Digital activation tools in online teaching: a possibility or necessity?

Earlier this spring, a group of teachers and students were present in a virtual morning coffee session organized by the TLC. The students introduced an excellent ABC of virtual interaction that they had formed together with a coach from HUBS to provide teachers some tools on how to interact with students in online teaching. This was followed by some enthusiastic discussion on student activation that mostly concentrated on different kinds of digital activation tools. This is, of course, natural: when being online the ways to interact and activate also need to be online.

Tools are important but they alone don’t get us far. Many teachers may even experience anxiety when the list of various digital tools goes on and on: how and when should I use them with my students? The answer is, of course, that it depends on the learning goals of the course but that might not be of much comfort. Instead, what one might find a bit more comforting is that one does not need to use any tools just for the sake of using them.

Here, I present a framework that might help one evaluate the possibilities of different kinds of digital activation tools for their teaching. Chi and Wylie (2014) present that a student can be cognitively engaged with learning material on four levels: passively by receiving information, actively by manipulating the material themselves, constructively by generating additional outputs beyond the provided material, or interactively by creating outputs beyond the material in joint dialogue. These different levels of engagement can lead to different levels of learning outcomes, according to the theory. In the table, I have collected examples of various levels of engagement in online teaching, active learning methods that could encourage students to reach those levels, and various digital tools that could be used in enabling the process.

(Open table as pdf file.)

The framework holds on idea that learning is enhanced when the level of activation moves from passive to interactive. However, I do not consider that as a reason to aim to only interactive level of activation in all teaching. Instead, I find the most important offering of the theory that it can help us figure out how a student’s level of activation can vary during one lecture or course, and how that can lead to different kinds of outcomes. Higher education teachers often reject active learning by arguing that by letting students be active they cannot control what they come up with or whether they cover all the important aspects. Therefore, I want to emphasize that various levels of activation exist. In addition, it is often justified to provide students the central pieces of knowledge through lecturing. However, during lectures, a teacher does not usually have any idea if students are engaged with the material or not. That’s why I challenge everyone to consider, if even some light activating methods could be included in the lectures or besides them to encourage student work with the material and support the achievement of the learning goals.

Variation in tools or activation methods used in online teaching can be very refreshing to students, which is worth paying attention to especially during these times. However, it’s important to keep in mind that to support students’ learning, the tools should not be the starting point. Instead, it is important to start the planning from the learning goals. By keeping them in mind, the dive into the world of various teaching methods and digital activation tools is much more fruitful.

Susanna Hartikainen
Project Researcher, Doctoral Student
Professional Growth and Learning (PGL) research group
Tampere University


Chi, M. T. H., & Wylie, R. (2014). The ICAP framework: Linking cognitive engagement to active learning outcomes. Educational Psychologist, 49(4), 219–243.

Examples of active learning methods:

[1] Lom, B. (2012). Classroom activities: Simple strategies to incorporate student-centered activities within undergraduate science lectures. Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education, 11(1), A64–A71.

[2] Wolff, M., Wagner, M. J., Poznanski, S., Schiller, J., & Santen, S. (2015). Not another boring lecture: Engaging learners with active learning techniques. The Journal of Emergency Medicine, 48(1), 85–93.

[3] Donohue, S. (2014). Supporting active learning in an undergraduate geotechnical engineering course using group-based audience response systems quizzes. European Journal of Engineering Education, 39(1), 45–54.

[4] Witmer, J. A. (2015). Concept maps in introductory statistics. Teaching Statistics. An International Journal for Teachers, 38(1), 4–7.

[5] Pleschová, G. (2020). Using reflective journals to improve learning through refection and conceptual change. European Political Science, 19(1), 29–48.

[6] Edward, N. (2004). Evaluations of introducing project-based design activities in the first and second years of engineering courses. European Journal of Engineering Education, 29(4), 491–503.

[7] Fernandes, S., Mesquita, D., Assunção Flores, M., & Lima, R. M. (2014). Engaging students in learning: findings from a study of project-led education. European Journal of Engineering Education, 39(1), 55–67.

[8] Lord, T., & Orkwiszewski, T. (2006). Moving from didactic to inquiry-based instruction in a science laboratory. The American Biology Teacher, 68(6), 342–345.

[9] Salmisto, A., & Nokelainen, P. (2015). Knowledge creation and innovation in a civil engineering course for the first-year university students. European Journal of Engineering Education, 40(5), 506–521.