Skillagents: Active Learning

I recently got back into the Skillagents course and completed the next section on active learning. This part of the course begins to delve into the application of the ideas discussed in the mindset modules; into how to transition from passive content based learning to contextually embedded integration of skills with attitudes, or “making meaning”. This part of the course also begins to explore the psychology of learning and the different types of thinking that learners need to utilize in active learning. The ingredients of active learning are threefold: gathering of ideas and information in the form of text, audio, and video, meaningful and relevant physical and cognitive experiences through real world simulations, case studies or observation of experts, and reflection and feedback.

Although there are similarities between passive and active learning, they both include expertly curated content, the difference lies in the design of the course or how the learners are expected to interact with this content. These interactions are related to the second two ingredients for active learning. The first of these, authentic simulations, is something that I have been thinking about a lot lately. Since starting to explore the world of instructional design a discussion that I have followed is that instructional design for academics and business are distinct and incompatible generally due to the idea of return on investment. Either you learn to design for the business world or institutions of higher learning. I first saw this argument from Cathy Moore’s blog post regarding her approach to scenario building through action mapping. I agree with her that designing for both worlds is not the same, but the overlap is becoming increasingly blurred. Recently, Christy Tucker wrote a great piece looking at the ideas inherent in active learning for higher ed. Her post had some great ideas for courses in psychology and teacher training. It seems that students in higher education are demanding a return on their investment. They want real world skills so that they can be employable. Employers too are finding that graduates don’t have the requisite skills necessary to enter the workforce. We have seen attempts in the past to answer this through for-profit institutions like ITT Tech or Devry, and many community colleges are focused on helping students transition into the workplace, something I learned about in my recent design course for adult basic education through Designers for Learning. Therefore it seems that it is a responsibility of college level courses to be designed for active learning, and to provide authentic scenarios for students to practice real world skills. This call is already being answered in the private sector through companies like 2U and CorpU, and if higher ed institutions want to stay current and relevant they need to be doing the same thing.

The last ingredient of active learning, reflection, begins to explore the psychology of learning. Thinking can be divided into system 1 which is associative, impulsive, and emotion, and system 2 which is analytical, logical, hierarchical. Obviously, reflective activities need to be designed to help learners tap into this system 2 type thinking. This is much harder to do, and requires a greater responsibility on the learner and the designer. It is the designer’s responsibility to provide opportunities for deep reflection, through insightful and challenging discussion questions in a safe place that is actively moderated and defined by appropriate guidelines. It is the learner’s responsibility to dedicate the time and mental resources necessary to genuinely engage with these reflective prompts.

Designing active learning is no easy task, it requires insight from subject matter experts, and an architect’s sensitivity in planning the course, but if successfully designed for learners to actively engage with meaningful content in real-world context it can lead to meaningful and significant changes in learners’ lives in both corporate or academic institutions.