Online learning initiatives often fail to engage and teach learners because they are passive in nature — reading PDFs, flipping through slides, listening to long lectures. One way to improve these experiences is to focus on incorporating active learning methodologies.

Education technology has introduced new, innovative ways to engage students in active learning while online. It isn’t just about what’s on the screen (e.g. a video versus a simulation), it’s about the larger design of the lesson. Not everything created has to be maximally active — that isn’t realistic nor necessary — but the overall learning experience needs to allow students to “learn by doing” to be effective.

Instructors and learning designers can incorporate active learning activities through technology in fully-online lessons, homework modules, and even in-class online activities. Using technology gives you the opportunity to scale expensive or difficult-to-set-up experiments at a lower cost, engage the technology-native generation in their often-preferred medium, and ensure that every student is participating in the learning.

Here are a few examples of how instructors are using Smart Sparrow technology to incorporate active learning in their teaching:

1. Using the scientific method online to explore new concepts

If you’re trying to teach students the relationship between brightness and distance, you could do what most people do: explain the formula, provide a few examples, and later test them to see if they remember it. The problem is that memorizing like this is boring, so students are less likely to learn and even less likely to remember it later.

An alternative, active approach was taken by Ariel Anbar with his online introductory science course, HabWorlds. The brightness & distance lesson uses a pedagogical design pattern: Predict-Observe-Explain. It starts by asking the student to guess (Predict) the relationship between the two variables, thereby engaging their attention and intelligence from the start. The student then designs an experiment, collects data points (Observe), re-evaluates their thoughts based on what they observed, and completes the experiment by confirming or rejecting their initial hypothesis (Explain). Every single learner actively explores the topic and discovers the relationship for themselves. They are much more engaged, much more likely to learn, and much more likely to recall the full experience later.

Habworlds lesson

2. Simulating real-world emergency medical situations

Emergency medical situations are difficult to reproduce for training because there’s no way to fully practice medical procedures on real humans in a safe, worry-free space. Simulating these experiences on mannequins is equally difficult, partially due to the associated costs of extra medical equipment, partially due to organizing around the schedules of very, very busy medical professionals. But these medics still need a hands-on way to regularly brush up on their emergency medical skills.

Jones & Bartlett Learning (JBL) Paramedics realized that new education technology gave them a way to replicate the practice experience, overcome scheduling conflicts, and save money. They’ve created a series of virtual, simulated “ambulance ride-along” lessons as continuing education for Emergency Medical Technicians and Emergency Medical Services professionals.

Learners start each lesson by listening to a real, recorded emergency medical call, and then making an initial diagnosis using the information the caller provided. Once the patient enters the ambulance, the simulation takes the learner through every procedure required to accurately diagnose a patient, just as they would in reality: pupil assessment, lung sounds, blood pressure, pulse oximetry, capillary refill, capnography, respiratory rate, electrocardiogram, heart rate, blood glucose level. As they click to begin different assessments, they watch a recap of each step required and then perform all of the steps on the virtual patient, getting adaptive feedback and guidance if they do anything incorrectly.

Given the success of this learning experience, JBL is also working on expanding the use of edtech and active learning methodologies to create lessons for their Pediatrics department.

JBL lesson

3. Performing hands-on experiments in a virtual lab

It’s difficult for a student to imagine what would happen if certain substances were mixed in an oxygen electrode; ideally they would be able to mix the substances for themselves in order to really internalize the learning. That’s why the majority of science courses include a lab component — active learning is known to be the better way.

Compelled by a combination of budgetary limitations, lack of staff, high equipment costs, and growing student numbers that don’t fit in the available lab space, many science departments are benefitting from moving wet labs to online formats. It greatly reduces the amount spent on expensive construction projects (to accommodate rising matriculation) and replacing broken lab equipment.

Dr. Louise Lutze-Mann, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Head of School at the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences at the University of New South Wales built her own virtual oxygen electrode labs. Students have access to everything they’d use in a physical lab space, including the equipment, materials, and real-time feedback from an instructor as they work and make mistakes. Students start by undergoing “training” with the virtual and techniques they’ll be using, and then perform several virtual experiments to measure the oxygen consumption by isolated mitochondria and investigate how ATP is generated via the electron transport chain.

Dr. Lutze-Mann found that these virtual labs are actually more effective in teaching her students than time in a physical lab had ever been.

Virtual lab lesson

4. Acquiring finance experience through online repetition

Each year, thousands of learners enroll in face-to-face and online finance courses through the The Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CAANZ). CAANZ’s vision was to create an interactive and adaptive learning experience that would teach students a common, complicated accounting process — consolidation — which they typically struggle to grasp via conventional learning methods. Understanding and creating proforma (a standard financial statement) for consolidation processes is a skill that can only be acquired through experience and repetition.

They developed two case study-based online lessons to help students learn the complicated finance processes through hands-on practice and repetition. Struggling students are guided toward the correct answers with specific, personalized feedback, rather than a blanket response often seen in technology, such as, “You have gotten one or more questions incorrect.” The case studies were designed with dynamic facts (meaning the involved numbers are randomly generated, unique to each learner and attempt), leading to thousands of different combinations and answers. This allows students to validate and test their learning by redoing the tutorial indefinitely, so they can get all the practice they need and build their experience.

Since the addition of this active learning component to their lessons, candidates that have completed the learning activity have shown substantial and improved performance in a final summative assessment undertaken.

CAANZ lesson

What are you doing to incorporate active learning?

Those are only a few examples of how Smart Sparrow technology is helping instructors and academics incorporate active learning into their courses. Hopefully they inspire you to incorporate more active learning activities into your lessons, whether online or face-to-face.

If you’d like to talk to our team about a project, or you’d like more information on how to make lessons personalized, active, and adaptive, we’d love to to talk to you. Reach out to our Learning Design Studio team directly via this form.