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Active learning and preservice teachers' experiences in an online course: a case study.

The purpose of this qualitative case study was to examine preservice teachers' experiences and the meaning they gave to their experiences in a "Technology Applications in Education" online course. The theoretical framework was based on the "Rich Environments for Active Learning" proposed by Grabinger and Dunlap (2000). The attributes of rich learning environments for active learning are student responsibility and initiative, generative learning activities, authentic learning contexts, authentic assessment strategies, and cooperative support.


The study findings imply that the online learning/teaching environment requires reconstruction of student and instructor roles, relationships, and practices. Student experiences showed that the online environment influenced their learning. Preparing students for active engagement in learning and collaboration needs to be emphasized in both face-to-face and online environments. Understanding student expectations and motivations, and the personas they may take during online learning can help support active learning. Instructor guidance and support as well as peer support are important for improved communication that can enable active learning.

The convergence of technological, instructional, and pedagogical developments (Bonk & King, 1998) has helped a new paradigm of teaching and learning to emerge. Online education is impacting current university practices and policies and quickly changing the fabric of higher education (Rowley, Lujan, & Dolence, 1998). This type of education has the potential to provide a catalyst for a total reconceptualization of education in general (Daugherty & Funke, 1998).

It is critical to understand the pedagogical potential of online learning for providing active and dynamic learning opportunities for learners. Creating an active online learning environment requires learners and faculty to take active roles. Faculty can employ strategies and activities that will engage students in "producing learning" (Barr & Tagg, 1995) for active learning. A pedagogically effective convergence of active learning strategies and methods and technology tools can help faculty and students accomplish successful teaching and learning. The technology tools are important in the way that they provide a medium for instruction to be delivered; however, there is not sufficient research on the pedagogical integration of active learning into online teaching and learning.

This study investigated the preservice teachers' experiences and the meaning they gave to their experiences in a "Technology Applications in Education" online course. The theoretical framework was based on the "Rich Environments for Active Learning" proposed by Grabinger and Dunlap (2000). The attributes of rich environments for active learning are: Student responsibility and initiative, generative learning activities, authentic learning contexts, authentic assessment strategies, and cooperative support.


Simons (1997) described active learning in two ways; one involves decisions about learning and the second makes active use of thinking. The first definition implies self-regulated learning in which the learner uses opportunities to decide about aspects of learning. The learner makes decisions in the goal setting, planning, monitoring, and assessment phases of the learning process. The second definition explains active learning in terms of mental activity which "refers to the extent to which the learner is challenged to use his or her mental abilities while learning" (p. 19). Learning is an active process and it requires active roles for students and instructors. Brown and Ellison (1995) emphasized that active learning is not merely a set of activities. They noted "the objective of active learning is to stimulate lifetime habits of thinking, to stimulate students to think about HOW as well as WHAT they are learning and to increasingly take responsibility for their education" (p. 40).

In the present study, active learning is used in the context of learner engagement and involvement with the instructional content and learning processes such as thinking, questioning, reflection, metacognition, collaborative, and cooperative activities. Active learning environments can be established by the careful planning of instructional goals, objectives, strategies, and activities by the instructor. Active learners are self-regulated learners engaged with the instructional content and learning processes such as questioning, reflection, exploration, and interaction with others for solving authentic problems and generating authentic products. The convergence and interaction of carefully planned teaching and self-regulated learners and learning strategies can provide successful active learning.

Theoretical Framework of the Study

Grabinger and Dunlap's (2000) Rich Environments for Active Learning (REALs) framework was used as the theoretical framework for this study. The intent of the research was not to evaluate the course or the theory, but to gain a broader understanding of the experiences of students in an active learning environment mediated by online learning technologies. Active learning requires "well-developed lifelong learning skills and strategies, such as goal-setting, action planning, learning-strategy selection and assessment, resource selection and evaluation, reflective learning and time management" (p. 37). REALs have five attributes, each of which builds upon and uses the others to create a successful learning environment. These attributes are student responsibility and initiative, generative learning activities, authentic learning contexts, authentic assessment strategies, and cooperative support.

Student responsibility and initiative. Online learners need to be self-regulated, disciplined, and know how to learn and explore different sources and strategies for learning. Self-regulated learners set their own goals, determine their own activities and regulate those activities (Jonassen, 2000), decide on their learning styles and evaluate their progress (Huang, 2002). Students cannot actively construct and evolve their knowledge without taking responsibility and initiative for their learning. Intentional learning, questioning, reflection, and metacognitive skills are important elements of active learning environments.

Generative learning activities. Generative learning strategies involve problem solving, investigating, and researching, and creating solutions to authentic problems. Generative learning requires that students become investigators, seekers, and problem solvers and that teachers become facilitators and guides.

Authentic learning contexts and assessment strategies. Authenticity is important for creating an active learning environment with realistic problems that are relevant to students' needs and experiences. Assessment strategies should be connected to the learning contexts.

Cooperative support. Meaningful social interaction is the foundation for constructing rich environments for active learning. "Learning occurs in a social context through collaboration, negotiation, debate, peer review and mentoring." (Grabinger & Dunlap, 2000, p. 37). There are three components to interaction: (a) learner to content, (b) learner to learner, and (c) learner to instructor. First, the learner-to-content component occurs when students access online materials and receive task-oriented feedback from the facilitator. Second, learner-to-learner collaboration occurs when learners are engaged in discourse, problem-solving, and product building. Collaboration helps learners validate their learning experiences and "requires a level of reflective articulation that promotes collective knowledge-building and a deeper personal understanding of what is being studied" (Grabinger & Dunlap, 2000, p. 38). Finally, personal encouragement and motivational assistance compose the interpersonal/social interaction between learners and instructor.

Role of Online Instructor and Students

Online teaching requires a redesign of student and instructor roles, responsibilities and commitments. Bonk, Kirkley, Hara, and Dennen (2001) discussed pedagogical, social, managerial, and technological roles of the online instructor. Learning environments can be improved by understanding how instructors use the Web for designing and enhancing student social interaction, knowledge building, and higher order thinking. Strategic planning and integration of pedagogical activities is perhaps the most important aspect of online teaching. Managerial actions involve overseeing task and course structuring. Technological actions consist of assisting the user with technology issues. An instructor's approach to the social climate, such as empathy or concern for student work, helps foster a student-centered climate. "Social actions might include instructor empathy, interpersonal outreach (welcoming statements, invitations, and apologies), discussion of one's own online experiences and humor" (Bonk et al., 2001, p. 80).

Understanding student characteristics is important for the success of online teaching and learning. Students in an online learning environment may adopt new personas, shifting into areas of their personalities they may not have previously explored (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Online faculty need to be aware that traditional courses do not necessarily prepare students for the level of interdependence required in an online course (Palloff & Pratt, 2001) as well as independent learning. The online instructor must provide an environment in which learners take responsibility for their learning.

There is a greater demand in the online environment on the part of the learner (Wolfe, 2000). McLoughlin and Marshall (2000) discussed that online learning requires learners to have skills and cognitive abilities of articulation, self-regulation, self-evaluation skills, and a repertoire of learning strategies. Articulation is being an aware learner and being aware of one's own thinking. Self-regulation is being able to plan and adjust learning strategies to achieve a goal or complete a task. Self-evaluation is being able to monitor understanding and having the capacity to seek help when needed.

The online environment is particularly appropriate for collaborative learning approaches that emphasize group interaction (Harasim, 1990). A web of learning interactions occurs when instructors and learners collaboratively construct knowledge (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Interaction among students, and between students and instructors is key to the learning and collaboration that result from these interactions (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Intrinsic motivation is fostered when interactions between learners occur (Wagner, 1997).


A qualitative approach, case study, forms the methodological framework of this study. Case study results in a rich and holistic account of a phenomenon anchored in real life situations and offers insight and illuminates meaning that expand the readers' experiences (Merriam, 1998) in their construction of knowledge (Stake, 1994). Each case study is a concentrated inquiry into a single case. The case study was an appropriate method of inquiry for the current study since the researcher's goal was an in-depth understanding of a particular phenomenon in its natural setting.

The Setting and the Participants

The setting for this study was the College of Education of a large Mid-western university. One section of a "Technology Applications in Education" course was offered online for undergraduate preservice teachers. The course provided a foundation towards growth of computer competency to improve teaching and learning. Students were introduced to several tools and strategies for effectively using and integrating computers to enhance classroom instruction, communication, and classroom management. The course derived its objectives from the International Society for Technology in Education's (ISTE) National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers (NETS). The ISTE (2002) standards are categorized as technology operations and concepts; planning and designing learning environments and experiences; teaching, learning, and the curriculum; assessment and evaluation; productivity and professional practice; and social, ethical, legal, and human issues.

Twenty-four students enrolled in the course. All but three of the students were college-age students at sophomore, junior, and senior levels from different specialization areas within education. The female-to-male student ratio in the course was 18:6. Only two of the students had taken an online course prior to the "Technology Applications in Education" course. Twenty-two of the students successfully completed the course.

BlackBoard was used as the course management software which had features for posting course documents, assignments, announcements, external web links; student tools such as student dropbox, student homepages, group pages, discussion board, and virtual chat. Announcements were used to remind students of weekly assignments and quick tips for students to read. The learning activities were divided into 10- one week modules which mainly consisted of educational uses of the Internet; searching and evaluating information on the Web; word processing, spreadsheets and charts, databases, PowerPoint; integrating technology for inquiry (NTeQ) lesson plan; multimedia and educational software such as KidPix and HyperStudio; using Netscape Composer to create a website and WebQuest; classroom management; security, copyright, fair use issues.

Instructor designed and created documents were posted under the Course Documents section which contained downloadable syllabus, tutorials, handouts, and exercises. The handouts and tutorials were designed to encourage students to explore areas on their own and go beyond the help provided by the instructor.

The Communication navigation tool in BlackBoard included an asynchronous discussion board, e-mail, student homepages, and group pages. Students were asked to create a BlackBoard homepage along with their photos to introduce themselves to the class. Students could submit assignments to the instructor by way of the Student Drop Box. Additionally, they could download instructor feedback included in their reviewed or graded assignments. The Discussion Board included instructor created "Help and Tips" and "Frequently Asked Questions" forums for the class. The Group Pages were used to create Learning Teams for students' group asynchronous discussions and Weekly Online Journals for each student. Initially when the course started there were eight learning teams composed of three students in each team. These learning teams were grouped according to the concentration areas of the students to enable cooperative work and support. The learning team activities included tasks and discussions involving computer, information and integration literacy; evaluating information on the Web, the Internet, and the Web in K-12; classroom management; copyright and fair use; security issues and the Internet.

Supporting and guiding students for learning, motivation, and encouragement as well as social and interpersonal outreach strategies were used. The instructor implemented a Weekly Online Journal area to check for student progress and learning. The questions in the journal area were adapted from One-Minute Paper, a classroom assessment technique often used for obtaining regular feedback (Angelo & Cross, 1993). The instructor posted weekly feedback to the whole class and to each student on their participation and performance.

Data Collection

Multiple sources of information were used to collect data: student interviews, e-mail interactions, group discussion transcripts, student weekly journals, and course documents.

Student interviews. Informal, semi-structured interviews were conducted with students throughout the quarter. Three independent assistants conducted the interviews to ensure credibility and trustworthiness of the student responses. The interviewers were informed about the context of the course and the purpose of the research, the research design, and course content. They were told to not to limit their questions to the interview protocol, and were encouraged to ask additional questions based on their own insight and curiosity depending on how the interviewees responded.

There were two rounds of interviews. The first round of interviews started in the middle of the 10-week quarter while the second round took place during the last two weeks of the quarter. Of the 24 students enrolled, 22 students who were participating in the course were interviewed and 12 students participated in the follow-up interviews. Each interview was analyzed and coded promptly after it took place. Questions were re-worded and new questions were added or taken out during the process. Discussions were conducted with the interviewers after and before each interview. This ongoing analysis and discussion allowed the researcher to revisit and clarify issues for subsequent data collection.

Students' weekly online journals. The students were asked to make weekly submissions describing what they had learned and what they expected to learn in an individual Weekly Online Journal which involved reflections on their learning and technology integration in the classroom.

Student-instructor e-mail transcripts. The e-mail messages between the instructor and students were collected to analyze the dynamics of the class, the learners' characteristics, the kind of feedback or help students needed in the facilitation of the online class, and the effectiveness of the e-mail interactions for scaffolding and supporting student learning.

Learning teams' discussion transcripts. The learning team transcripts were analyzed to investigate student learning and cooperative support in a text-based asynchronous conferencing tool.

Data Analysis

The analysis of the online course data was ongoing, from the start of the quarter until the writing of the final report. The data were analyzed by using thematic analysis. The data were coded inductively. The analytic process was recursive, as analysis informed further decisions on data exploration and data analysis. Analysis and interpretation of the data were done by double-checking findings, coding, generating categories, themes, and patterns.

The literature on qualitative research stresses the importance of ensuring trustworthiness. Lincoln and Guba (1985) suggested incorporating techniques for credibility, transferability, dependability, and conformability. Erlandson, Harris, Skipper, and Allen (1993) proposed prolonged engagement, persistent observation, triangulation, reflexive journaling, thick descriptions, and independent reviewers to establish trustworthiness. In this case study, several of these techniques were employed. Independent interviewers were asked to interview students to prevent bias and ensure credibility. The students were told that the interviews would not affect their grade in any way nor the instructor's attitude towards them. Triangulation was accomplished through the use of multiple data sources, double-checking findings, considering rival explanations, and checking for relationships that converge.

This study involved findings based on the student experiences in one online course. The context of this case study needs to be taken into consideration to make transferability judgments. Lincoln and Guba (1985) explained transferability as the extent to which findings can be applied in other contexts or with other respondents. They suggest that the researcher can provide for transferability judgments possible on the part of the potential appliers. One way this can be achieved is by providing "thick description necessary to enable someone interested in making a transfer to reach a conclusion about whether transfer can be contemplated as a possibility" (p. 316). In this study, "thick descriptions" were provided to enable the readers to make transferability judgments to potential applicable contexts.


Student responsibility and initiative. All students interviewed in this study indicated that the online learning environment enhanced their responsibility and initiative towards learning. Students reported that they had become more self-disciplined, learned to manage their time, and effectively use resources. They emphasized that the online course opened new horizons for them as learners and as teachers. Students had become active learners, which reinforced their metacognitive skills and gave them ownership of learning.

Awareness and self-perception were essential for the students to choose to work in the online environment. The majority of the students chose the course because they were aware that they could study online. The flexibility of not going to class was appealing to the students; however, the majority of the students had made decisions based on self-awareness of their study skills. Students who called themselves "independent learners" or "individualized learners" displayed high self-directed learning, self-motivation, and metacognitive skills. Students' projects and their contributions to the discussions were indicative of their responsibility and initiative towards learning.

The students called their learning independent, free, open, and individualized. One student indicated that the online environment "let her take her learning as far as she wanted to go with it" without being limited by time and the pace or skill of her peers. Heather noted that the online class was better for her because she is an independent learner and she likes to work ahead. She said, "Being online I can work ahead and see what needs to be done in the next couple weeks."

Students commented that having access to the course content all the time was a major advantage. Joy mentioned that having to schedule her own time for studying and the convenience of the online learning helped her to be more willing to do the class work. She said, "It's [online learning] a lot more convenient and ... I'm more willing to get the work done because I've set aside a time to do it. It's my own time."

Student responsibility and initiative that were required in the online learning environment allowed students to become active learners. The students indicated that they have become investigators, explorers, and problem-solvers. Monica noted that online learning forced her to take more initiative in her learning. She said, "Since you can't meet with a person face-to-face right when you want, you are forced to kind of investigate and find out the answer, not look for a quick answer all the time." Ted reported, "I don't think I would look so much for help [in the face-to-face class] and take the time to search for the answers on my own."

The students thought that having to learn the course content online would help them retain the knowledge they experienced. The course content required hands-on time at the computer, and it used activities, projects, or discussion questions that the students needed to know as students or future teachers. Matt indicated that in the online learning "you are not getting taught to do it." Matt thought not being taught makes it difficult, but he said, "I definitely know I have a better grasp of it than if it was just taught to me."

The students noted that taking the class online gave them the opportunity to think and reflect on their learning. The flexibility and self-directed nature of the online learning were important for the students and allowed them to be more reflective on their own learning. The students reported that taking the online course helped them to learn about how they learn. Marcy suggested everyone should take a course online because through self-discovery one can learn about time management and self-discipline skills and how to best use newly discovered learning skills.
 I think everyone should take a course online just because it's so
 different and ... find out what kind of person you really are
 because you find out how you learn. I mean if you can do it or you
 can't do it ... As far as my own learning, [it] just proved to me
 that I can work on my own, get things done and learn by myself
 without too much guidance.

Taking the course online gave confidence and a feeling of prestige in their social environment. Monica said, "It is cool to say "I am taking an online class" and people are like, "Wow!" It's cutting edge." Marcy said, "I think that I've basically just proven to myself that I can do something without a lot of guidance."

The level of the student responsibility and initiative varied among the students. About one third of the students mentioned that the online learning forced them to learn on their own, but these students needed more instructor support, guidance, and motivation. Less than one third of the students appeared to not have developed as much self-regulated learning and discipline as the rest of the class. These students required higher motivation and encouragement from the instructor and other sources. The instructor provided frequent support, guidance and one-on-one online mentoring to the students who appeared to have low computer skills or lower initiative. The instructor sent frequent reminders to the students for the tasks they were required to do. The students with fewer self-regulation skills were not as successful in the course. Two of the 24 students failed to participate in the course while two other students failed to turn in all the projects and assignments. These students' low level of self-regulation and self-discipline resulted in lower grades and inadequate time management.

The students emphasized the importance of discipline, self-motivation, and time-management skills in the online learning environment. They reported that having to discipline themselves to keep up with the class was challenging. The majority of the students indicated that they needed to constantly remind themselves about the projects that they needed to work on. Lynn noted, "Sometimes I forget to do the assignment because I am not going to class. I tend to forget easily. So I constantly remind myself of the assignments." About one third of the students reported that motivating themselves to work on the assignments was difficult at times. Stephanie noted self-motivation was very important for success in the online environment. She said, "I think it is easier to be a last minute person if you are not in class. I am a last minute person and I needed a lot more self-motivation to study in this class."

Generative learning strategies. The online learning environment influenced the way students learned and, in turn, changed the role of these students. Active learning suggests that online students become investigators, seekers and problem-solvers, and instructors become facilitators and guides. The context of the "Technology Applications in Education" course influenced students' learning as well as the independent online learning environment. Generative learning strategies through projects and discussion questions were inherent in the course.

Grabinger and Dunlap (2000) noted that generative learning requires a shift in the traditional roles of students and instructors. Generative learning activities require students to be involved with creating solutions to authentic problems through the development and completion of projects. The students emphasized that the online learning environment forced them to investigate and find out the answer, not look for a quick answer.

The students reported that they learned to use multiple resources for learning the content and generating their portfolio projects. Lynn mentioned that the online class helped broaden her "horizon as far as looking for other things, look for other resources to find the answer, not just one resource, not just one textbook." Later she explained that by not having the direct instruction and not having peers to get a direct answer in the online environment made her look for multiple resources to get information.

The students indicated that their role as students changed in the online environment. Matt said that he had a lot more active role in online learning compared to traditional classroom. All the students mentioned that they are not only learners but also their own teachers. Alicia reported that the online learning forced her to engage in a new kind of learning, which was challenging for her. She talked about the traditional face-to-face classroom learning may have taught students to learn by listening or seeing. She said:
 I think like I am not going to understand what I am doing if someone
 doesn't tell me. Or I just got lazy with that over the years. Oh,
 just tell me how to do it! I don't want to read it [the directions
 of the assignments or the directions in the tutorials] or that kind
 of things, read the directions kind of thing.

Alicia noted that she had to force herself to learn more about using the programs which helped her to become an investigator in her learning: "I didn't understand [the directions]. I had to go in there ... to try things ... [until] I'd get it.... It's been more of a challenge for me, but ... it's more rewarding when I figure it out [on my own]."

Authentic learning contexts and authentic assessment. The purpose of rich environments for active learning is to help students acquire content in authentic contexts and develop skills for problem-solving and lifelong learning. The assignments required students to generate projects that are applicable to K-12 curriculum. Improving technology skills of students was not the only focus of the online course. Integration of technology into teaching and issues with respect to technology use and technology integration were emphasized.

In this study, the students reported that the projects were related to real life and would help them in their profession as teachers. Specifically, they indicated that by learning the course content through applications of hands-on projects, they would be able to retain the knowledge gained and improve upon their learning. The authentic and problem solving nature of the discussion questions and the course projects were valuable for them. The preservice teachers felt that learning about technology as a teacher, was important for their career. Nancy said, "Practicing and learning the programs that I'm gonna use as a teacher is worth great value because I plan on using them and I pretty much know them inside and out by now."

Cooperative Support

The literature often discusses the importance of interaction between student-to-content, student-to-student, and student-to-teacher in online learning. The implications of the computer-mediated communication were different in terms of the cooperative support between student and student, and student and instructor. The computer communication opened ways for the students to communicate with the instructor for learning interactions. However, this was a drawback in terms of collaborating in the online course.

The students felt that the online environment gave them the advantage of being "anonymous" and not hesitating to ask questions to the instructor and the other students. Nancy expressed:
 It [online classroom] is free in being more anonymous and you can
 express your feelings and ask more questions without worrying about
 what other people think about you because most likely you are not
 going to see them face-to-face ... I ask more questions [in the
 online class], so I am more clear on things and it just expands what
 I am learning.

The students felt that the instructor of the class was willing to help, explain, and clarify questions. Lynn mentioned that the instructor was democratic in the way she handled the class assignments. Monica said that the instructor was willing to make concessions and be flexible. She said:
 The instructor understands that everyone is working at their own
 pace with differing abilities. She is very thorough in her
 explanations and always clarifies things. A lot of the people who
 are taking this class were a little bit shaky about taking the class
 online at first. But I think by now, they are getting a handle on
 the class.

The students commented on the instructor's facilitation and management of the online course and her interactions with the students. They reported that the instructor was open to communication and willing to help. Lynn said, "She takes the time to answer your question thoroughly and this is important especially in the online course. It is very important for the students to feel they are valued." Tricia said:
 She [the instructor] goes through each assignment that we have. She
 is very in-depth about it and she will send emails. She is very
 informative. She lets us know that she is there for us. She wants us
 to ask questions ... and know what we're doing. She doesn't just
 say, take your stuff and then do it.

Monica said, "I like to feel important to my professor. You can tell that she [the instructor] appreciates the work you put in." She further commented that the instructor asked the students for their suggestions and this was important for her:
 The personal online journal that we write always asked "Do you have
 any suggestions? What did you learn? What do you need to know
 about?" I wrote down a suggestion about the online journal questions
 and she took my suggestion into consideration.... I suggested that
 she should change the journal questions a little bit because every
 week we had the same questions.

The students often commented that the instructor's communication was constructive and encouraging. Suzy said, "She's always been very constructive in her e-mails. She's been very positive and encouraging." The students reported that not having the instructor when they needed to clarify a question was challenging and a barrier to online learning. Lynn noted that not having the instructor, especially when one is not familiar with a program, was a barrier to her learning. Students mentioned that another disadvantage of not having the teacher in the classroom was the delay of immediate feedback or communication. In the face-to-face classroom, the students can immediately receive answers to their questions.

A few of the students mentioned that in the online learning environment, they did not learn from the personal experiences of the instructor. Heather said, "We are not getting her [the instructor's] personal knowledge and experiences." She felt that observing what the instructor does, as well as what the other students do, was important in the learning process and they did not get this kind of experience in the online environment. Dan felt that in the online learning, the students did not get the knowledge the instructor can offer in a face-to-face classroom environment. Christy said, "In the face-to-face class, you are going to get a lot of information from the instructor and I'm not doing that in this case. I'm getting feedback from her, so I'm learning in that way."

It was important for the students to develop interpersonal relationships with their instructors and peers. One disadvantage of the online learning the students commonly mentioned was the lack of "one-on-one relationship" with the instructor. Teacher presence for social and pedagogical interaction is important in online learning for supporting and guiding student learning, acknowledging student presence, and work and motivating the students. One of the strategies the instructor used to check for student learning and progress was through the use of weekly online journaling. The students used this area as a way to connect with the instructor as well as asking her questions with respect to their assignments.

Carrie noted that the lack of face-to-face communication in the online learning environment affected her learning:
 It's harder to communicate because I have a lot of questions. When I
 ask my group, because we have group discussions, sometimes people do
 not respond. It gets frustrating. When face-to-face, people will
 answer your question or they will feel uncomfortable [not
 answering]. They won't just sit there and ignore you. That's a big

The students seemed to be uncomfortable about interacting with the students whom they did not know beforehand. The students felt that the communication in the online environment was less personal. A few of the students indicated that they did not learn much from each other because their discussion answers were very similar. Other students had different perspectives about the discussion forum questions and collaborative work. Monica said that the discussion questions made her "think and research." About one third of the students indicated that their group learning experiences were very good in that they had good communication and they learned from each other. With respect to her experiences, Suzy noted that she liked the aspect that the instructor had the students work in groups that enabled the groups to share ideas. She further continued, "... that's been really good because I have been able to see at least the responses of other people. I still don't know anything about them, but they write well."

Some students' group learning experiences were frustrating due to the noncooperating team members. Lynn said, "One time we had a group discussion question and I was the editor for that week. One student in our group hadn't sent us the information to use so that was kind of frustrating." Lynn suggested either eliminating the groups or changing the group discussion question format. She said, "Having to wait on another group member for their information before I can continue on for my assignment is frustrating. Eliminating the groups or changing the homework a little bit [would] be good."


Online learning enables flexibility and individualization of learning that result in an increased demand for self-directed learning (Grabinger & Dunlap, 2000). With respect to student initiative and responsibility, three implications of studying in the online environment can be generalized. First, online learning provided a flexible, convenient environment for the students to implement independent learning allowing them to choose what to learn, how to learn, when to learn, and to what extent. Second, online learning demanded that students accept responsibility in disciplining and motivating themselves. Third, the online environment enhanced student responsibility and initiative as a result of the change in students' role in learning. The convergence and interaction of these three implications suggest the potential of implementing an active learning environment.

Cooperative support and interaction among learners and instructor are essential for successful implementation of active learning environments. Transactional distance is often discussed as the physical distance that leads to a communication gap in distance learning (Moore & Kearsley, 1996). In this case study, the separation of the instructor and students seemed to have supported as well as hindered student learning. The students felt that the online environment provided the advantage of being "anonymous," which allowed them to ask questions to the instructor. The transactional distance among the students was existent in the online classroom; most students regressed in communicating with others. Palloff and Pratt (1999) stated online learners may adopt new personas in online learning. When students do not see each other, they may not feel morally obligated or pressured to participate in online communication.

The collaborative strategies and the type of the discussion questions can influence student reflection and building of shared experiences in an online learning classroom. The online literature suggests that learners will not collaborate unless collaboration is structured into the course. In the present study, only a few of the students participated in the nongraded collaborative asynchronous forums or attempted to interact with each other unless they knew each other prior to the online course. The short time duration of the 10-week course in the present study may have been a limiting factor in the development of communication and interaction among the students. Building trust among learners becomes a key component for the students to collaborate and interact with each other in online learning.

The study findings indicated that students may have different perceptions or expectations of the instructor in online courses. Collison, Elbaum, Haavind, & Tinker (2000) discussed a student's expectations on "instruction" from his/her comment that there is not much instruction going on in the online classroom. For the student, the instruction and learning are things that happen to him, not processes in which he must actively engage. The students' view on their expectations of the instructor as the "provider" of the instruction may sound paradoxical. After all, the instructor designed the course materials and activities, responded to e-mail questions and discussions, graded assignments, and provided assistance to students who were falling behind. The instructor acted as a facilitator and a coach to guide and support the students with their learning activities. During the course of the 10 weeks, hundreds of messages were generated between the students and the instructor that involved individual e-mail messages, weekly online journal messages and general messages to the learning teams and the class. On the other hand, the students' perception may be an indication that the student learning is active.

The students indicated that not having to rely on the instructor's instruction forced them to use multiple resources to learn the content and become investigators in their learning. They expressed that their learning was valuable for them which indicates student ownership of learning. In addition, taking the online class allowed the students to reflect on their learning and learn about themselves.

The findings of this study imply that online instructors need to carefully use web technologies for collaboration and interaction. Merely providing discussions or collaborative activities does not mean that students will actively participate in the activities. Instructors need to incorporate collaborative activities with adequate preparation of online learners for collaboration and enable flexible learning opportunities for the diverse needs of learners.

Careful construction, clarity and writing of the messages in the online environment are important for effective communication of online messages. The students reported that there is a delay factor that can influence learning and interaction in asynchronous communication. They stated that instructors should give prompt feedback and response for the students' inquiries and questions. The social and pedagogical presence of the instructor is essential for improved communication, motivation, and acknowledgement of students. Yet, online instructors need to carefully structure a feedback mechanism to encourage student inquiry and collaboration rather than giving the complete answer to a question requiring no further thought, which can itself be a barrier for active student learning. In addition, instructors should be consistent with the amount of time they provide feedback or response to the students. Inconsistency can cause student frustration and decrease their motivation.


The study findings imply that the online environment requires reconstruction of student and instructor roles, relationships, and practices. The findings have implications on teaching and learning not only in the online environment but also face-to-face classroom environment. Students need to be prepared for their roles as active learners. Learner autonomy, as well as collaborative strategies, needs to be negotiated for the effectiveness of learning. Group processes and collaboration facilitation need to be taught to students during their education.

Instructor involvement and engagement in online learning is crucial. Online learning requires instructors to take on active roles in facilitating students' learning. As well as peer support, instructor presence in supporting and guiding students' learning and engagement are important for enabling active learning. Instructors need to be aware of the barriers that can create a communication gap, thereby preventing student motivation and initiative for learning. These barriers can be overcome with effective, deliberate planning, and strategies for a trusting interaction between instructors and students, and students and students.

Online instructors need to design and implement research and theory grounded activities and interactions in their classrooms. Instructors need to know the group processes and dynamics as well as strategies of how to engage students in effective communication and learning. Understanding learner expectations and motivations, and the personas learners may take during online learning can help support active learning. Instructors' understanding or recognition of their capabilities and limitations is important as well.

Instructors can integrate activities such as reflective online journaling, problem-based learning, authentic activities and authentic assessment, case studies in addition to multiple sources or ways for learners with different learning styles and strategies. Minute Paper format can be structured or adapted to be used as reflective journals as well as for instructors to check for learning and progress. Support systems that include online discussions, peer to peer tasks, collaborative buddies, mentors, self and peer assessment, social coffehouse/cybercafe with games, and anonymous feedback forum can enable pedagogical and social preparation and development.


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Author:Turner, Sandra
Publication:Journal of Technology and Teacher Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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