social learning

Active Learning

As I have explained in my post on online student engagement, active online learning is key when it comes to motivating learners. What do I mean by active? An online course championing “active online learning” should prompt the learner to participate and contribute. One way of doing this is to inject small tasks into learning videos, another common approach is ordinary multiple choice.

For effective online learning to take place, however, online learning has to move beyond making learners dance to the instructor’s tune. Exercises (which are optional) and assignments (which are mandatory) should challenge learners to think for themselves and to come up with their own creative solutions to open-
ended questions. Not just for a few moments, but often a few hours. Learners write essays, prepare presentations, work on designs, spreadsheet models and programming assignments. The idea is to enable, if not encourage, them to think outside the box. And to come up with their own (often unexpected) solutions.

For example, one student in the course Design 101 came up with a unique and very creative
solution to the following assignment: “Carefully choose a recipe to cook for yourself. 
Today, you cook your chosen recipe and share with us a picture of your starting ingredients. Nothing less, nothing more.” You would expect them to use ingredients and kitchen utensils as suggested, right? But this student decided to give the assignment her very own interpretation. She said I”m going to make pancakes. But my pancakes are going to be a bit different. They will be from felt.” Here you see the “ingredients” she decided to use as starting ingredients.

What this example illustrates is that the course – instead of simply telling people what a good and creative solution looks like – challenged the learner to think outside the box and come up with her own, brilliant solution. Active online learning should allow for precisely this kind of open-ended experimentation. Instead of simply making people regurgitate information and knowledge, learners should apply it in assignments. This leaves them with both the opportunity to fail as well as to succeed beyond expectation.

Making Active Online Learning Social: The Learning Journal

The next step is to embed these kind of assignments in a social context. In order to do this we have created the so-called Learning Journal. The Learning Journal is an individual course blog that learners can use to share their solutions for the various assignments, take notes and discuss their work with the course community. Learners can »follow« the journals of other users to keep track of new content created by those peers they think stand out from the crowd.

Different layers of privacy settings allow learners to share their posts with no one, other participants in the same course or publicly on the internet. Through public sharing, journals can function as  learning portfolios. These serve as public, linkable proof of the things learners have created and accomplished in a course.

Active Online Learning – Learner Contributions in the Learning Journal

The course journal aggregates the journal posts from all users in the course. Learners can “like” each other’s work simply by clicking on the heart. Of course they can also leave more substantial feedback in prose. The hearts as well as the comments can be used to identify quality in quantity. Learners can also sort their posts either by date (starting with the most recent uploads) or by “most liked”. To easily navigate through specific assignments users can also filter by unit or search for the work of a specific learner.

The Process of Active Online Learning Visualised

An example of the process of active online learning in the course “Visual Thinking for Business”

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As I explained in my post on our instructional design, quality content is merely the starting point of the the online learning process. An effective instructional design also requires an active engagement with challenging assignments embedded in a community of peers. Only by combining these three elements can we ensure that learners reach their destination: advanced learning outcomes.

The Elements of the Online Learning Process: Content, Context, Community

At iversity, we call the elements that work together to create an effective learning process the three Cs: content, context, community.

Three Elements Make Up the Online Learning Process

Content: A great online course comprises the full range of multimedia content from video and audio, to text, photographs, infographics, illustrations or even comics. Quality is key. But this doesn’t mean that everything necessarily has to be polished. Sometimes, something that’s a bit rough around the edges but authentic can work just as well or better (like a page from a notebook or a few snapshots taken in the street to illustrate a point with real world examples). What’s most important is that elements work well together and tell a story. More about this in another post on storytelling in online education.

Context: The second C refers to context. This often causes some confusion, because it is not quite as self-evident as the other two. Context refers to assignments. Why context? Because assignments require learners to apply their knowledge in different contexts. For example, in order to solve a case study, I have to take what I have learned – the knowledge I have gained from working through the content – and use it to solve a real or fictitious problem.

Community: While a few autodidacts are very good at teaching themselves, most of us find it a lot easier to learn together with others. That’s why iversity puts social learning front, right and center. Both the platform and the course design aim at fostering meaningful interactions between learners. The community provides the information, inspiration, feedback and motivation that are often key for effective learning to take place.

The Intersections = Traditional Learning Formats

The intersections of these elements represent the learning formats traditionally found on campus: self-study with a textbook, for example, which offers content and assignments; the lab section or tutorial where students come together to work on assignments in a group; and the seminar where they discuss the learning material amongst each other.

Taking this comprehensive approach to instructional design, which combines online all three core elements of the online learning process, allows our courses to cover the full range of Bloom’s taxonomy. (What this means exactly and why it is important for learning, comprehension and ROI, I will explain in my next post.)

P.s. This model is very much indebted to William Rankin who has mapped out this idea in a lot more detail in his overview on Dimensions of Productive Formal Learning.

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