Active Learning Online – Part 2

The first post about active learning looked at how to include active learning in an online course. You heard about how a history professor used an interactive timeline. Each student added images, facts, and descriptions to the timeline, and the result was a visually-rich historical review. Students had fun while learning about facts and events. This is an example of collaboration and active learning at its best. The second example focused on interactive textbooks as an alternative to printed books. The Top Hat product combined words, images, video, and engaging activities to improve learning and make it more active.

In today’s post we look at two new active learning ideas: mind mapping and annotated reading. Although these two technologies are different from each other, they offer similar benefits. Mind mapping requires the student to visually depict a concept, process, or system. Students label relevant parts or steps, show how these are connected, and identify key relationships. Annotated reading, on the other hand, allows students to enter short comments to passages of text, which encourages peer-to-peer interaction and sharing. While reading, students identify confusing sections, ask (or answer) questions, and interact with others. Both methods actively engage students in the learning process and support them to apply and analyze course concepts.

A Picture is Worth…

You know the famous quip about pictures, so let’s consider how using a visually-based tool for active-learning can support online learners. Wikipedia defines mind mapping as “a diagram used to visually organize information.” Similar tools are concept maps and information maps.

Why are images important for learning? Mind maps help students understand concepts, ideas, and relationships. According to Wikipedia, a meta-study found that “concept mapping is more effective than ‘reading text passages, attending lectures, and participating in class discussions.'” One reason is because mind maps mimic how our brain works. They help us see the “big picture” and make important connections. Not only are mind maps visually appealing, they are also fun to create! Students can work alone or in teams.  This mind map about tennis is colorful and stimulating.

If you want to try mind mapping yourself, here’s a free tool called MindMup. There are many others available, some free and others with modest fees. The Ecampus team created an active learning resources mind map, made with MindMeister. Take a look. There are a lot of great ideas listed. Try a few!

Close Encounters

College student with an open textbookMost classes assign reading to students. Yet reading is a solo activity, so it offers a lower level of active learning. But there are ways to raise reading’s active learning value, with or without technology.

Using a technique called close reading, students get more active learning benefits. Close reading is a unique way to read, usually done with short sections of text. With careful focus, close reading helps students reach a deeper understanding of the author’s ideas, meaning and message.

Three students pointing to laptop screenIf you want to add technology, you can make reading even more active! Using an app called Perusall, reading becomes a collaborative activity. Perusall lets students add comments to the reading and see what others are saying. Students can post questions or respond. Instructors set guidelines for the number of entries and discover which content is most confusing. Originally built for the face-to-face classroom, Perusall is also an effective tool for online learning. Perusall is like social networking in the textbook. It helps students engage with materials and be more prepared to apply the concepts and principles to later assignments. Perusall can be used with or without the close reading technique. 

Want to Try?

Let us know if you have questions or want to try an idea. We are here to help! If you are already working with an Ecampus instructional designer, contact them to ask about these active learning technologies. Or send an email to me,, and I’ll be happy to point you in the right direction.



Susan Fein, Ecampus Instructional Designer,

The instructional designers at Ecampus held a Research & Development Day recently to explore the topic of user experience (UX) design as it applies to Ecampus courses. As part of that day, fellow instructional designer, Dorothy Loftin and I explored how Canvas functions when used on Mobile Devices. Below are some findings from our testing.

Generally, we found that iPads work great as long as a student accesses the course through a browser. It was using the Canvas App (necessary on a smart phone) that presented changes and challenges in functionality. The good news is that many of these can be addressed with a few additions in course design. These additions should not significantly alter the experience for students who are using desktop and laptop computers. Today, I will present one of those strategies.

The most significant impact we experienced in using the Canvas App is navigation, how a student gets to content, activities and assessments. It can take quite a few clicks or taps to get to a specific page in Canvas using the mobile app, or to get from one page to another, and the navigation can vary depending on the device used. This may negatively impact the student user experience, distract, and generally increase cognitive load.

Navigation Strategy

One strategy to improve navigation is to provide alternate links for students to jump to commonly needed items in your course. Turns out, this can also benefit students who are on desktops or laptops.

The Home Page that I often use is immediately available for users on all devices. I have added links and buttons so students can jump directly to important sections of the course from here. This turns the Home Page into more of a landing page with quick links.

Page View in Desktop Browser Page View on iPhone
Desktop browser screen grab iPhone Screen Grab

The buttons take a student to the Module Page for a particular week. Module Pages, on the App, present students with links to all content and activities for that week. I limited the buttons to 3-across to make clicking them on a phone easier. As you probably notice, the App translates buttons into links. So, simply providing a list of text links would also work on multiple devices.

This Strategy to improve navigation can be used on any page where you want a student to be able to move quickly to new material, reducing frustration and cognitive load by making the navigational journey more immediate.

How to do it yourself resources:

By Christopher Lindberg

If you are considering developing an online course with Ecampus, you may be curious how you will translate your lectures to the online format. There are several effective online lecture presentation formats available to faculty. They differ in the type of video recording required and the kind of post-production work required after the initial recording.

Image listing 4 formats for online lecture presentation: Video, narrated lecture, light board, and interactive video.
Online Lecture Formats: Qualities & Complexity

Each of the presentation formats can be effective, however the more complex types can offer additional advantages for your students. Why should you consider producing the most challenging of the five online lecture formats? To answer that question, we need to understand what exactly an interactive video lesson is. Let’s start by first looking at a sample interactive video lesson used in a fall 2017 course titled The Biology of Horticulture (HORT 301). You can watch a four minute excerpt of the twenty-minute interactive video lesson by selecting the image below:

Still image from video of Dr. Ryan Contreras teaching using an interactive video lesson in the Biology of Horticulture (HORT 301).
Dr. Ryan Contreras teaching using an interactive video lesson in the Biology of Horticulture course. Select image to watch the four minute video.

As is seen in this excerpt the interactive video lesson has as its foundation a video recording of a Lightboard presentation. Layered over that recording are interactive elements that control video playback—sometimes pausing, other times auto-advancing to specific clips—or to progress through the lesson, trigger a student’s input of feedback, and, most importantly, increase the amount of student engagement in the lesson. In the case of HORT 301 the interactive element prompts the solving of a temperature indices formula. The base video could have been used by itself. However, it is the melding of the Lightboard presentation with the interactive feature that makes the interactive video lesson a highly engaging presentation for the online environment.

The model below proposes how the elements of personal and mediated communication immediacy are brought together to make an interactive video lesson a compelling experience.

Model showing proposing how mediated communication and personal communication of an interactive video complement each other in an interactive video lesson.

In this project instructional design, in conjunction with visual design, video staging, and interaction design, was focused on solving the issue of how to teach a self-paced formula-drive lesson in the online environment. The result is an interactive video lesson that presents as a unified visual space that fosters an actual “see through” psychological perspective. Although clearly a media production, this approach to online lesson presentation implies an unmediated learning experience.

It is enhanced by the camera literally seeing through the Lightboard glass to the instructor conducting the lesson fostering a sense instructor presence. This type of interactive lesson design is desirable because it presents classroom-like learning in a student-controlled online environment. The result is an interactive video lesson that is new in design format but familiar experientially.

Is Interactive Video For You?
A decision to adopt this approach to lesson design will likely be successful if you have a lesson that is formula driven. Certainly math subjects and many science subjects might benefit from this approach. Is it also applicable to humanities courses? Can you imagine teaching language, music, or poetry with an interactive video lesson? If you can, contact Ecampus. We would be glad to help you adopt this approach to lesson design for use in your online course.


There’s been some discussion recently about students and lectures and attention spans.* As conversation about this turned to how students grapple with long form texts in an online course, I thought it might be useful to gather some ideas on course design and working with texts in online courses.

The initial page of the Peterborough Chronicle, marked secondarily by the librarian of the Laud collection. The manuscript is an autograph of the monastic scribes of Peterborough. The opening sections were likely scribed around 1638 (See document). The section displayed is prior to the First Continuation.
The initial page of the Peterborough Chronicle (annotated monastic text)

Structure your course around the texts not the weeks

Some instructors structure their reading intensive course around the books that are read. A module per book with multiple discussion boards and prompts per book. This subtly shifts the focus from what am I doing this week to what is this book doing. For example, in ENG 210 Literatures of the World: Asia, Jeff Fearnside structured the course around the five books they were reading.

Banner depicting a 3D model of the Blue Mosque in Turkey
Banner for the module and book on Turkey

Other course elements allowed summative reflections and integrative questions to address themes throughout the course.

Shift format away from only reading and writing.

If reading, multiple books you might change how students interact with one or more of the books.

In engaging with a text, students might:

  • watch a play rather than read it
  • listen to a poem rather than read it (For example, this recording of The Waste Land – poem begins at 16:10)

In responding to a text, students might:

  • create a video journal or podcast as they progress through text(s)
  • tweet (or write within 140 characters) summaries of characters or plot themes (similar to the idea of Tweet your thesis)
  • build a timeline of the narrative (for example, this timeline of Russian History created with student entries for Betsy Ehler’s RUS 233: 20th Century Russian Culture course)

Check for understanding

I’m wary about the idea of reducing student engagement with a text to quizzes but as a feedback mechanism as part of a process and on the way to richer engagement I think quick polls, quizzes, or surveys have a role. You could have quick short post reading quiz or survey to figure out if the students have followed the reading. This would let you respond before the students get further along and further behind.

Other interpretative tools

Pie Charts (Shakespeare) - Link out to a collection of images on flickr analyzing word counts of characters in the plays
Collection of Images Analyzing Word Counts for Characters in Shakespeare’s Plays

There’s a whole range of interpretive tools Digital Humanities tools and engaging with them is well beyond this blog post. However, many projects have available outputs in some form that instructors or students can draw on as they grapple with texts.

A great starting point to explore digital humanities would be to take a look at this overview & contact Jane Nichol the emerging technologies librarian. And as you think through how to use these tools in your course

One example of the type of output you might find is this collection of visualizations of the word counts in Shakespeare’s plays

Collaborative writing and commenting

There are also other ways to dialogue around a text – especially when it’s a short dense text with lots of debate and discussion around the text. There are examples of creating your thesis on a blog as you write or using github or a federated wiki as collaborative authoring tools. However, for many courses google docs (which is integrated into canvas) offers a fantastic, known, and private tool for a course to create a document.

A manifesto for teaching online

As a open experiment let me invite you to engage with a text. The Digital Education team at the University of Edinburgh recently released their 2015 Manifesto for teaching online. There’s a lot to think about in their manifesto and how it works or doesn’t work in our context. Please join in and add your voices this copy for comment  – an annotated ‘manifesto for teaching online’. **


*The statement spun off a conversation triggered by the NYT opinion piece on lectures, (which I can’t mention without also noting this thoughtful response)

**If you want to author a new pathway through the text or add resources beyond what comments allow request an account and I’ll add you to the project.


How do you help your students reflect on your course and integrate what they’re learning into their subject knowledge and worldview? If you want your students to develop metacognition and self-understanding, or to articulate professional identity or a disciplinary perspective – reflection and reflective practice can help them integrate what they learn in your course into how they think.

Self is the Reflection
Work found at / undefined

The Theory

The role of reflection in personal development and academic practice is widely acknowledged as a part of higher order thinking in general and also particularly in AACU’s VALUE rubric for Integrative Learning and rubric for Foundations and Skills for Lifelong Learning . The question is how we incorporate reflection in course design.

Adding it in

Adding reflection as a self-contained activity can be a great step, but we often add such activities as small items at the end of a course, or – from the student point of view – as an afterthought or the extra bit they need to do after they’re finished. Reflections done this way, though of potential benefit, can often easily lapse into superficial form-filling. A better approach is to build reflection into the course, and to scaffold student engagement with the process. This can be much more effective and changes how a student interacts with the reflective activity.

Utah is in the Rear View Mirror
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An example: Current Problems in Sustainable Living (PS 399)

In PS 399 Current Problems in Sustainable Living (in the future to be offered as PS 374) Dr. Erika Wolters set out to engage students with the issue of their personal role in sustainability within the context of huge global political systems. The course description is as follows:

“Exploration of the role of individuals in sustainability practices and policies. Special focus is given to an examination of how individuals can make sustainable lifestyle choices in light of policy regulations, technologies, socio-economic conditions, and cultural values.”

The Final Paper

Dr Wolters had set set up her course with three major papers alongside other activities and assessments. Originally, the reflective activity was contained in the final paper which required

“By the end of week 2, please select three personal behaviors […] that you will try to change in order to live more sustainably. Document your starting point and each step along the way. Your final paper will require you to discuss your step-by-step attempts where you were successful, where you met with unexpected difficulties, or any other surprises along the way. Place your personal sustainability experience into the context of your readings about individual actions and impacts.“

This paper sought to integrate practice, reflection, and critical disciplinary analysis. As Dr. Wolters and I discussed the course design and how to help students engage with this activity in an online environment, we were aware of two pitfalls to avoid: students reaching the end of the course and struggling to remember their experience and students spending all of their final paper recounting their experience rather than critically engaging with it.

The redesign

The solution we came up with was to ask students to create journal entries throughout the course documenting and beginning to reflect on their practice. In the ten-week course, they identified their sustainable practice by week 2 and journaled about it in weeks 4, 6, and 8 before writing their final paper in week 10. The journal could either be in written or video diary format. There were any number of tools that could be used to support the video option, but using Canvas’ integrated tools and video recorder enabled students to do so easily and without the cognitive overhead of learning an external tool.

The journal could have been set up in a Canvas discussion board. This setup would have created a shared experience across the class in which students reflected and shared together. However, because the focus of this course was personal reflection, the journal activity was set up using the assignment tool. The video or text reflection was shared only with the professor. The reason for doing this was to create the opportunity for more personal reflections than the student might have felt comfortable posting in a forum.

Prints Mirrors
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Work in progress

The course is still underway but halfway through I was able to catch up with Dr. Wolters to find out how it was going. Her key observations so far relate in large part to the changes developed through the availabilty of video as an option for this journal activity. She reported the following:

“I do think it is helping them think about the course differently. It is great having them undertake behavior/habit changes and reflect on the costs vs. benefits. It is really exciting to see how they are embracing the project!”
“[I]t is definitely helping me connect with the students differently. I really enjoy seeing and hearing them vs. just having the one-dimensional responses of the discussion boards.“
“[The video posts] were so much fun I responded with a video comment and then posted bi-weekly announcements as a video. It was fun! I definitely feel more connected to the students this way.”

Interim Conclusion

Although this activity needs further evaluation, it illustrates a way to engage students with academic reflection through encouraging dialogue early and throughout the course. From the initial feedback it seems clear that from the instructor’s perspective it offers opportunities to connect with students throughout the course and enable them to engage with the topic.

Image Credits

All images by Alan Levine (Flickr user Cogdog), used under a CC- BY licence.