Getting Active in an Online Learning Environment

Posted on Oct 18, 2023 11:57 AM


Imagine this scenario: You work in HR and are interested in learning how data analytics can be used to improve your hiring process.

So, you turn to the wealth of information available online. You devote several hours to reading articles, watching explanatory videos, and even listening to a podcast that explains data-driven recruitment.

And then, a few weeks later, you sit down with your team to discuss how you can improve your hiring strategy. It’s time to dazzle your colleagues with your newfound knowledge of HR analytics. But wait! What were all those metrics you read about? And how are they tracked and calculated? And where, exactly, does the data come from? Sadly, you realize that most of what you read and watched and listened to didn’t really stick. You can’t recall enough of the specifics to apply what you’ve learned in a real-world context. You’re a victim of the dreaded passive learning.

Active vs. Passive Learning

Since the 1970s, educators have grown increasingly interested in the notion of passive vs. active learning. Teaching with Technology, published by the University of Wisconsin College of Letters and Science Learning Support Services, traces the history of these concepts. The educational reformer Paulo Friere was one early advocate of active learning. He criticized what he called the “banking model” of education, which views students as passive or empty vessels waiting to be filled up with information. Learning, he argued, should be an active process that engages the students.

In short, passive learning involves absorbing information by reading, listening to, or watching content. Active learning takes place when a learner is doing something, such as asking questions, solving problems, analyzing information, or reflecting critically on what they have learned. Consider the examples listed in the table below. Which activities do you think are more likely to give the learner a deeper understanding of the topic? Which experiences are they more likely to remember and apply in other contexts?

Passive Learning Example Active Learning Example
-Read the definition of the term “leadership” in a glossary -Compare different definitions of the term “leadership” and decide which one is the most accurate
-Read an article with tips for public speaking -Watch a TED Talk and take notes on the speaker’s strengths and weaknesses
-Study a spreadsheet that shows a sample marketing budget -Use a checklist to analyze a marketing budget, checking for errors and discrepancies

It’s important to realize that passive learning activities can be useful and relevant in many contexts. For example, if you’ve never made an omelet, it would probably be a good idea to watch a few videos to see how it’s done, before firing up the stove and trying it yourself. But after such a passive introduction to the topic, active learning activities are often a great way to deepen the learner’s understanding and give them a chance to apply what they’ve learned in a meaningful way.

Getting Active in the Online Learning Environment

Despite the fact that online courses are mostly made up of videos and text, there are plenty of ways to make the experience more active. In fact, many online courses lend themselves well to a student-centered approach, because learners can explore the content at their own pace and engage with the material in a variety of different ways. Here are a few tips for having an active learning experience when taking an online course:

  • Choose the right course: While some online courses are simply an organized collection of videos or articles, others come with more interactive elements such as games, writing prompts, research questions, and case studies. These activities will activate higher-level thinking and problem-solving skills as you reflect on the material and practice applying it.
  • Don’t skip the optional exercises: You might be tempted to skip optional activities such as responding to reflection questions or performing calculations. After all, no one’s watching, right? But to get the most out of your learning experience, avoid rushing through the material and take the time to complete all of the activities—especially those that require a little extra effort.
  • Ask questions: As you move through the material, write down any questions that come to mind. Then, see if you can find the answers. The material in your course can serve as a jumping-off point for further learning.
  • Share what you’ve learned: Interaction and discussion are great ways to explore what you’ve learned. Step away from your computer and try to explain the concepts to a friend or coworker. They might have some unique insights or questions that you haven’t considered.
  • Find real-world applications: Whether your course teaches a professional skill such as public speaking or a hobby like knitting, try to find a way to practice it as soon as possible. Making regular use of what you’ve learned is the best way to ensure that you’ll remember it well into the future.


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Topics: Online Learning, E-Learning

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