ISTE Standards for Coaching

Designing active learning for a virtual professional development learning environment

I am a steadfast proponent of active learning.  I cringe at the thought of a curriculum that is built on passive lectures, whether synchronous presentations or asynchronous videos, with little to no integration of active learning activities. I am a firm believer that students need to test their knowledge and skills in order to solidify their understanding of new content. In my opinion, it takes much more time and effort to design a curriculum that incorporates a variety of active learning activities than to simply provide lectures. By engaging students in active learning opportunities, the instructor will structure the learning environment to enable students to explore their understanding of concepts while utilizing higher order thinking.  

In this blog post, I will be focusing on the integration of active learning into online professional development sessions. My question is as follows: How can online professional development be designed to maximize active learning opportunities? This question aligns with the International Society for Technology in Education 4.5b (professional learning facilitator): “Build the capacity of educators, leaders, and instructional teams to put the ISTE Standards into practice by facilitating active learning and providing meaningful feedback.”

 What is active learning?  

Active learning activities require learners to “construct knowledge through higher order thinking (such as recalling, applying, analyzing, evaluating, synthesizing, and verbalizing concepts). This contrasts knowledge passively transmitted to students solely via listening, transcribing, memorizing, and reading” (Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning).  

How does Bloom’s Taxonomy intersect with active learning?

Active learning requires use of higher order thinking skills, such as creating and teaching a lesson plan, whereas passive learning uses lower order thinking skills, such as memorizing content for an exam.

Why is higher order thinking important?

According to Cummins (2020), higher order thinking skills benefit the learner by:

  • Promoting “essential skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving,”
  • Developing “transferable skills that can be essential in a wide variety of contexts.”

What are some examples of online active learning activities?

  • Debate
  • Peer review
  • Problem solving
  • Small group and full group discussion, including utilization of online discussion boards
  • Group work in breakout rooms using Google docs for collaboration
  • Simulation learning
  • Idea mapping
  • Case studies
  • Role playing
  • Presentations

Application of active learning in professional development sessions:

A comprehensive report titled Best Practices in Online Professional Learning outlined a broad range of considerations when designing professional development sessions for educators. The subject areas within the report include applying design principles, choosing delivery models, providing support before training, creating opportunities for collaboration and reflection, facilitating interactive participation, fostering collaboration, and following up with targeted support. The section that related most to this blog post focused on facilitating interactive participation. It included a variety of ideas on how to engage educators in active learning online, including ideas for both synchronous and asynchronous learning. A few of the take-aways are shown below:  

  • Online tools to facilitate active learning:
    • Discussion boards
    • Open forums
    • Interactive documents
  • Engagement strategies: The authors emphasized the importance of engaging learners in a virtual environment. Some of the strategies mentioned to increase engagement included “intersperse text with activities such as quizzes, spot challenges, and brief exercises to keep learners mentally alert,” and “reinforce learning by asking participants to recap major points, consider ways to apply material, or solve case problems.”
  • Practical examples provided based on the online format included the following:
    • Asynchronous learning: task exploration and analyzing student work
    • Synchronous learning: group video conferencing and interactive whiteboards

Using the Backward Design framework developed by Wiggins and McTighe would ensure that professional development coaches determine their desired results, including learning objectives, before determining acceptable evidence and subsequent learning activities (Bowen, 2017). By defining learning outcomes that assess higher order thinking skills, determining acceptance evidence and planning learning experiences will likely result in active learning activities.

In summary, active learning can be accomplished in an online learning environment. Some of the learning activities are similar to what has been implemented in a face-to-face setting (e.g., group work, debate, role play, case studies) while others are more unique to the online environment (e.g., using Google docs to complete group work in breakout rooms and online discussion boards). Active learning can be effective in both synchronous and asynchronous learning environments, and it is important to structure active learning experiences in either learning environment to be engaging and to offer opportunities for collaboration and reflection.


Author unknown. (2021). Active Learning. Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning.

Author unknown. (2019). Best practices in online professional learning. Hanover Research.

Bowen, R.S. (2017). Understanding by Design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

Cummins, K. (2020). Higher order thinking skills for students and teachers. Innovative Teaching Ideas.

International Society for Technology in Education. (2022).