The idea of active learning is hard to pin down. It embraces a number of educational theories and pedagogic strategies including problem-based learning, enquiry-based learning, project-based learning, and team-based learning. Such philosophies and approaches are often presented in binary opposition to lecturing and other teaching-led methods – approaches which are often how today’s ‘lecturers’ experienced university. In reality, active learning and blended learning are integrated amongst a range of techniques that address and involve the student in different ways. This can be different according to discipline, teacher and cohort. This melding of approaches is seen most obviously in the concept of flipped learning where essential knowledge is first provided online where it creates the basis for a deeper social exploration through vibrant class-based activities.
Active learning can be off-putting to staff because group work is usually a characteristic of active learning. For example, discussion, projects, co-creation, peer-led assessment, while apparently student-centred can treat students as an anonymous and homogenous mass. Active learning can be noisey, teetering on chaotic, making the classroom harder to manage and students can resent being put into groups with peers who they perceive to be less capable or innately passive and uncooperative, especially where assessment fails to recognise individual contributions and talents.
The teacher’s role shifts from sage on the stage, to guide by the side and meddler in the middle. It can challenge academic identity and esteem, being perceived by some as a shift from wise expert to manager of people.
Active learning and the technology-enhanced learning environment implicitly promotes engagement as a pre-requisite to learning knowledge. It becomes a two-stage operation: first stimulate the learner and make them curious. Then immerse the learner in knowledge and developing skills. The active and blended learning environment is an open-ended, risky, creative, agentic space. If the academic’s role now is to manage the learner, then it seems active and blended learning strategies are designed to make that management as complex as possible! It is understandable, then, that some in the academic community can approach the active learning paradigm with reservations, if not contempt.
Given the number of students in higher education is greater than ever and our students are more diverse, we need to find alternative strategies for helping them to gain purchase, reveal their talents and capabilities, and share their diversity for the benefit of all. Active and blended learning strategies recognise student-centredness and the role that a university has in developing graduate dispositions for a connected world that rejects stability and thrives on innovation. In this context, new literacies and skills are needed so that our students can contribute and learn to take leading roles on a global stage. Many academics get this and are prepared to take pioneering roles in exploring the possibilities, especially now that technology allows any of us to connect our classroom to anyone, anything or any place in the world – instantly. Sharples (2019), for example, sets out 40 new ways to teach and learn using practical active and blended pedagogies. Ideas like ‘spaced learning’, ‘seamless learning’, learning through social media, and bricolage, hint at what academic innovators are doing. Active and blended learning, it seems, opens the door to fulfilling and creative academic practices. It reveals new ways for making learning more relevant, authentic and challenging ensuring that feedback is immediate and integral in the actions we take together. In brief, the learning paradigm creates a rich learning experience that contrasts with the teaching paradigm (Barr & Tagg, 1995). Ideas about active learning are not new – Piaget (1926), for example, describes learning as “a product of the learner being involved in a process of resolving practical or cognitive dissonance.” The LTHEchat provides us with an opportunity to explore the value of dissonance and challenge, and allows us to consider how we can present it in a way that persuades reticent academics and students so that the curriculum can be experienced as a coherent, rich and vibrant space for engaging students in developing learning habits so that they are ready to embrace the opportunities awaiting them.
Barr, R & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change, November, 13-25.
Piaget, J. (1926). The child’s conception of the world. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Sharples, M. (2019). Practical pedagogy: 40 new ways to teach and learn. Abingdon: Routledge.
Andrew Middleton is Deputy Head of Anglia Learning & Teaching at Anglia Ruskin University where he is leading work to support the University’s Active Curriculum Framework and digital learning. This includes initiatives on Media-Enhanced Teaching & Learning, Employability in Practice, and Learning Spaces for Student Success. Andrew researches and publishes on designing learning environments for co-operative learning. He blogs at Tactile: https://tactilelearning.wordpress.com/.
The Wakelet for this chat is here.