With the disruption caused by Covid-19 in the functioning of higher education institutions, many foresee long-term changes in the structure of education (such as the increase in online programs and course delivery options) and of their operating budgets. Investments and transitions to online education have been, and will likely continue to be, a key focus for many higher education institutions. The question is how can we ensure that the standards of education, of cultivating and inspiring students who possess job-critical skills, are maintained during this change?
Robert Danisch recently argued that e-learning “doesn’t teach people to think”, highlighting the importance of teacher-learner imitation for learning, and how such imitation is “impossible” in online environments. Online learning can in no way encourage the “struggle and questioning” of concepts and develop important “know-how” skills, he continued.
We argue that this view is short-sighted, that online courses can develop such skills and more, especially through quality online course design that reflects active learning principles. In fact, online courses can arguably do it. After effectively than would be possible in face-to-face situations.
When learners take an active role in the learning process, rather than being passive recipients of information, they learn more effectively and developing higher-order thinking skills mentioned by Danisch, such as analysis, synthesis, evaluation, critical thinking, and problem solving. The research is clear: learning is most effective when it is active, when learners engage in hands-on activities, and when learners are engaged in the cognitive processes of investigation, investigation, discovery and interpretation.
Learners must reflect on their learning for deep processing of information to occur, and they must engage in behaviors designed to develop specific skills, in addition to simply reading and reflecting on information related to skill development.
There are many innovative ways to implement active learning in online environments. Not only is it possible to design online courses with active learning in mind, this is actually considered the best practice for online course development.
There are many ways to ensure that learners have the opportunity to develop important “how-to” skills in online courses. For example, many STEM and behavioral science courses provide opportunities to find new evidence, test hypotheses, and critically appraise data. by asking learners to carry out simulations in the laboratory or in the field online. Labster offers a number of virtual lab experiments, like having students neutralize an acidic lake, explore space, experiment with bacteria, store renewable energy, and help with a cancer biopsy .
In these labs, learners engage in critical thinking and decision-making, test hypotheses, and evaluate and interpret their results. This experience is possible using innovative edtech tools, including virtual reality, and it could certainly be argued that these virtual simulations of field experiences can be even more engaging than the labs experienced in the classroom, as learners are immersed in environments they might not otherwise be capable of. experience in person for reasons such as feasibility, safety or lack of resources.
Instructors can also use live or embedded videos 360° pictures so that students can virtually explore environments or places relevant to learning in their subject area that might otherwise be deemed dangerous (e.g., a mine), inaccessible to the public (such as parts of the territory that emphasize indigenous teachings) or simply impossible due to resources (by exploring ancient churches in Eritrea, perhaps). In fact, edtech tools that allow learning activities to be performed exclusively online can make activities more efficient and streamlined.
Learners can also easily “interact with various others” and “perform source material analysis” online, for example by creating virtual museum exhibits. Use peer review platforms such as Comments Fruit, students can submit digital exhibits that reflect an analysis of the source material, anonymously visit the works of others, provide feedback, and then write a reflection based on their experience that incorporates connections to broader course themes. Imagine the logistics involved if this activity was done in person. Finally, through rich and well-designed online discussion forums, learners can conduct analysis of source material and then, in discussions with peers, ask thoughtful questions and collaborate with a variety of other people.
One of the most notable benefits of online learning is the diversity of perspectives it welcomes, as learners from all over the world can collaborate and build a supportive and responsible learning community. It can also help engage learners who are not comfortable expressing their thoughts in person and give them time to reflect on peer contributions and synthesize their ideas.
Online learning can undoubtedly go far beyond a focus on abstract theoretical knowledge and truly allow learners to ‘struggle and question’ and develop important ‘know-how’ skills. In fact, we argue that in some cases online learning activities can be more engaging and sophisticated compared to their in-person counterparts due to innovative edtech. Our examples show how online course development and delivery teams can achieve active learning in hopes of inspiring further discussion and practice for innovative course design in this post-pandemic era.
Valerie Wood is an Instructional Designer and Curriculum Designer at Arts and Science Online at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. She is also an experienced lecturer in psychology for the Royal Military College of Canada.
Laura Shannon is an Instructional Designer and Curriculum Developer for Arts and Science Online at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. She is also a teacher at Loyalist College in Ontario, teaching courses in health psychology, diversity, communications and wellness.