IT Teaching Resources

Active and interactive learning online

This study compares the learning differences between students in an online writing course and an in-person writing course

Article Research

Title: Active and Interactive Learning Online: A Comparison of Web-Based and Conventional Writing Classes
Author: Brad Mehlenbacher, Carolyn R. Miller, David Coginton, and Jamie S. Larsen

Key points

  • In an online writing course, scholars found that students who were “abstract learners” (e.g., preferred solitary time to work through their understanding) performed better than their counterparts who were “active learners” (e.g., students who preferred group discussion and hands-on learning to work through their understanding)
  • They found no difference between these two types of learners in a conventional writing class
  • This finding surprised scholars, given that the online course was designed to be interactive, highlighting the limitations of interactivity in an online space
  • Scholars differentiated between “interactive” (e.g., group discussions) and “active” learning (e.g., students consolidating their learning via posting discussion questions) and suggested that, in the online learning environment, the “active” approach may be equally, if not more, beneficial for all students

This study examines how students enrolled in two Web-based sections of a technical writing class performed compared to students enrolled in a conventional version of the class. Although no significant difference in student performance was found between the two learning conditions, our data reveal intriguing relationships between students’ prior knowledge, attitudes, and learning styles and our Web-based writing environment. One finding that we focus on here is that reflective, global learners performed significantly better online than active, sequential learners, whereas there was no difference between them in the conventional class. Our study highlights the complexity of effective teaching and the difficulty of making comparisons between the online and the classroom environments. In particular, we maintain that the transfer of active learning strategies to the Web is not straightforward and that interactivity as a goal of instructional website design requires significant elaboration.

What would this look like in a course? 
  • Although it may be difficult to simulate the hands-on, discussion-based learning environment you have in a “conventional” class, there are unique benefits in the online learning environment, such as increased time for reflection and consolidation of the materials. 
  • Consider using on-camera “work time” (e.g., student mind maps) and asynchronous discussion boards as a way to engage students in active learning in the online classroom. 

Mehlenbacher, B., Miller, C. R., Covington, D., & Larsen, J. S. (2000). Active and interactive learning online: A comparison of Web-based and conventional writing classes. IEEE transactions on professional communication43(2), 166-184.