3. Designing Active Learning

This week’s topic is designing active learning and this is the final theme in the first part of the course, which focused on the Foundations of Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) – concepts, practical and theoretical approaches and learners. From next week we’ll start to cover topics relating to TEL Tools and Methods, so there is still a lot to come. For now, back to this week’s materials…

We’ll start by considering what is ‘learning’, different things that can be learned and different approaches taken to learning. We’ll then move on to explore some of the different learning theories that can be used to design online learning activities, including (but not limited to) social constructivism (e.g. Vygotsky), connectivism (Siemens), problem-based learning (Boud), experiential learning (Kolb), and communities of practice (Lave & Wenger). We’ll consider the relevance and potential of these theories to modern online learning environments, and consider the history and traditions of technology-enhanced learning.

There will also be lots of opportunities to develop and test your own learning activities, play with technologies that you haven’t tried before, and think about different ways in which to use social media to enhance and transform learning. We hope that by the end of this week you’ll have read a little, and done a lot, and have lots of ideas for innovative ways of engaging students with technology.

This week’s aims

By the end of this week, we aim for you to be able to:

  • describe and critique theories of active learning;
  • situate theories and practice in the context of the history and traditions of TEL in the UK and further afield;
  • design activities that use technology to actively engage learners in a visible, collaborative, playful and reflective way;
  • recognise the benefits of social media for active learning and use it appropriately.

If you only do one thing…

What is learning? (30 minutes)

Think about the last time you learned something. Describe what you learned? How did you go about learning it? What strategies did you use?

Consider this overview of categories of learning “suitable for instructional design planning“ in the table below (source):

I: Know that I-a Facts : recall, description, identification, etc.
I-b Concepts: discrimination, categorization, discussion, etc.
II: Know how II-a Reasoning and procedures: inferences, deductions, etc. + procedure application
II-b Problem solving and production strategies: identification of subgoals + application of heuristics/methods
III: Knowing in action III Situated action: action strategies in complex and authentic situations
IV: Other IV Other: e.g. motivation, emotion, reflection, i.e. elements that could intervene in all the other categories

Where does your own learning activity fit into this typology? Please share your ideas on your blog or via Twitter (using #ocTEL tag), on this forum, or via the JiscMail list.

Join the live webinar

This week’s webinar runs at 12:30 UK time (GMT+1) on Wednesday 1 May. You will be able to access it from half an hour before the start via this link.

In this week’s webinar Keith Smyth from Edinburgh Napier University will explore the area of activity design for technology-enhanced learning. Drawing upon established and emerging models and approaches, the webinar will address key considerations for designing activities that place an emphasis on engagement, collaboration, and learners as co-creators of their own educational experiences and resources. The webinar will also explore how to structure the design of activities to support learning across the different stages of a course, and will provide opportunities for participants to share good practice as well as plan possible future enhancements. Read more about Keith.

Activities for this week

Activity 3.1: Theories of active learning (60 minutes)

There is a wide range of theories of learning, but no single ‘correct’ one.

Have a quick skim through the learning theories links in the Resources section. Select a learning theory, either from the links, or of your own choosing:

Write a short discussion piece on how you would relate it to

  • how you learn;
  • your current practice;
  • the design of Technology Enhanced Learning activities.

Take a few minutes to read the commentary of others on the course. Make a note of any theories that particularly resonate with you. Please share your ideas on your blog or via Twitter (using #ocTEL tag), on this forum, or via the JiscMail list.

Activity 3.2: Active play (30 minutes)

Over recent decades, game-based learning has grown as a form of TEL. It encapsulates many principles of active learning, such as engagement in an authentic context, learning by mistake-making and reflection, experiential learning, collaborative learning and learning by problem-solving. As such, it is worth considering the techniques that games use to engage learners and what can be learned from them. Four game genres with obvious learning potential are adventure games, puzzle games, role playing games and strategy games.

Play one of the following games for 15 minutes (longer if you like):

[Note: we are aware that at least one of these games — Notpron — is blocked on some networks. If you experience any links being blocked, please email octel@alt.ac.uk, saying which resource you could not access and from which network, so that we can review the accessibility of the resources we use.] 

Write a short description — on your blog or via Twitter (using #ocTEL tag), on this forum, or via the JiscMail list — of:

  • What do you think you could learn playing this game?
  • What (if anything) did you find engaging?
  • What (if anything) did you find demotivational?

Activity 3.3: Designing or reviewing a learning activity (2 hours)

In this activity you have the option of being a creator or a critic. The latter may seem easier, but the challenges of the former may make it more beneficial as an exercise in active learning.

3.3 (a) Design an activity

Design a short (15-20 minute) online learning activity on a subject of your choosing. You can use any freely available online technology. This could, for example, be a discussion activity, cooperative task using collaboration software; you could ask learners to create a product using digital tools, undertake some research, critical reading, reflection or writing task. You can be as creative as you like.

The first part of this Slideshare presentation could give you some ideas. The activities in ocTEL so far demonstrate some other examples, which you may like to follow – or not! Hopefully they show that learning activities need not involve a lot of writing.

Consider the intended learning outcomes and the appropriateness of the pedagogic approach adopted. How do you plan to engage students in the activity and hold their interest (are there any lessons that you can learn from activity 3)? What technical issues might occur and how could you deal with them?

You may find the headings below useful (but you are not limited to them).

  • Title of activity
  • Intended learning outcome/s
  • Activity description
  • Time
  • Prerequisites
  • Link to technology used
  • Links to additional resources

Make your activity available online, on your blog or other web space – you could present your activity via a video on YouTube, for example, but always use the #ocTEL tag – and provide a link to it in a new topic on this forum. Alternatively you can just post the activity as a new topic in the same forum. This serves to advertise that your activity is awaiting review by others, and enables people to see who already has reviews.

3.3 (b) Reviewing a learning activity

Take part in two of the activities created by other course members. You can choose any that you like that interest you, and you might also like to select activities that have not been critiqued very much already. Visit the forum for this activity to see which activities are waiting for more reviews. For each, write a short critique of the activity. Consider:

  • What do you think that you learned from taking part?
  • Does this match the intended learning outcome/s?
  • Did you find the activity engaging?
  • What pedagogic approach was taken?
  • Did you encounter any technological issues?
  • How could the activity be improved?

Make the critique available to the author of the activity on the ocTEL forums, and copy this to their personal web space (e.g. through blog comments) if the activity is also available there.


  • Post on “what is learning” #ocTEL
  • Post a tweet to your post or share a short update #ocTEL
  • Come and join the webinar or view the recording
  • Use the course reader to catch up on some recent activity

Resources and more to watch, read and research

Learning theories


Designing online active learning activities

Social media and learning

Notes and commentary

In online courses, even more so than traditional programmes of study, it is crucial to ensure that learners are actively engaged with the course materials. Rather than simply reading or passively watching learning materials, students need to learn by doing things, trying things out, making mistakes and reflecting on them. This highlights the problem addressed this week: how can I design an online course that ensures that students engage actively?

Early models of online learning, influenced by the long history of distance education, typically provided readings and downloads, which could be studied by the learner in an isolated fashion. As the models grew more sophisticated, making full use of the affordances of the online environment, activities such as discussion, collaboration, and the use of interactive media became more commonplace. Nowadays, the vast collection of freely-available online tools with which students can create, share, reflect and learn, provides a wide range of ways in which learners can actively engage in online courses. We’ll be learning more about the possibilities this week.

What’s coming up next?

Next week’s topic: Producing engaging and effective learning materials, starting 6 May.