What is Active Learning?

Let’s kick this off by addressing, “What is active learning?” since I know that not everyone reading this will be familiar with the term.  Taken from the U of Michigan site is the concise definition, “Active learning is a process whereby students engage in activities, such as reading, writing, discussion, or problem solving that promote analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of class content.”

Active learning is approached both through class activities and classroom design – classroom design should ideally enhance or facilitate the class activities that fall under this active learning heading.  One of the more popular active learning techniques, think-pair-share, is a process whereby students organize into small groups to cooperate and collaborate on thinking about or solving some problem.  Further, a study out of NCSU showed evidence that this active learning method was also one of the most effective teaching and learning practices compared to traditional teaching and learning methods. (http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Papers/Prince_AL.pdf).






Supporting Active Learning through Technology

The way that this active learning strategy is addressed through classroom design is in spaces that are accommodating of shuffling and moving.  This means things like modular table designs, rolling chairs and tables, good hallway space (to facilitate moving through the room), and display systems that permit groups to share responses electronically to their table or to the entire class.  In small to medium-sized classrooms accomplishing these things, while sometimes costly, are mostly doable.  In a 500 person stadium seating lecture hall, however, designing for these active learning activities is all but impossible – at least, designing the physical space is.

Fortunately, there are technologies that provide affordances capable of overcoming the limitations of physical space.  What I will do with the remainder of this post is discuss how I think we can bring think-pair-share and cooperative/collaborative thinking as active learning strategies into a 500 person stadium seating lecture room.

First, let’s think about the technologies that we probably have at our disposal.  Campus provisioned classroom wifi, and laptops and smart devices capable of connecting to wifi.  We also have conceptual things like online chat rooms and mobile texting that come into play here.

Next up are the limitations we’re seeking to overcome.  Students cannot quickly or easily reposition or move around in a 500 person SSLR (stadium seating lecture room).  Additionally, students are probably likely to either sit in a similar place, or with the same people each class, meaning that think-pair-share opportunities with your neighbor always winds up being the same person.  Finally, certain students might find it challenging to contribute in such a setting.

The system that I see capable of addressing those limitations while drawing on the affordances is a chat roulette that the professor can use to randomly assign students to ad-hoc online meeting rooms.  The interaction I imagine looks like this.  A professor wants their students in a 500 person SSLR to engage in 5 minutes of a think-pair-share exercise.  With a single button press the professor assigns all 500 students into groups of 3 (we need to figure out what to do about the remainder), and each of those groups is sent to their own online room.  Inside of that online room the students can chat with each other about the question the professor has asked them to consider.  While students are chatting the professor and TAs could invisibly peek in on any of those chat rooms in order to see what trends or misconceptions might be arising in the students’ thinking, or they could except particularly good comments to share with the rest of the class.  At the end of the 5 minutes the rooms close and class resumes in a manner responsive to the discussions that took place in those chat rooms.





SWOT Analysis


  • The strengths of this approach is that it engenders a style of learning that has been studied and shown to be highly effective into an environment not normally conducive of that style of learning.
  • Students who might not ordinarily participate will feel less reluctance about doing so.
  • Less expensive to implement than renovating a large lecture hall.
  • All campus classrooms have good network connectivity – enough to support a large lecture hall.


  • Strictly non-spoken communication.
  • Professors may be unwilling to feature such activities in a lecture class.


  • Infrastructure already exists.
  • Uses technology that most students already have and are comfortable using.
  • Professors can more readily excerpt common themes or misunderstandings among the class.
  • Bb Collaborate is part of Sakai, which allows for tracking of student participation, and prevents non-class members from inadvertently or maliciously participating.


  • Reliant on technical infrastructure.
  • Current Bb Collaborate is Java based.
  • A potential change in Bb Collaborate that might remove the base function supporting this idea, or change it in a way to make this deployment untenable.

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