approval.


Blogs are raw, powerful and personal. They frequently provide analysis or commentary on world or web events not provided by mainstream media.


RSS feeds allow blogs to be readily syndicated and distributed. Using an aggregator it is now easy to subscribe to a series of your favourite blogs and have the content from those blogs automatically fed to you and updated on a regular basis. You get the latest blog content without having to search out and visit each site individually yourself.


Blogs become interactive by cross-referencing each other and by providing a "trackback" capability. I've even been experimenting with group blogs rather than an individual blog.


I look forward with great anticipation to seeing the creative ways blogs get incorporated into online learning.


Voice Based Discussion


An interesting derivative of text based discussion is voice based discussion. Online voice board technology provides the opportunity to make a posting in a discussion forum using audio recording instead of text. Voice based discussion, like text based discussion, is asynchronous - you listen to others postings and make your own posting without being "live". Pedagogically its use can be structured in the same way as text based discussion.


Voice based discussion provides an opportunity to get a sense of the personality of the speaker and readily conveys emotion, humour and other subtle nuances. Even more exciting is the ability to enrich the audio recording with other sounds including music and environmental noises to embellish or make a point.


My experience has been that voice based discussion has a slightly higher threshold for adoption and use than text based discussion. Its asynchronous nature makes it less conversational than a typical dialogue.


Most voice boards allow for multiple takes before saving so its tempting to carefully craft and then read your posting. Interestingly making a voice recording by reading often results in a posting that sounds monotone and stilted. Its far better to extemporaneously speak in your own words and imbue your posting with life.


Interactive Polling and Feedback


Questioning is an essential pedagogical practice that dates back for thousands of years - think Socratic method. Online polling tools provide great opportunities to question, canvass and survey student opinions and positions on a whole variety of issues.


Crafting a poll so that it provides useful feedback is crucial and often tied to some other aspect of the online learning experience. In May I facilitated a debate on the globalization of education for the World Education Market. In advance of the debate, in the World Education Market online community, I ran a poll asking people to vote for whether they were "in favour of" or "opposed" to globalization of education. At the same time in the online discussion forum I asked people to submit questions that I could pose to the debaters during the live face-to-face debate. Running the poll and getting questions in advance provided invaluable context and material for the debate itself.


Silicon Chalk technology uses student polling to give an instructor real-time feedback on things like whether students are comprehending the material and whether the pace of instruction is too fast or too slow.




I think Webquests are a fantastic pedagogical method for active learning. Developed by San Diego State University professor Bernie Dodge Webquests recently won the Merlot Editors Choice Award.


Webquests are inquiry-based activities where all the information and material the students use is on the web. A typical webquest defines an activity for a group of learners to explore whereby each student takes on a different perspective. The group is required to follow a process, document their findings, and prepare a report.


As an example, an Art Webquest might ask What is art? What is the purpose of art? What are art styles? Members of the team could be asked to take on roles like an artist, an art critic, an art historian, an art collector and review various art schools - classicism, romanticism, expressionism, cubism, ...


Problem and Product Based Learning


Problem based learning has long been an effective pedagogical practice. I've seen this approach also be very effective for what might be called "product" based learning.


The university where I work has a fourth year undergraduate online course developed by professors Jim Budd and Ron Wakarry where students are asked to work together on an "integration project". As a capstone project requiring interdisciplinary collaboration the integration project requires teams of students to generate a vision of a next-generation interactive handheld or autonomous product. Each team must design, develop and produce an operational prototype based on an original concept. The new device must be a handheld or autonomous device fit in a package not exceeding ten by four by two inches and have a target retail price of less than tow hundred and fifty dollars.


This kind of collaborative pedagogy requiring students to work together on a problem, or in this case, product produces powerful learning.


Games & Simulations


I wrote about games and simulations in last month's column, so I won't belabour the point but clearly games and simulations can not only be fun and engaging but a great pedagogy for learning.




In some ways webcasts have much in common with traditional lectures and presentations. Webcasts are typically "live" with students attending a session featuring one or more key speakers in real time. But in some ways webcasts go beyond a lecture/presentation or at least have the potential to go beyond.


A basic list of features available in a webcast includes:

- video, one way or two way

- audio Voice-Over-IP, one way or two way

- shared whiteboards

- synchronized web browsing

- text messaging/chat

- application viewing/sharing

- content windows

- discussion boards

- polling

- handraising, yes/no buttons


Having delivered a fair number of webcasts over the past couple of years I've found the best ones are those that actively seek to engage the audience. You can see from the list of features available there is the potential to structure active learning opportunities into the webcast. I helps to develop questions, brainstorm activities, polls, and other activities that webcast attendees can engage in.


Online Community


For me online communities represent a fantastic opportunity to generate active learning in a truly constructivist fashion. Furthermore they uniquely provide opportunity for the socio-cultural development of the collective knowledge of a community as contrasted with the individual's development of knowledge.


A typical approach to creation of e-learning sinks 75-80% of available effort into pre-creation of content prior to delivery of an online course. Many instructors practically create a textbook online.


But what if part of the responsibility for creating the content of a course was turned over to the students themselves? What if pre-delivery development effort went into not content creation but designing activities that engage students in content construction?


What if students were enabled to "co-construct" the online course with the instructor? Online communities provide basic scaffolding but then allow community members to construct and interact.


I am convinced online communities will become essential extensions to learning management systems and other online learning technologies currently deployed in support of e-learning. They extend the online experience to include informal as well as formal learning opportunities.


Final Thoughts


Applying what we know about "how people learn" is critical to ensuring the creation of engaging learning experiences. As the e-learning market evolves I expect consumers (students, learners) to become more insistent that their learning experiences be active. If you are buying e-learning look for more than simply content. If you are creating e-learning go beyond the lecture.


I'm keenly interested in all forms of active learning and welcome e-mail from anyone interested in sharing their active learning experience or approach.

Paul Stacey, is an e-learning specialist in corporate and higher education working in Simon Fraser University's eLearning Innovation Centre (eLINC). Paul helps host & produce LearningTimes an online community for education professionals. Contact: Paul Stacey

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E-Learning: An opinionated monthly column exploring the current use, future potential, and commercial value of e-learning in BCs high tech sector.

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