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Learning design

Passive vs. Active Learning – Getting your digital learners moving, interactive and involved

Digital education has become a way of life for many learners with a large number of education professionals having to transition the way they teach to an online environment, rapidly and not always in an ideal fashion, either for themselves or their students. One such challenge many educators will be facing when moving their lessons online is how to take their engaging and interactive course materials into the digital world, without losing the elements that made them great. To achieve this, it is important to understand the difference between passive and active learning and how to avoid learning becoming too stagnant when moved online.

What is passive learning?

Passive learning is a teaching approach where a learner does not actively participate in learning but sits back as the teacher instructs the class, with little opportunity for interaction or engagement with the teacher. An example of passive learning is the old-style lecture, where a lecturer would stand at the front of a lecture hall and provide information to learners, who sat passively and listened and took notes. In a digital environment, this can be seen in one way webinars, sessions where learners sit at the other end of a screen and take in content, but are not actively involved in the lesson.

While this form of instruction has been used for many years, it has its disadvantages. It is very easy for a learner to become distracted, to disengage from the materials and without active participation, it is difficult for a teacher to be able to adapt their content and approach as required. This is even more pronounced in the digital environment, where learners may have potentially pulled out their phones, be distracted by others in their environment, or simply got up and moved away from their device. A more active approach to teaching in the digital environment can assist in improving participation, engagement and knowledge retention.

 What is active learning?

Active learning is where the teacher uses activities, interaction and participation to involve learners in the course. In the modern face to face classroom, this would involve question and answer sessions, group and peer learning and hands-on activities.

Instead of teaching a lesson on history for example by standing in front of the class and reciting facts, the same lesson could be taught by asking the students to work in groups to research different aspects of a historical period and then share with other learners what they have found and why this was so significant to the topic. Suddenly a simple shift in approach has the class much more engaged.

Imagine taking that a step further and having the groups act out a historical event, actively learning through play and performance. The more engaged and actively involved a learner is, the more likely it is they will retain knowledge longer term. This approach to learning should not be forgotten when moving lessons to a digital environment.

Promoting more active participation in an online environment

There has been a sudden shift of a lot of classroom-based and face to face lessons to a digital/online environment, with some amazing people working tirelessly to ensure their learners have the opportunity to continue learning, just in a new and slightly different environment. The great thing is, moving online does not mean that learning needs to move back to a passive format, there are plenty of opportunities for active learner participation in the digital world. Listed below are a couple of ideas for anyone considering a change in approach.

Consider the use of a virtual classroom platform

While webinar software is great, it can promote more passive learning with the teacher speaking to the class. There are some opportunities for active participation, but there will be limitations to webinar technologies as they are not built with an education first perspective. A good virtual classroom will provide additional functionality including break out rooms (for group work), interactive class polling and interactive whiteboards, amongst other classroom features.

Get your learners up out of their chairs

Although they are in a digital environment, that doesn’t mean that learners can’t be up and about interacting with the real world, at the same time as they participate in an online class. A great example that came up recently was around learners improving their throwing skills, the teacher had each learner pair up with a parent at home, with a ball and follow along with the lesson in real-time with the teacher able to provide feedback and support, while the learners where gaining physical skills.

Add interactivity to digital lessons

While there are some materials that may be best suited to learners completing in their own time this doesn’t mean providing hours of printed materials, pdfs and PowerPoints as the only form of content for learners to work through. Consider adding in digital interactions (eg. an interactive video, quiz, game, etc.) utilising one of the many freely available interactive tools (eg. H5P). Not only will learners be more actively engaged with the materials but you will be able to see their progress and determine where each learner is at and when they may need some additional assistance.

These are just a couple of examples of creating a more active learning environment for your learners. Each course, class, etc. is going to be different and different approaches will work better for some courses than others but the main point is to try and consider the needs of learners and to attempt to make the learning is active and engaging as possible.

Catherine Duncan

Catherine Duncan

Catherine is a learning technologies and digital education practitioner with over twelve years experience across a variety of industries. She enjoys using her technical, educational and creative knowledge to assist organisations in determining their technical and/or training requirements and assisting them in finding the optimum solution.

One thought on “Passive vs. Active Learning – Getting your digital learners moving, interactive and involved

  • A great post Catherine – and very timely of course.
    I do worry that so many people have quickly adopted, for example, Moodle and Big Blue Button, and think that a teacher talking over a shared PowerPoint or similar is “good learning”.
    As you say, it’s often too passive, and easy for learners to drift away, to something that is more engaging (e.g. catching up on Twitter or Facebook).
    I do think though, that although this might be a solution for many during this “lockdown” period, it will mean that organisations and teachers are more aware of online learning, and how they can achieve this, so in the future they have an experience to ‘build upon’ to move to the next stage, and make their courses engaging and interactive.


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