Active learning, also known as participatory or experiential learning, is a field of study with links to several other types of learning. In active learning models, students are active participants in the process of learning, as opposed to passively listening to a teacher lecture. In the face-to-face classroom, this can take the form of small group discussions or role play exercises. Yet we highlight that active learning in the classroom is learning that involves simulation. Counseling students can role play various therapy techniques, but that is quite different from counseling a client in real life.
We would suggest that online education actually has an advantage over the face-to-face classroom when it comes to active learning. Rather than being situated in a simulated classroom environment, online learners are situated in their own life and ministry contexts. This affords a great opportunity for course designers and teachers to create ways to push learning into real life contexts. Students in a pastoral ministry training program can continue to minister in their local church while they take online classes and can put the skills they are learning into practice immediately in an authentic environment. As they learn homiletic skills, they can apply them by teaching in their local church rather than by preaching in a classroom.
The challenge with for the online teacher when learning is pushed into life and ministry contexts is how to assess that learning. One possible solution is to pair students up with a local mentor who can give them feedback on the skills they are developing. A mentoring or apprenticeship model has the advantage of immediate feedback by someone in the local environment. The mentor could also provide report to the teacher and participate in evaluating the student’s learning.
Online learning also affords the opportunity to restate experiential learning as reflective practice. This connects active learning with reflective learning and lifelong learning. Students reflect on their learning experience in their local ministry context and then bring that reflection into the online community. This could take the form of reflective journals or even reflective discussion forum posts where all of the online learners can share their experiences and learn from one another, creating a community of practice. Reflective learning is thus a crucial component of active learning in the online classroom.