Interactive teaching and active involvement in large groups

I recently ran a workshop on tools and activities for engaging students in class, and I particularly enjoyed the discussion on ways of working with large groups, i.e. moving from the traditional ‘transmissional’ mode of delivery to a more interactive student-oriented one where the main challenge is the size of the group.

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How is learning changing?

This post includes my reflections after listening to Sir Ken Robinson’s talk “How to Change Education”. In particular, I’ll focus on two ideas that I believe will have a growing impact on education, including learning and collaborating online. They’re spontaneous learning and collaborative learning. (NB. I’m focusing here on adult education as different principles may apply to children’s education.) 


As usual in his talks, Sir Ken notes that much of current alienation of teachers and learners in educational systems is the result of top-down governance where educational authorities issue rules and regulations which the rest of the system is supposed to implement and follow. He advocates a bottom-up approach focused on the teacher-learner relationship, which he believes is the cornerstone of education. As he shows using a theatre analogy, when we strip education of all that has been built around it throughout centuries and go back to the basics, we are left with the teacher-learner relationship, which should be the focus of any reforming efforts. 

This bottom-up approach should be based on two concepts: spontaneous learning and collaborative learning. I take spontaneous learning to mean learning that is not forced in any way but emerges as a result of an individual’s intrinsic motivation to acquire new knowledge and skills. Adult learning is a goal-oriented activity: people engage in an activity when they clearly see its purpose and this purpose is linked to how they see themselves at the end of the learning process. It is hardly possible to teach somebody something they don’t want to know or they don’t see the relevance of, which university lecturers are often reminded of when students seem to forget everything they’ve learnt a day after their exam.

In other words, spontaneous learning is about an individual’s active engagement with the learning content, which is the result of individual motivation. Therefore it is important to establish what learners’ needs and motivations are at the start of the learning process, which gives the teacher the flexibility to (a) dynamically adapt the content to these needs, (b) develop ways of finding a common ground between learners’ expressed needs and the content the teacher believes learners should master before continuing to the next step in their education process.

Thus understood, spontaneous learning is linked to flexible teaching methods and dynamic content delivery, including constructivist approaches whereby the teacher is no longer a transmitter of knowledge but rather a facilitator helping learners find their own, personally relevant learning trajectories in the available body of knowledge. It is also about encouraging people and helping them find out what motivates them and why they have decided to participate in a given formal learning process (e.g. a university course) in the first place. As Sir Ken usefully reminds us, teaching is an art form: it is not enough for a teacher to know the discipline, s/he must also know how to excite people, pick their imagination and get them to want to learn.
Spontaneous learning is something we do all the time in informal settings. All informal learning is spontaneous learning: we actively seek knowledge to solve problems we’re facing and we do that by identifying new or utilising existing resources or asking other people who we think are more knowledgeable on the subject. This takes us to the idea of collaborative learning. Sir Ken mentions the idea of ‘flipped classrooms’ (here is a good infographic) where learners teach each other and learn from each other in groups with the teacher staying in the background and only stepping in where and when necessary to enhance understanding. As a result, it is believed, learners feel more in the centre of the learning process, which is conducive to taking more control of their own learning. Whether or not flipped classrooms are useful in all circumstances (which they probably aren’t, as the comments under the above infographic reveal), collaborative learning is about actively involving learners to teach each other, therefore developing ‘learning communities’ and helping learners become more independent and confident lifelong learners.

How are the two concepts linked to learning and collaborating online? On one hand, online modes of delivery provide flexibility that can enhance access to learning for various groups of learners, allowing them to pursue knowledge they see as most relevant and therefore increasing their motivation. As exemplified by e.g. the recent success of MOOCs as a learning concept, such flexible modes of delivery appeal to large numbers of people and feed on their intrinsic motivation to learn. At the same time, the teacher’s role as a facilitator becomes extremely important in online settings in order to sustain learners’ motivation and encourage them to work collaboratively. Neither spontaneous and collaborative learning nor online delivery play down the role of the teacher – quite the contrary, although no longer in the foreground, at the lectern in the middle of a lecture theatre, the teacher as facilitator becomes a crucial element of a successful learning process.

Student motivation in blended learning

One of my main areas of interest with regard to learning technologies  is student motivation with relation to blended learning and the use of learning technologies. Quite a lot of research has been done so far in the field of student motivation in general, and some of these observations can be transferred onto the field of blended learning.

For example, Ellis, Ginns and Piggott, in their article “E-learning in higher education: some key aspects and their relationships to approaches to study” note that previous scholarship has identified four main factors that may affect student motivation:

  1. interactivity, 
  2. approaches to e-moderating, 
  3. issues related to course/module design, and 
  4. workload awareness. 

In other words, a good blended learning module should be built around interactive activities (which, in turn, should be closely aligned with the aims and learning outcomes of the module) which give students at least some control over their learning. The teacher’s role in this context is discussed mainly with regard to feedback and e-moderating in order to help learners reflect on issues under consideration.

The overall course/module design should follow the principles of constructive alignment, and should take into consideration workload requirements placed on students, since research shows that learner motivation and perception of the quality of the e-learning experience are significantly associated with perceptions of appropriate workload (i.e. the amount of online work on top of in-class activities).

The authors present a case study of over 200 undergraduate business students who were required to participate in online activities as part of a module they took. The study showed that students were particularly positive about learning from their peers’ contributions. In this sense, online activities (in this case sharing resources and opinions on a discussion board) prove to be well-suited for sharing of alternative perspectives.

Interestingly, students were largely neutral about the impact of the module website design on their experience. At the same time, their responses often revealed concern about the amount of additional workload related to adding e-learning activities to existing face-to-face activities without allowing for the additional time needed to complete them.

The researchers interpret their findings as an evidence of “the importance of careful structuring and design of e-learning activities and resources, especially in relation to the broader student experience” (Ellis et al. 2009: 316). This confirms the importance of careful design of online learning experiences so that the purpose behind using the electronic medium as well as the aims and objectives of the learning event are clear to the learners. This will hopefully result in enhancing their motivation, which should be our main focus in instructional design.

So the take-home point is as follows:

We cannot assume that the mere presence of e-learning activities and materials supporting a face-to-face experience of learning will improve the quality of the experience. How students perceive and use the activities and materials represent one of the keys to unlocking the full value of e-learning in the student learning experience at university. 

The key question in instructional design

Here are a few guidelines which may help with designing online learning experiences. As I mentioned elsewhere, they do not differ that much from the principles for designing off-line, traditional learning events. However, while learners are generally used to traditional methods of instruction, therefore tend to accept them regardless of whether they find them effective for them individually or not, they are less willing to engage with technology-based experiences if they do not see as resulting in successful learning. 

What makes learning events successful? To me, the key question in instructional design is WHY. Why should we bother learners with this activity? “Because they need it” is not a sufficient answer from pedagogical point of view.

So, for a successful online learning experience: 

  • Decide that you want the learners to achieve. Imagine an ideal learner who has just completed the activity. Verbalise the difference between the start and the end point in his/her learning journey. Start with the end in mind. 
  • Let the purpose define the technology not the technology guide the purpose. Never start with “oh, there’s this new fab technology, and now students will be videorecording their reflective commentaries and sharing with others, how exciting is that!”. Well, it is not. Not in the slightest. If you can achieve something using another, more basic technology, do it. Don’t go for the glitter just because it is new or fashionable: think what it is about the specific technology that makes it at least useful if not indispensable for the purpose of the experience. 
  • Do not expect spontaneous participation. There needs to be an objective and direct, immediate significance. Both need to be clearly visible for the participants. As I wrote in another post, where there is no immediate relevance, there is no motivation to undertake the task. Forcefully creating participation is not effective either.   
  • This means that apart from contributing to an overall purpose of extending knowledge, developing skills and/or deepening understanding, the experience needs to be interesting and worthwhile in itself, meaning that participants need to see both how it will change them at the end before they even start participating, and they how relevant this change is to their overall learning process. In other words, think big, but do not lose sight of smaller personal successes and rewards.   
  • Communicate the purpose of the experience to participants and provide clear indicators of success: tell participants explicitly how the experience will change them. Telling people why they need to do things is at least as important as, if not more important than, telling them what they need to do. 
  • And finally, make it personal: participants need to see not just that the experience is beneficial but how it is beneficial for them as individuals on a learning journey.  

What motivates online students

What motivates learners? What actually works? How to achieve worthwhile learning? These questions have challenged online educators and instructional designers for ever. And it would be a huge mistake to think that a new technology is sufficient for raising students’ interest and involving them with the content and activities. The technology itself is never enough, just as much as the presence of a flipchart and a marker in a traditional classroom does not immediately turn students into the most motivated and efficient of learners.

Existing literature on learning technologies mentions a number of strategies that can increase learner motivation. What most of them have in common is that, on conceptual level, they often boil down to transferring the strategies that have been found to be efficient in conventional classrooms into online learning scenarios.

For example, research shows that such effective strategies typically involve:

  • creating a supportive but at the same time challenging learning environment, 
  • providing choice and flexibility, 
  • establishing short-term goals, 
  • offering immediate feedback, 
  • stimulating student curiosity, 
  • creating personal and concrete content that students can relate to, 
  • using relevant, authentic and goal-driven learning tasks as well as 
  • creating opportunities for interaction, collaboration and personal growth.
In other words, what online educators need to do when designing online learning components is to put themselves in their intended students’ shoes and verify to what extent the event being designed can be described as (1) relevant and purposeful (2) stimulating and challenging.  
Relevance refers here to the necessity that learners see the purpose of the specific event, that they develop the feeling that without the event their learning process would be significantly impoverished. Therefore it is not enough to create a discussion forum in our VLE-based modules and cross our fingers that learners will start and participate in conversations. Without a clear purpose, learners will see the requirement to post on a forum as yet another burden on their time, which causes frustration and lack of interest. However, if learners become aware of a knowledge gap between them and their peers and that their peers may help them extend their own knowledge or help solve specific problems, there appears an authentic need to communicate and exchange ideas, based on curiosity and genuine interest. 
This is further linked to the idea of challenge and stimulation underlying learning design. Learners need to see that something about their knowledge and/or skills changes as a result of participating in the event, that through participation they slowly but surely move upwards. Therefore the event should be neither too easy (and, as educators, we sometimes tend to underestimate our students since it is often the weakest that protest most loudly against more challenging content), nor too difficult: Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development quite obviously jumps to mind. 
It may therefore be a useful exercise to analyse our existing online learning components, whether in blended learning or fully distance learning modes, and write down, on a piece of paper, where the relevance of and the stimulation in our learning activity come from. We must remember here that the more ‘immediate’ this relevance is, the more motivating the event will be for our learners. So, if our notes only include generalities and banalities like ‘extending knowledge’ or ‘practising skills’, without reference to any immediate benefits for learners, there is a strong case for rethinking the whole usefulness and design of the activity.