Active Learning Challenges Old Education Models

Technology has the potential to help make learning more active.

by Lauren McLaughlin

A soft-spoken professor lectures in a darkened classroom, just over the quiet hum of a computer displaying yet another PowerPoint slide. And it’s after lunch, when food comas loom.

Most people have experienced the passive nature of traditional classroom learning. But the active-learning model is different. Instead of just listening and taking notes, students must read, write, and discuss. Active learning has been around for 30 years, but institutions are still trying to figure out ways to incorporate it into the classroom—and now the virtual classroom.

Harvard Extension School has been experimenting with several new active learning formats. In addition to our selection of weekly online courses with a required on-campus weekend, we also have active learning weekend courses. These 2-credit weekend courses challenge students to fully engage with material in an intensive simulation with other students on campus.

What is active learning?

Definitions of active learning vary, but most come down to one word: engagement. Huntington Lambert, dean of Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education, explains that the shape of learning has evolved over the years. Instead of “seat time,” Lambert says, many institutions are striving to better engage their students. This requires learning to be mentally active.

What does that look like? Dean Lambert gives an example from one of his business courses: “I can choose to lecture on the elements of a business model canvas. Or I can choose instead to help the students learn by doing,” he says. “In the latter scenario, I’m merely the facilitator as the students build a business model canvas using posters and sticky notes. I might take it a step further by first providing a five- to six-minute overview, followed by a group canvas building exercise, team presentations, and a feedback session. That’s active learning.”

Online Learning and Challenges

Not every course can use active-learning strategies equally well. But certain subjects incorporate the model more often, says Lambert. Technology-driven and science topics like information technology, biology, and even management appear easier to teach actively and online, he says, though the reason may be faculty experience and tradition, not the course material. 

Harvard Professor Harry Lewis uses some active-learning techniques in his online Extension School course on discrete mathematics. The course is based on his in-person Harvard University course, where students sit in small groups and work together to solve problems—a critical skill for hopeful engineers and developers, he says.

Adapting the course in an online format presented some challenges, Lewis says. “Just getting everyone time synchronized is a problem, as we have had students from across the planet taking the course. Then there are the problems of communicating with people whom you cannot see or hear…We have virtual ‘tables’ of students thousands of miles apart, and teaching assistants who ‘drop by’ these virtual tables to help students get over various humps, evaluate their solutions, and so on.”

Two-Way Street: Students and Teachers Benefit

Given the challenges in formatting courses using these active-learning techniques—including the time and resources involved—why do it? Many instructors agree that students just learn better this way. Lewis explains, “An active learning style is much more effective at actually getting students to learn the material than the old, slow, lecture-homework-grading cycle.”

Professor Tom Nichols, who taught the simulation course A Cold War Nuclear Crisis Simulation last fall and spring, echoes this sentiment. He says students can’t grasp the intense emotions involved in an international crisis when they just read about it. Instead, he says “they learn more if they experience the actual sense of anxiety created by making immensely important decisions in conditions of shortened time and little information.”

The students aren’t the only ones to benefit. Professor Robert Allison, instructor of the weekend course Boston Under Siege, says he usually learns a lot from a more fluid, conversation-based approach. 

“We [teachers] try to show them [students] the tools they can use so they can have a better sense of where they’re going. We don’t have all the answers either,” he adds. “Good students are always challenging us too—and not just the A students, but anyone who asks good questions that make us stop and think.”

Experience, Engage, Enlighten

Allison is still planning the course details, but he says he’ll likely incorporate a fair amount of discussion into the weekend class. For previous workshops, he has organized a bus tour around different Boston neighborhoods and has invited longtime Boston politicians on the tour to speak about their experiences.

“It’s fascinating to hear their perspectives on the broad sweep of Boston history,” he says. “You can really engage with the past [in a way] that you can’t really do with the American Revolution or Civil War.”

Engaging with the past is a big part of Professor Nichols’ weekend course as well. Nichols says he runs a simulation of an international crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union circa 1983. “Students will play various roles, including the Soviet Union, the United States, and United Nations’ decision makers, as well as members of the press and other states,” he says. “We will have a short introduction the day before the game, and then a discussion about the event after.”

The Future is in Experimentation

As technology, pedagogical knowledge, and faculty skills advance, our education models and strategies evolve as well. Educators are still trying to figure out the fledgling world of online education and integrate active learning with that. While many teachers are beginning to employ active-learning techniques in online courses, traditional lectures remain the norm—both online and on campus. But are students engaging and really learning—and mastering—the content? 

Massive open online course (MOOC) platforms like edX recognize the problem. A 2013 edX research report cited a 10 percent completion rate for MOOCs, which are traditionally lecture based. But entities like edX are conducting research to gain critical insights for improving not only digital learning, but classroom learning as well. These insights will lead to even more innovations to suit the needs of varying learning styles and student goals.

One thing is certain: the promise lies in experimentation. Professor Lewis decided to incorporate active learning techniques into his class when he realized his students weren’t enjoying listening to his lectures as much as he enjoyed giving them. “You know the old joke,” he says. “Lectures are a way of transferring information from the notes of the professor to the notes of the student without going through the brains of either.


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