Active Learning on the Web
Bernie Dodge, Department of Educational Technology
San Diego State University


slide1 slide2Active learning isn't a new idea. It goes back at least as far as Socrates and was a major emphasis among progressive educators like John Dewey. And yet, if you peer into many university classrooms, we seem to have forgotten that learning is naturally an active process. It involves putting our students in situations which compel them to read, speak, listen, think deeply, and write. While well delivered lectures are valuable and are not uncommon, sometimes the thinking required while attending a lecture is low level comprehension that goes from the ear to the writing hand and leaves the mind untouched. Active learning puts the responsibility of organizing what is to be learned in the hands of the learners themselves, and ideally lends itself to a more diverse range of learning styles.


For a year and a half now I've been experimenting with a variety of ways of teaching with the Web. One format that is both simple to implement and highly effective is something I named a webquest. While the definition of a webquest is still a bit slippery, it is at its heart a technique for engaging students in active learning which uses the web and other resources as they strive to understand a topic. While I've tried many variations on this strategy, the most fully developed one is the Archaeotype Webquest. The goal of this exercise was to convey the underlying design philosophy of a particular innovative software program called Archaeotype. For various reasons I was unable to demonstrate the program itself. Instead I had my students interview the designers of the program as well as a teacher and some students who had used it. They also examined concept papers written by the program's designers and studied an evaluation report on the topic. At the end, they were required to pull together the answers to a range of questions about Archaeotype and to recommend (or not recommend) its adoption at their school. The results were that in the span of less than three hours the students were fully involved in gathering data, making sense of it, communicating what they learned to each other, and collaborating on a final document for which they were provided a template. The results of their deliberations were posted on the Web within a few minutes of the end of class, and were thus available for further analysis and discussion.

Inputs, Transformations and Outputs

When first faced with the prospect of developing learning environments on the web, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the possibilties. One way to reduce the complexity of the task is to chunk things out into these three domains.

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A Few Examples

As you integrate the Web into your teaching, you can begin with simple exercises like History Research on the Computer, an introduction to the use of the internet to locate primary and secondary source documents developed by James B. Ross at North Dakota State University.

Physics 150 is organized around lectures punctuated by short active learning exercises which take place in the lecture hall. The exercises are communicated by a single PowerPoint slide converted for use on the Web.

Students can become worldwide publishers of their products, as in Cardboard Cognition, a compendium of educational board games developed in SDSU's EDTEC 670.

Newsgroups can be used as the raw material for classroom discussion and analysis.

Forms can be used to gather input from students for quick analysis. In this example, students made ten minute presentations which were evaluated by their peers by means of an evaluation form on the web. The evaluation information was summarized and handed back to students within a few minutes after their presentation.

Near-Future Developments

The use of the internet as a conduit for person to person voice communications is growing, and this has useful implications for creating an active learning environment. With a bit of preparation and cajoling, you can line up colleagues who will be willing to be interviewed by your students as they quest for understanding. PGPfone is a free program which allows secure telephone conversations on the web. Internet Phone is a commercial program that provides point to point voice communication as well.

To go beyond mere conversation, a wave of groupware programs is about to descend upon us. NetMeeting is a forthcoming program from Microsoft that makes it possible for people seated at different computers to share the editing of a document while conversing about it. Think about ways in which you can pair your students with willing clients and editors who are interested in what they create.

QuickTime Video and QuickTime Virtual Reality (QTVR) will be part of the next released version of Netscape. It's likely that more and more web publishers will make use of this format to communicate their messages. The ability to explore physical spaces will literally bring a new dimension to our classrooms. (Note: the images below are stills, not the QTVR movies shown in the presentation. The software for displaying QTVR on the Web has not yet been released.)

Apple's Project X promises to turn cyberspace into a three-dimensional realm that we can explore visually. With not too much effort, one can turn a group of related files into a knowledge space and navigate it by mousing your way toward your goal. It's possible that representing information this way will provide learners with new insights about how a domain hangs together, and that the tactile and spatial nature of Project X will appeal to a more diverse set of students.


slide8To sum it up, you don't need to take a sabbatical to gear up for active learning on the Web. It just requires a fresh look at what you teach with an eye towards using the resources that are already out there. As time goes on, the number and quality of resources on the web will continue to rise (though there may be advertisements flashing at us from one corner of the screen).

References and Resources

Active Learning in General

Bombardi, L. Active learning strategies for humanities curricula.

Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education, Document No. ED 340 272.

Cohen, E. B., & Boyd, E. C. Teaching techniques the work: College teaching of information systems.

Seeler, D. C., Turnwald, G. H., & Bull, K. S. From teaching to learning: Part III. Lectures and approaches to active learning.

Weimer, M. (1996). Active Learning: A bibliography of 'Best' and 'Current' Resources.

Active Learning on the Web

Browning, P., & Williams, J. The geology@bristol experience.

Dodge, B. J. Some thoughts about webquests. The Distance Educator, 1(3), 12-15.

Johannesson, P. & Boman, M. (1996). Hypermedia and communication for active learning.

Specific Technologies

Bonn, M., Gyuk, D., & Westmoreland, D. QTVR: A practical guide.

An Update: May 25, 2011

Amazingly, a full 15 years after this page was written, people still find it useful. Thanks to Bohdan Zograf, you can now find it translated into Belarusian at