Technology, Coming to Terms with Active Learning

I was fortunate enough to attend the recent Educause conference in Denver. This annual event is an excellent opportunity to connect with other universities, and to learn about and discuss technology in higher education. My educational goal this year was to hear more about active learning and how technology might help facilitate it.

Active learning has been an extremely hot topic in higher-ed IT the past few years, and as some of you know, this August marked the inaugural semester of The Core– the most technically enabled active learning space in the state of Oklahoma. During the design phase of The Core, we did a considerable amount of research regarding both the physical and technical aspects of such spaces. We were focused on a quick execution, however, and it wasn’t until this first semester that I’ve had the time to reflect deeply on how the technology might be used. It was in the middle of a session at Educause that I realized my misconception: technology cannot generate active learning.

I know, I know… leave it to the technologist and his “Field of Dreams” paradigm. Did I really think that if we built it, they would come (they, being active learners)? To a certain degree, yes. There was actually some research done by the University of Minnesota that showed that putting a regular class, with a regular instructor (no perceived notion to change pedagogically), into a highly technical room would naturally create a change in teaching style. They even found that there was also a measurable increase in student success.

Now the flip-side to this is that when INSTRUCTION generates active learning, it has an UNDENIABLE impact on student success. I look back on my years as a student and can quickly recall my favorite classes, the best teachers, and the knowledge that I still retain.  They all used active teaching techniques. There are some instructors at OU who have been using active learning techniques for years – technology or not. My motivation now is to see how much technology can ENHANCE active learning. Needless to say, I’m very optimistic.

You will be hearing more about The Core soon, I promise. We will be using the space to raise campus awareness of active learning and to showcase how technology can make an impact on this type of learning.  There is without a doubt a shortage of learning spaces on campus conducive to active learning. Stepping into any random classroom on campus and seeing rows of tablet-arm chairs rearranged in a collaborative fashion, however, leaves me optimistic that there is indeed a demand for them on campus, and more importantly, that active learning is already happening all around us.

Finally, I’d like to share with you a fantastic collection of contextualized strategies put together by the great folks at McGill University in Montreal. This is EXTREMELY helpful for anyone interested in active learning (especially if you are as new to it as I am).

Jeremy Hessman


  1. Mario

    Active learning does not have to include technology at all. Well, i guess pen & paper are some form of tech! Good, good, good thoughts Chris!

  2. Thanks for this post about the importance of the teaching that goes along with the technology, Chris! The one thing I would disagree about is that “There is without a doubt a shortage of learning spaces on campus conducive to active learning” … how can there be a shortage of active learning spaces when we have such easy access to the Internet now? To me, the Internet is the best active learning space ever invented – and we carry on with classrooms just as a holdover from the past. Classrooms have their pluses, they have their minuses… but based on my experience, it’s hard to imagine how a classroom – limited in time and space – can ever be an active learning space that rivals the Internet itself. 🙂

    • Chris

      That’s a great point, Laura, and I agree that the Internet is home to seemingly infinite active learning spaces! It’s hard to imagine learning (and life) without it. That being said, I think classrooms are an important – and necessary – compliment. Face-to-face communication, teamwork (natural), personal relationships: these are all important byproducts of physical learning spaces. An internet message board or chat room can’t compare to sitting around a table with your peers. I would argue that personal interaction is more important now than ever, and that cultivating it is the second-most important duty of a modern university.

      • Well, I wouldn’t say that online collaboration is always second-best… but if you can get people doing team stuff in a classroom, that’s great, and classrooms that physically allow that (and instructors who are prepared to embrace that pedagogical shift) would be a fine thing. I would guess pedagogy is actually the bigger of the two barriers, or at least the one more resistant to change as you said in your post. I don’t see anything impersonal about being online though – and I see a lot of impersonal when you have 50 students (or more) in a room for 50 minutes 3 times a week. It’s the limitations of the classroom in time/space that even good equipment and good pedagogy cannot overcome: time crunch is time crunch, no matter how you look at it. And while the D2L discussion board does not facilitate natural communication, there are plenty of great online tools that do facilitate natural communication. As long as faculty are stuck with the D2L discussion board, though, I can imagine that it must seem very inadequate … because it is! I couldn’t believe they had not revamped the discussion board for v10 to make it more like Facebook/Google+/Twitter/Tumblr/Ning – anything that looks like it was designed in the last few years as opposed to vintage 2003. Alas… 🙂