Staying Active Three distance-learning experts share tips for keeping graduate students learning actively online. Overheard
Overheard  |   March 01, 2016
Staying Active
Author Notes
  • Barbara Brindle, PhD, CCC-SLP, is an associate professor at Western Kentucky University where she has worked with distance education since the early 2000s. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 3, Voice and Voice Disorders; and 13, Swallowing and Swallowing Disorders (Dysphagia).
    Barbara Brindle, PhD, CCC-SLP, is an associate professor at Western Kentucky University where she has worked with distance education since the early 2000s. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 3, Voice and Voice Disorders; and 13, Swallowing and Swallowing Disorders (Dysphagia).×
  • Kimberly Green, EdD, CCC-SLP, is an assistant professor at Western Kentucky University, where she teaches courses on campus and through distance-learning. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 14, Cultural and Linguistic Diversity; and 17, Global Issues in Communication Sciences and Related Disorders.
    Kimberly Green, EdD, CCC-SLP, is an assistant professor at Western Kentucky University, where she teaches courses on campus and through distance-learning. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 14, Cultural and Linguistic Diversity; and 17, Global Issues in Communication Sciences and Related Disorders.×
  • Janice Sandidge, MS, CCC-SLP, is an adjunct instructor (and former coordinator) of Western Kentucky University’s distance-learning program, as well as a practicing clinician.
    Janice Sandidge, MS, CCC-SLP, is an adjunct instructor (and former coordinator) of Western Kentucky University’s distance-learning program, as well as a practicing clinician.×
Article Information
Attention, Memory & Executive Functions / Overheard
Overheard   |   March 01, 2016
Staying Active
The ASHA Leader, March 2016, Vol. 21, online only. doi:10.1044/
The ASHA Leader, March 2016, Vol. 21, online only. doi:10.1044/
Participant: What is “active learning”?
Kimberly Green: Active learning refers to the idea of having students be active participants in distance education. Oftentimes students have the misconception that distance learning means independent learning. Active learning allows us to use multiple modalities in teaching within distance education. For example, through active learning, we can “flip” the classroom, using collaborative group work and in-class presentations.
Participant: Are we referring to both synchronous and asynchronous settings?
Green: I am referring to synchronous sessions in these particular examples, but it can still be done within an asynchronous learning environment.
Participant: And, in your experience, is the engagement learner-driven?
Janice Sandidge: Outside of the classroom, I have encouraged distance-learning cohorts to get connected in other ways. Each cohort forms a closed Facebook group. This allows for them to have a setting in which they can get to know each other, form study groups, etcetera—just like students would on campus. I call it their way of talking in the hallway, like campus students would. I think the most successful of the distance-learning students are very driven. If they aren’t in the beginning, then they realize pretty quickly they have to be to excel in this learning environment.
Green: Initially, it does vary. I think it is often dependent upon their experience with technology and prior experience with distance learning. Most of our students are academically very driven, but incorporating technology does require a shift in how they think about academic culture. So we are certain to set the stage early to promote understanding of how distance education works within our program. This usually gains involvement.
Barbara Brindle: Successful students in any setting are most likely to be driven in several ways. Distance learning is no exception.
Participant: What would active learning look like versus another approach? How is it different?
Brindle: Good organizational skills are helpful to all, but are particularly relevant to the distant learner. Many campus students prefer to sit back and let the instructor do all the work. Getting them to ask questions can be difficult. I find that the nominal anonymity of the “chat” or the synchronous chat actually enhances class participation. And it is all written down for everyone to benefit from.
Green: Sometimes in distance learning, professors may develop self-guided modules without the use of active participation. I think this is a very different use of distance education. In active learning, students are more accountable for collaborative learning. Active learning also allows for the opportunity to participate in group activities, which introduces students to collaborative work within a professional context. For example, through my classes, I also pull in an international perspective, which allows students to interact with professionals and classmates from other countries via active learning activities.
Sandidge: We require students to sign into class at the same time and participate through Adobe Connect. They have weekly meeting times and it is made to be as much like a face-to-face class as it can be. Many universities do self-guided modules that do not allow for interaction among students and professors.
Participant: My experience has been that students only engage online if they get marks for it. To me that isn’t true engagement. Do you have tips to encourage engagement and interaction between students for non-assessed activities?
Brindle: Breakout small-group sessions are useful, as are case studies. I typically provide lectures using a Tegrity format and use synchronous class time for Q&A and concept enhancement.
Green: Here at Western Kentucky University, we use a program called Adobe Connect. It allows us to break students into groups within the classroom. Through this feature, I can also go into each of the groups and see what students are discussing and guide them through the activity. As Dr. Brindle mentioned, we can use activities such as case study evaluation and videos for students to also work collaboratively within the classroom, even if they are not receiving scores for their participation. For larger, more involved group activities, I sometimes also incorporate peer feedback forms and team contracts to encourage participation.
Sandidge: I think the more they are comfortable with and get to know each other, the more they are comfortable participating in class. You can always assign participation points as well! Call on students to answer questions in class and facilitate discussion from those questions.
Green: Agreed. You can always call on students or ask students to randomly choose others in the class to “pass” questions to.
Participant: Do you have suggestions for getting students active and engaged in the discussion boards? How can we help real learning take place in these settings?
Green: Discussion boards can indeed be tricky because they are not quite as dynamic as other methods of interaction. I do require students to respond with quality comments as opposed to “I agree”–type statements. I have used blogs as an alternative to discussion boards as well. I often require students to “introduce” themselves on the discussion board feature and respond to at least two other posts. By requiring posting of a snowball question with no pressure at the beginning of the semester as the first graded requirement, it establishes that you intend to use it as a functional feature of Blackboard. It creates an automatic climate of belonging and connection between students, which I think is very important.
Sandidge: That is difficult to do at times. I find it has to be graded and almost forced in some way to get them started to be engaged. I think the setting of a discussion board ultimately does not foster interaction as well as other formats could.
Brindle: I find discussion boards to be useful in certain contexts, such as reflection essays. For active analysis, not so much. I do use the Blackboard blog function for getting acquainted. I try to facilitate “real learning” in clinically based tasks, such as demonstrating how to do a cranial nerve exam. The distance student can use a fellow student or another volunteer.
Participant: How is active learning in an online environment different than or similar to active learning in a face-to-face environment?
Green: I think in an active learning environment, you often have the benefit of pulling from the diversity of the group. You do not always have this advantage within a face-to-face class. You can still post and discuss videos within active learning, as well as do hybrid activities and presentations. I also do demonstrations in my courses through video and audio features. These demonstrations are not unlike the ones I do for campus-based students.
Participant: How much of your online program is simultaneous?
Green: Our distance program is completely synchronous. We used to use a feature through Blackboard chat in which we typed our lectures. Now we have moved on to a much more dynamic system. Students are also provided with a wealth of information through Blackboard in addition to the weekly class meetings (which are not optional).
Sandidge: Students are in cohorts and follow a set sequence of courses from start to graduation. Almost all classes require participation in synchronous classes on a weekly basis.
Participant: Do you use different criteria when looking for successful students for your online graduate program?
Green: Wow, what a great question! We do not necessarily look for different criteria, but we do try to make students aware of the technology requirements and personal commitment of enrolling in a distance cohort. Overall, admission requirements mirror the campus cohort.
Brindle: Not as far as GPA and GRE scores are concerned. We are still figuring out how to tweak that system.
Participant: What is an ideal or appropriate number of students in a cohort for effective active learning online?
Brindle: We have had as many as 35–40, but 15–25 is much more manageable. The more students enroll, the more you have to cut back on more active analyses.
Green: Another great question. The reality is that distance learning is not exactly the same as a face-to-face course. It can be challenging to meet the needs of very large cohorts of students and keep them active and engaged in an online environment. I think 25 is a manageable number but I have had as many as 40 in a special situation.
Participant: What kind of student feedback has this program received regarding perception of active learning?
Green: We are actually very interested in student perceptions of their active learning experiences. In our ASHA presentation, three of our students attended and one offered her feelings about her experience. She indicated that it was much more of a community than she anticipated and she felt as though the active learning and collaborative approach helped to make her more successful in the program. We do take their feedback and try to modify our approaches. Even with textbooks, I have found that a book that is suitable for campus learning may not be as engaging or fitting for distance students. I solicit their feedback on these aspects as well.
Sandidge: Students love that they get the opportunity to interact! I often have been asked when people have inquired about the program if there is interaction with professors or just a self-guided set up for classes. When I explain the format we use, they typically brighten up and get excited about the opportunity. Current students and alumni often comment that they developed really close friendships with their classmates and loved being able to interact with professors and get to know them more than they thought they would in an online environment.
Brindle: Most distance students have favorable responses to the active learning component. Frustration is usually focused on technological issues.
Participant: How effective have the cohorts been in continuing their collaboration and learning together after a course?
Green: I actually have a cohort who is working together right now on an activity outside of class! I know this because they have messaged me during this session. I set up a virtual meeting room for them as well to encourage them to meet outside the classroom setting.
Sandidge: They stay together in all of their core courses so they continue to collaborate and learn together throughout the program. We have a department Facebook group where they will stay in touch, and you can tell they are all still very connected, even after graduation. They are required to come to campus the first summer of the program to go through an intensive clinical internship fondly called “bootcamp”! They truly bond during that time and really work together!
Participant: Do you do an orientation to help students get comfortable with the technology prior to the course?
Green: Students are required to complete an orientation. Jan has done a great job preparing students for the requirements within the program. Our university also offers free software and video training for students. There are video tutorials provided by the IT department.
Sandidge: Typically one of the instructors who has the students their very first semester will set up a dry run to get the students acquainted with the technology before the first day of classes. Our Division of Extended Learning and Outreach also has many tutorials set up that I refer them to in order to get acquainted with the university technology they will encounter. Once the program begins, I do a full orientation to the program and answer their questions. Our IT department is also wonderful and is available for extended hours to help students. If a student encounters a problem, they simply call IT and they help them through it. Students rave about our IT help desk for sure!
Participant: What does your clinical component look like?
Green: When students accept admission to the distance program, they also agree to completion of a clinical “bootcamp” during a summer term of their enrollment.
Brindle: Some introduction to clinical activities is required in some core content classes. For example, I require dysphagia students to do a motor speech exam, demonstrate sensorimotor integration activities, and administer a dysphagia evaluation as part of the course, to prepare them for clinic. I do not grant clinical competencies there.
Sandidge: Once they successfully complete [the clinical “bootcamp”], they then do two or three externships back in their home area.
Participant: What are the advantages of online learning compared to face-to-face learning formats in stimulating active learning?
Green: Most of our students in the distance program are second-degree seekers, so the distance format allows them the flexibility of working, etcetera, while pursuing their degree or leveling classes. We offer a full-time distance graduate program as well as part-time.
Participant: What are some challenges/frontiers for the future?
Green: Staying in the know about technology is always something that keeps us on our toes. Technology is sometimes changed as soon as we get a handle on the previous version. The benefit is that it keeps us creative, innovative and flexible.
Brindle: Managing chat times with students living [in places] from Morocco to California can be a challenge.
Sandidge: The biggest challenge we have is in setting up externships throughout the world wherever our students live. Because contracts are required with those sites, we find occasionally there is no way to enter into an agreement. Almost always it will work out, but not without much effort and legal consult. I expect this to only get worse as we live in a legal world now. The reasons for not working out usually have to do with state laws beyond anyone’s control.
Participant: Can you suggest any additional strategies to engage learners when there is a lack of participation?
Green: I honestly reach out and have a heart-to-heart with students. Jan and I have worked together to talk to students, which is helpful. I think social media sometimes make people feel as though there can be some anonymity within distance education, or they can “lurk” in class. By collaborating as a team, we can catch students early and reach out to them by setting up a phone meeting to find out what barriers may be keeping them from participating. For example, when our New York City students had Hurricane Sandy, some students were not as active because they were logging in from McDonald’s on their phones.
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March 2016
Volume 21, Issue 3