The role of active participation in online synchronous learning

Kear, Karen; Donelan, Helen; Rosewell, Jonathan; Mooney, Allan; Cuffe, Paige; Sheehy, Kieron; Amor, Kevin; Elder, Tracey; Edwards, Carol; Okada, Alexandra and King, David (2022). The role of active participation in online synchronous learning. In: ALT Annual Conference 2022, 6-8 Sep 2022, Manchester.



Online synchronous learning has been vital in replacing face-to-face contact during the pandemic. However, in live online sessions there is often a lack of active participation by students; this is perceived negatively by many educators, and by some, though not all, students. In this conference session we present and discuss data from a multi-faculty project at The Open University, UK, to investigate this issue. The aim of our project is to improve the experience for students and for educators.

Live online tutorials are an important part of The Open University teaching strategy - and during the pandemic they replaced all face-to-face tutorials. However, even at The Open University where educators are highly experienced in teaching online, tutorials may be primarily didactic, with limited degrees of interaction. Students may be unwilling to use audio or video channels in online sessions, or indeed to participate actively at all. This means that the educators running these sessions have very limited non-verbal cues to indicate whether students are following or are struggling (Wang et al., 2018).

On starting the project, we believed that there was a need to address two main challenges: designing and running tutorials which have active learning built-in; and encouraging students to participate actively. We collected quantitative and qualitative data via large-scale online surveys of students and of educators across the university, to gain an understanding of their experiences and views. For example, we included questions to explore:

• What value do students and educators place on active participation?
• What might encourage, or inhibit, active participation?
• How do these aspects relate to students’ and educators’ conceptions of learning?

Initial analysis of the survey data has shown that some students do not feel the need to take an active part in tutorials, but they nevertheless feel that they gain value from listening and watching. This is in line with the concept of vicarious learning (Mayes, 2015) where students learn by observing other students’ online interactions. If viewed as the first stage of a learning journey, it also relates to the idea of legitimate peripheral participation in a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991), where newcomers learn initially by observing those who are more experienced. However, in communities of practice theory, there is an assumption that observation will lead on to increasing levels of participatory learning.

Our initial data from the online surveys is being supplemented by in-depth data from online focus groups of students and of educators. In this conference session we will present our survey and focus group data, and we will invite discussion of the issues and findings with participants.


Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge University Press.

Mayes, J.T. (2015) Still to learn from vicarious learning. E-Learning and Digital Media Vol. 12(3-4) 361–371.

Wang, Q., Huang, C., and Quek, C. L. (2018) Students’ Perspectives on the Design and Implementation of a Blended Synchronous Learning Environment. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 34(1).

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