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).

ISTE Standard 4: Learning Designer ISTE Standards for Coaching

Pedagogy before Technology: Why the Cart Shouldn’t Be Put Before the Horse When Integrating Technology into Student Learning Experiences

“Without careful planning and sound pedagogy, technology can promote disengagement and impede rather than help learning.”

Bond, et al., 2020

With an abundance of digital tools available these days, it is tempting for educators to integrate technology into learning activities with the assumption that these modern enhancements to our curricula will be the ticket to increasing student engagement and more meaningful learning.  They could very well have those effects. However, when it comes to technology integration, it is important to begin the instructional design process by thinking through our intentions for using various digital tools in our curriculum. These are important conversations to have in instructional coaching sessions.

If a coachee is asking for support in improving a lesson plan, for example, before diving into possibilities of digital tools that might be useful, the coach and coachee should collaboratively assess the current lesson plan to discuss what is working well and areas that could be improved. These discussions should take into consideration how the lesson plan is designed to meet the following type of standards (Foltos, 2013):

Further, in their collaborative work towards improving a lesson plan, the coach and coachee will need to have a mutual understanding of the following aspects of the lesson plan design:

  • Learning context: This aspect of lesson design includes pre-requisite knowledge, connections to previous learning activities to reinforce knowledge and skills, and the ability of students to “explain what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how the activity relates to previous learning activities” (Foltos, 2013, p. 126).
  • Assessment plan and resources: This component of lesson design includes how the curriculum standards associated with the learning activity are measured and how feedback is provided to students (Foltos, 2013).  
  • A specific area of improvement I am interested in exploring is how student engagement in the learning process can be enhanced through use of technology. This inquiry was prompted by my peer coaching experiences over the past few months. My coachee expressed that her number one goal in our coaching partnership is to obtain coaching support around student engagement and utilization of digital technology.

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My question for this blog post is as follows:  What are some ways in which technology can be used to increase student engagement in active learning experiences? My question aligns with ISTE Coaching Standard 4 Learning Designer: Coaches model and support educators to design learning experiences and environments to meet the needs and interests of all students, and 4a: Coaches collaborate with educators to develop authentic, active learning experiences that foster student agency, deepen content mastery and allow students to demonstrate their competency.

A helpful tool that can be used to guide lesson plan improvement in coaching sessions is the Learning Design Matrix, which is a list of activities that emphasizes “the value of inquiry in learning” (Foltos, 2013). Two of the four quadrants represented in this tool that I will be focusing on provide ideas for increasing student engagement and integrating technology to improve student learning.

In an article titled How to increase student engagement with technology, the author discusses several reasons why the integration of technology into learning activities can increase student engagement.  Reasons cited include the following:

  • Rethinking technology from being a distraction to students to an effective tool to increase student engagement
  • Technology use can be a catalyst to deeper learning in a student’s areas of interests (think voice and choice)
  • Technology enables students to learn beyond the classroom walls and more easily connect with others who have similar interests, such as subject experts and students in other areas of the world.  

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Some of the learning activities included in the Learning Design Matrix mirror suggestions provided in the above article. They are as follows:

Engaging Tasks:

  • “Bring their experiences outside the classroom to bear to create a product/performance or gain competencies that have value to them and others outside of school”
  • “Receive real-world feedback on their work from an audience or subject-matter expert from outside the school.”
  • “Apply what they learn to new, real-life problems or situations” (Peer-Ed, 2018).

Technology enables and accelerates learning:

  • “Engage with their online communities comprised of students, educators, subject matter experts, or others throughout the world to shape, investigate, and solve real world tasks.”
  •  “Give each other feedback and receive feedback from outside the classroom including from subject matter experts.”
  • “Create knowledge, share and use it with authentic audiences” (Peer-Ed, 2018).  

Now that we have explored how learning activities can be structured to increase engagement and utilize technology to accelerate learning, what types of digital tools can support these efforts?

Engaging learning activities that integrate technology include students doing the following:

  • Developing blogs, pod casts, or videos
  • Recording presentations using PowerPoint or Google slides
  • Creating infographics
  • Conducting synchronous online class sessions using a digital platform, such as Zoom, which may incorporate additional digital tools to engage with other students, such as Kahoot and Poll Everywhere   
  • Collaborating with a subject expert or peer outside of their school using a digital platform, such as Microsoft Teams  
  • Utilizing discussion boards for asynchronous engagement
  • Incorporating an online peer review tool to provide feedback to other students’ work and to receive peer feedback
  • Integrating shared documents for collaborative projects, such as Google docs
  • Engaging in chat boxes and breakout rooms available on several digital platforms

Utilizing the Backward Design framework developed by Wiggins and McTighe would accomplish the goal of determining how specific learning activities are designed with the intended results and evidence of learning in mind (Bowen, 2017).

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Instead of putting the cart before the horse when selecting digital tools to enhance student learning activities, students will likely have more meaningful learning experiences if digital tools are determined after taking into account curriculum standards, learning context, and assessment procedures.


Author unknown. How to increase student engagement with technology.

Bond, M., Buntins, K., Bedenlier, S., Zawacki-Richter, O., Kerres, M. (2020). Mapping research in student engagement and educational technology in higher education: A systematic evidence map. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education. 17(2).

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

Buckle, J. (n.d.). A comprehensive guide to 21st century skills. Panorama Education.

Foltos, L. (2013). Peer coaching: Unlocking the power of collaboration. Corwin.

Foltos, L. (2018). Learning Design Matrix. Peer-Ed.

Glantz, E., Gamrat, C., Lenze, L., Bardzell, J. (2021). Improved student engagement in higher education’s next normal.

International Society for Technology in Education.