IT Teaching Resources

Lunch-n-Learn: (Re)Designing Online Classrooms for Active, Collaborative Learning

GSE instructors share their technologies and strategies on how they support active learning in online environments

Promoting student engagement

Panelists: Janet Carlson, Christine Bywater, Stephanie Robillard, and Miriam Leshin
Moderator: Kelly Boles
Recording of the session:

Central questions: 

  • What structures provide opportunities for active learning in online environments?
  • How can technology support and constrain opportunities for active learning?
  • How can we design for online learning that provides students agency over their own learning?

Key quotes:

When I look at the phrase “active in collaborative learning,” for me, it has to do with: how in the classroom do I create opportunities for social constructions of understanding? And in creating opportunities, what are the ways that I ensure everyone has a voice? – Janet Carlson

In active learning — whether online or in-person — students are the ones constructing their understanding through interaction with each other, artifacts, and tools. It connotes a fundamental shift from a teacher as a disseminator of knowledge to a teacher as a facilitator. – Miriam Leshin

Whenever you are planning your course, you have to center your learning goals and your students’ interests and experiences first. What are my learning goals? What do I want my students to walk away with? What are their interests and experiences, and how might this support any of those things? If you start with that planning, you’ll be a lot more successful. – Christine Bywater

Think about the flow of your class. In a three-hour class where the class has been sitting for two hours, is it time to get up and do something different? And so, I think about the structure of the overall class session, what have we been doing, where are we going, and what kind of engagement has been done prior. – Stephanie Robillard


Structures that provide opportunities for active learning in the online environment
  • Using learning goals and digital tools to ensure everyone has a voice
  • Giving students more agency and authority in interacting with others and using online learning tools
  • Providing students with a safe space where they can ask questions and gain experience
  • Allowing for students to construct conversations with others and naturally build community
  • Building classes with the intention of active learning instead of just note-taking and group work
Technology to support and constrain opportunities for active learning
  • Discussion Diamond (Janet Carlson)
    • Create groups of 4 that ideally mix people with different perspectives or experiences relative to the discussion prompt
    • Quiet reading, writing, and separate thinking session prior to the small group discussion
    • At the end of the group discussion, have students focus on the hope, inspiration, or action
    • Instructor should provide opportunities for students to add specific examples for future discussions
  • Parallel Discussions (Christine Bywater)
    • Synchronous conversations in a Zoom meeting with all videos off
    • Build community prior to this active learning session so students feel empowered to voice and respond to another. This can be done through hands-on activities through the use of play-doh, legos, and other hands-on items
    • Each student will have 5 minutes to respond to the given prompt on their own
    • Afterwards, students will respond to another student’s comment in a form of a conversation thread
    • Virtual gallery walks for students to go around and read other responses and threads
  • Four Corners (Stephanie Robillard)
    • Students to initiate conversations and share ideas with each other
    • Each corner signifies a different opinion or perspective (e.g., strongly agree, strongly disagree, agree, and disagree)
    • In breakout room corners, students voice their opinions, share their perspectives, or support their arguments
    • Allow students to move around both physically and virtual to promote student involvement
    • Students should take down notes or explanations and have all students present or share their experiences
  • Jamboard Collaboration – Example Task (Miriam Leshin)
    • Collaborative problem-solving by leveraging collective viewing of multiple frames
    • Each group will have their own frame or space to work on and contribute to
    • Use of different modes like sticky notes, colors, handwriting notes, and importing pictures
    • Problem-solving question to promote a collaborative experience (e.g., figure out the total volume of a lemon)
    • Gallery walk where students scan through the frames and look at other students’ work
    • Students should put on the “teacher hat” and write feedback, notes, and comments on peers’ work
  • Zoom Chat (Miriam Leshin and Janet Carlson)
    • Students can use Zoom chat as a way of working towards equitable participation and discussion
    • Build community through chat conversations and have students share interesting comments with others
    • Multiple conversations at the same time to discuss or support different topics, ideas, and questions
Structures that provide students agency over their own learning
  • Instructors should plan interactive sessions by starting with the identification of learning goals
  • The strongest goals combine content with student interests and are worded in ways that center student learning
  • Pick stackable tools, programs, or items that are complementary and familiar
  • Give extra time for students to learn new activities or technology for the first time
  • Be explicit about the goals of the activity with the students, and listen to student feedback
  • Provide a balance with a variety of activities that involve group work and physical activity
  • Give students prompts, statements, or tasks in advance to give students more time to think and process
  • Be aware of the timing or flow of the class to prevent rushing or not having enough time for activities
  • More examples here