In an exclusive excerpt from our latest e-book, Active Learning: The Perfect Pedagogy for the Digital Classroom, education journalist Philip Preville demonstrates how digital technology can be adapted to the classroom to help facilitate active learning tactics.
Over the last 25 years, as lecturing’s reputation as a sound teaching method has waned, the concept of “active learning” has arisen as an alternative. At its core, active learning is meant to engage students more directly in their course’s subject matter through a variety of exercises and classroom strategies designed to get them immediately interacting with, and applying, the knowledge they are expected to master by semester’s end. And in recent years, proponents of active learning have been adapting digital technology to achieve their goals—something lecturing is unable to do.
It was two Missouri State professors, historian Charles Bonwell and psychologist James Eison, who coined the term “active learning.” In their 1991 book on the subject, Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom, they offered this definition of the concept:
“Active learning involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.”
The definition, though it seems circuitous, marks a definitive pedagogical shift in college teaching and learning. Rather than think about what they are watching, hearing, or reading, students are first encouraged to be “doing” something in class, and then to apply critical thought and reflection to their own classroom work and activity. Their argument was backed up by research. Even Donald Bligh, author of 1971’s What’s the Use of Lectures?, had pointed out that the immediate rehearsal of new information and knowledge had a significant impact upon learning.
This approach is as helpful in the sciences as it is in the arts or humanities: whether it’s organic chemistry, creative writing, or behavioral economics, concepts are all best understood through repeated practice and open, social exploration. The central tenet of active learning is that practice matters, and that classroom time is better spent giving students opportunities to work with concepts over and over, in a variety of ways and with opportunities for immediate feedback, so that knowledge can take hold in their own minds.
Active learning and technology
More recently, the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets has become a catalyst for the creation of purpose-built, active-learning technology. Apps, social media and student engagement platforms are making the transition to active learning classrooms easier and more efficient. Minute papers, quizzes and muddiest-point exercises can all be executed and tabulated online. And all these tactics can now be embedded within the pages of the next generation of digital textbooks.
And digital technology is how today’s students learn. Most of today’s college freshmen are younger than Google and researched their first school project on Wikipedia. Studies show that they read books, magazines and newspapers far less than previous generations, yet because of technology, they are actually exposed to more information and knowledge than their predecessors ever were. So many of their daily routines—from purchasing habits to social interactions to learning routines—are wildly different than those of their parents, because they are all enabled through technology. Screens are the tools of everyday life. Educators are increasingly turning them into tools of learning as well.