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22st Annual OLC International Conference
November 16-18, 2016 | Orlando, Florida | Walt Disney World Swan/Dolphin Resort

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Applied Learning in Higher Education Online and Blended Environments

Amy Garrett Dikkers (University of North Carolina at Wilmington, USA)
Stacy Peterson (University of North Carolina Wilmington, USA)
Beth Oyarzun (University of North Carolina Wilmington & Old Dominion University, USA)
Session Information
October 15, 2015 - 9:15am
Technology and Emerging Learning Environments
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Practical Application
Institutional Level: 
Multiple Levels
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Northern Hemisphere A4
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 5

This interactive presentation engages the audience in applied learning and introduces an Applied Learning in Online Environments Handbook.

Extended Abstract


Applied learning, sometimes referred to as experiential learning, team-based learning, problem-based learning, project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, service learning, etc., refers to any learning experience in which students apply what they learn to actively solve a problem and/or engage in a particular issue. This is an important and well documented process; as described by Barkley, Cross, and Major (2014), "the predominant conclusion from a half-century of research is that teachers cannot simply transfer their knowledge to students. . . . Meaningful and lasting learning occurs through personal, active engagement" (p. ix). Not only is the applied learning process important for student learning, but it helps develop teamwork and problem solving skills that increase employability.

At the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), Applied Learning is part of the Quality Enhancement Plan. UNCW strives to improve the quality of learning for faculty and students through the implementation of several initiatives centered around Applied Learning. UNCW defines Applied Learning as "a pedagogical model that places students in experiences requiring them to integrate theories, ideas, and skills they have learned in new contexts, thereby extending their learning, Applied Learning is a model that lets students engage in hands on, real world, or otherwise practical experiences and helps them get more out of those experiences as well" (UNCW, n.d.).


As more higher education institutions, including UNCW, are engaging in online learning, there is a need for sharing research and best practices on how to engage students in authentic, applied learning experiences at a distance or removed from the face-to-face classroom.

Instructors benefit from learning best practices to develop and facilitate these types of applied learning activities. As Moore (2013) stresses, "focus must be paid to the design and organization of the learning environment to support deep learners including the use of instructional strategies to encourage thinking, exploration, reflection, and integration. Teaching presence should support learners in being able to connect with the course topics, find value in them and see how they can be applied the real world" (p. 160). Providing applied learning effective practices for instructors of online and blended learning courses adds a twist to the traditional techniques, as hands-on, real world experiences can be more of a challenge in the online modality. Technology and creativity allow for a variety of possibilities. The handbook provides background information, best practices, and practical advice to facilitators wishing to implement applied learning techniques into their online or blended learning courses.

Challenges and affordances of an OLE for applied learning

Online environments can provide many unique opportunities for course innovation. Incorporating applied learning techniques into the online environment adds another dimension to the learning experience; as Ash and Clayton (2009) describe, "learning is maximized when it is active, engaged and collaborative. Each applied learning pedagogy provides students with opportunities to connect theory and practice, to learn in unfamiliar contexts, to interact with other unlike themselves, and to practice using knowledge and skills" (p. 25).

Benefits unique to applied learning in the online environment include: innovative collaboration tools, flexibility for students and faculty, and practical experience for real world settings. One significant benefit of the online environment is the ability to implement social software and collaboration tools. This continuously improving technology allows for greater connectivity, social presence, and capacity building. Beldarrain (2006) explains how applied learning techniques improve online environments, especially by increasing interaction opportunities and simulate real-world experiences. A further benefit of online collaboration is the flexibility to work with others located in various locations around the globe. This opportunity can provide significant advantages, especially as the student's perspective becomes broader and more culturally aware - an essential skill in an increasingly global society.

While the benefits and affordances of applied learning in online environments are significant, there are noteworthy challenges to consider as well. One challenge is the workload involved - from course redesign, to monitoring student engagement, to providing student support. For faculty and staff, altering course design is a significant undertaking. Generally, most faculty find that the entire process of designing, offering, and facilitating online courses takes more time than anticipated (Beldarrain, 2006; Schroeder, Minocha, & Schneidert, 2010). Applied learning methods also can be challenging for faculty to assess. Additionally, IT services must be prepared for the extra support required.

These challenges can be difficult to navigate, but they also represent unique opportunities to innovate and improve educational offerings in ways that benefit students and faculty alike. As best practices and additional research is uncovered, collected, and shared, the entire process will evolve and improve to make the most of the opportunities that applied learning in online environments offers.


This presentation shares the results of a pedagogical initiative at UNCW whereby doctoral students in Educational Leadership participated in applied learning as they developed an Applied Learning in Online Environments Handbook, developed activities for a doctoral-level class, and helped test the usability and effectiveness of applied learning strategies in online learning.

The project resulted in an electronic product providing research and best practice on how to implement applied learning into courses in an online learning environment. Up to four activities from the handbook will be utilized in a doctoral level course entitled Innovations in Curriculum, offered in fall 2015. Students will complete online applied learning activities, providing formative assessment for utilization of the handbook. They will be testing the usability of the activities as they connect applied learning to online learning while being online students themselves. In this way, students who experience online learning help to shape what is best for learning in online environments.


Gathering resources for the handbook and its development will occur over Summer 2015 through an awarded grant from UNCW. This presentation from faculty, students, and instructional designers involved in the development of the Applied Learning in Online Environments Handbook will provide context for applied learning in higher education online and blended learning environments, share excerpts from the handbook, and engage the audience in the completion of an applied learning activity from the handbook.

Lead Presenter

Amy Garrett Dikkers, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in Educational Leadership at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Formerly a secondary school English teacher domestically and abroad, she earned a Ph.D. in Comparative and International Development Education at the University of Minnesota in 2006. She has taught face-to-face, hybrid, and online courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels in educational reform, school technology leadership and vision, comparative education, human rights education, research design, and the foundations of education. Her professional interests include the preparation of educational leaders and the use of technology-enhanced and online learning in K-12 and higher education. Current research centers on reflective practice, maximizing online learning, incorporating community professionals into courses through technology, and the use of video to provide authentic voice in the classroom.