Enabling active learning through technology: Using cases, instructional design and delivery responsibilities

Richard Walker and Wayne Britcliffe, E-Learning Development Team, Academic Support Office


User-led design reflects a paradigm shift in pedagogic practice, re-envisioning the role of students as producers rather than consumers of learning (Bruns, 2006). Implicit in this design approach is an acknowledgement that students have the skills and capability to engage in collaborative knowledge creation activities and to develop their learning as producers of ‘content’ (Bruns, Cobcroft, Smith & Towers, 2007). Through a presentation of case examples from the University of York, we will report on how user-led principles have been applied to the design of blended learning courses, with learning technology ‘designed in’ to support active learning opportunities for our students. The blended courses each incorporated activities encouraging student to develop their own learning and teaching resources, engaging them in the mastery of key skills and concepts. We will use the case examples to stimulate a broader discussion on effective design approaches to support student-led teaching and content creation activities. We will then go on to discuss the instructional responsibilities associated with the successful delivery of student-led activities. Research tells us that instructional support for online learning requires differing strategies to facilitate effective group learning and participant-led activities (Harper & Nicolson, 2013; Salmon 2004) and can lead to instructors assuming different roles in their online interactions with students (Danielsen & Nielsen, 2010). Reflecting on the case studies, we will discuss common challenges that instructors may face in the design of student-led activities and will present strategies for the effective delivery of student-led teaching and content creation activities.


Bruns, A. (2006) Towards produsage: Futures for user-led content production. In Proceedings: Cultural Attitudes towards Communication and Technology 2006, eds. Fay Sudweeks, Herbert Hrachovec, and Charles Ess. Perth: Murdoch University, pp. 275-84.

Bruns, A., Cobcroft, R., Smith, J., & Towers, S. (2007). Mobile Learning Technologies and the Move towards ‘User-Led Education’. In Proceedings Mobile Media, Sydney. Retrieved from: http://eprints.qut.edu.au/6625/1/6625.pdf Danielsen, O., & Nielsen, J. L. (2010).

Problem-oriented project studies – the role of the teacher as supervising / facilitating the study group in its learning processes. In L. DirckinckHolmfeld, V. Hodgson, C. Jones, M. de Laat, D. McConnell & T. Ryberg (Eds.), Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Networked Learning 2010: 558 – 565.

Chair’s Summary

By Dr Sara Perry (sara.perry@york.ac.uk@archaeologistsp)

Interested to support student-led teaching and content creation activities? Richard Walker (E-Learning Development Team Leader at the University of York) and Wayne Britcliffe (Digital Learning Resources Manager) are your go-to experts on how to craft and facilitate such transformative work, using digital tools as enabling devices, both in and beyond the classroom.

At this year’s annual York Learning and Teaching Conference, Richard and Wayne led us through the ins and outs of active, student-led learning, defining the term for us, introducing us to means to support the design of such learning via digital technologies, and reviewing the challenges that we might face in its implementation.

So, what is active learning according to the current scholarship?

Active learning is the prioritisation of students’ perspectives and programme-level perspectives in one’s teaching. It focuses on creating independent and autonomous learners through skills, perceptions and attitudes developed across a whole programme of study.

How might active learning be facilitated by digital technologies?

Technologies of all sorts can be enrolled as enablers of active learning. To do this, think about (1) what is it that you want to achieve in terms of student engagement and knowledge-building?; (2) how might you then go about achieving it?; and (3) what kind of support might you benefit from to make it happen? E-learning experts – like Richard and Wayne – can step in to respond to points (2) and (3) in this design process to offer technological solutions and buttress the pedagogical process.

What is transformative learning?

 While active learning can be achieved in various fashions, a focus on transformation and transformative learning has the potential for profound impacts. Herein, students are given greater autonomy, leading them to develop their own resources both for the teaching programme itself (e.g., multiple choice questions that might be used in future exams, as well as for revision/study) and for the wider world (e.g., films, audio books, websites, videogames – see case studies described below). Students thus become producers of learning, collaborators with their teachers and peers, and generators of content (what some describe as members of “Generation C”).

Who is doing such transformative teaching and learning right now?

 Richard and Wayne discussed various examples of current practice at York, including a 3rd-year undergraduate Psychology module in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience run by Dr Shirley-Ann Rueschemeyer. Here, approximately 50 students are engaged in complementing their traditional lecture and seminar programme with weekly group activities and the collaborative authoring of an online textbook. Blogs, wikis and Google Sites are used to facilitate this work, and the e-learning team has supported its development. You can read the details here.

Richard and Wayne also invited me to present on my own teaching of the 1st-year undergraduate Archaeology module in Heritage Practice, wherein – over the past 5 years – students have variously developed:

In my case, students are supported in this work through a series of simple means: worksheets (simple how-tos on using the technology, typically supplied to us by York’s e-learning team); guidelines for safe & ethical practice (e.g., JISC’s resources – see some here); a general assignment brief (usually defined by our collaborators, like the Malton Museum, Leeds Museums and Galleries, the HLF, etc.); reflective questions that are designed to ensure we pause before we post anything online and that we’ve devised clear means to deal with problems that might arise through distribution of the media outputs; light-touch facilitation by the teaching team, but deferral to the students in the first instance as the content creators, project directors and overall leaders of the work.

Richard and Wayne (and followers of their session on Twitter!) also referred us to a series of other examples around supporting students’ digital literacy and related case studies.

What challenges might we expect to face?

Inevitably venturing into this type of transformative learning environment can be scary and potentially fraught with troubles. We might question whether students will be supportive of the work; whether they have the background and competencies to lead on their own teaching; whether we as teaching staff ourselves have the background, competency and time to enable such student-led work; whether our disciplines are equally amenable to these approaches; whether we understand and can negotiate the complexities of the group work involved, or the relationships between the online and offline components of the tasks.

Given the challenges, why bother?

There is ample evidence of the transformative outcomes of such student-led learning, as seen here in York’s own modules, and elsewhere. A simple model of practice which has proven effective involves a process that moves from a preparation/design phase to a socialisation phase (where students build confidence with the approach and the technologies) to an early support phase followed by a sustained support phase (where students are given ongoing feedback in a little-and-often fashion) concluding with an interlinking and summing up phase (where all of the pieces of the process come together and are critically reflected upon).

As aptly stated by one of the audience members at Richard and Wayne’s session, “We shouldn’t apologise for taking students out of their comfort zone, provided we offer the necessary support.” York’s e-learning team offers such support, meaning that active, student-led learning and transformative forms of pedagogy are achievable for those who are willing and interested to explore their potentials.

Further Workshop Materials