Passive to active: how online lessons create real world learners

Matt Parkman

Man turning wood

What is the idea?

Necessity is the mother of all invention and there has been no greater necessity during the pandemic than in finding new and diverse ways to engage learners in active learning from afar (Zawicki-Richter, 2020).

One of the beneficial side effects of this has been the rise in ‘passive to active’ learning, with the pandemic providing opportunity (Saxton, 2021)  from social platforms and media such as Twitch, TikTok and YouTube. This piece will explore the case study of woodworking during 2020 and 2021 and how accounts such as ‘Woodworking For Mere Mortals’ have created active learning opportunities from what are otherwise passive teaching resources.

Why this idea?

When university lecturers stand at the lectern and begin to speak, they do so to impart specific and defined knowledge to their students. The students, meanwhile, take notes and ask questions and absorb the specific information being given to them. The learning that takes place is facilitated by teaching designed to achieve just that. Whilst an often traditional approach, this does not fulfil the true potential of active teaching and learning. Teachers and learners are engaged with each other, but learners are not learning through doing; there is often no discussion, interaction or participation from learners, nor are there “hands on” activities one might expect to find in a lab-based session (Petress, 2008).

When Jon Peters builds an entryway table in cherry and maple, records it, and uploads that recording to YouTube, he does so for no other purpose than to demonstrate his skill as a woodworker for the entertainment of the viewer. That it is possible to watch that video and learn something (a new technique for measuring dovetails, for example) is merely an unintended consequence. No learning is implied within the relationship between the do-er and the viewer. This teaching is passive.

Where Steve Ramsay and the Woodworking for Mere Mortals YouTube channel comes in is to occupy the space between the two. Building and creating woodworking projects for their own sake, but with an element of active teaching involved in the form of explanations of techniques and skills and the offering of alternative approaches to achieve the same end result. Learners are able to pause videos to ensure time to effectively encode the information, review both the point that Ramsay has reached and reflect on their own project progress – all active learning principles (Petress, 2008).

It is likely this approach would attract autonomous learners, perhaps older or those with the freedom to be able to access materials. The instructional nature of these videos demonstrates andragogy in action (Lambda Solutions, 2020). We understand that adult education often stems from a need for knowledge, should provide opportunities for self direction and facilitate learning through doing. Channels such as Steve Ramsay’s provide an accessible option for learners who are motivated and willing to learn, with it being possible to argue the facilitation of “just in time learning” (Lambda Solutions, 2020).

How could others implement this idea?

Plenty of others do implement this idea. There are many woodworking channels which take a blended active/passive approach. Channels such as WoodWorkWeb and SeeJaneDrill offer only active teaching, with no passive included. Jonathan Katz-Moses offers just a little passive. ParillaWorks and Blacktail Studio offer around 75% passive, while Andy Phillip’s woodturning channel offers absolutely no active whatsoever (he doesn’t even speak in or narrate over his videos).

The variety of options available makes this type of teaching and learning accessible to all: beginners through to advanced professionals can find content which will help them solve problems they may be facing with their woodworking projects. Those who are advanced in their skill but perhaps need a visualisation of the end product can obtain this through the likes of Andy Phillip’s YouTube channel, whereas apprentices, or those still learning within the discipline can access videos providing more of a tutorial approach.

Not only does this provide the learner the opportunity to access content for their skill level, it provides ample stretch for those who wish to progress onto harder projects. Online learning, such as this, can also provide improved learning outcomes for neurodivergent learners given the flexibility available (Dahlstrom-Hakki et al., 2020).

Transferability to other contexts

In the online classroom, it may be applicable for teachers in some subjects to forego the traditional teaching often associated with university lectures and instead make use of a more blended approach. Recorded sessions of the creation of an item (be it furniture or otherwise) could be used to impart passive learning of techniques, skills and competencies so ingrained in the teacher, likely to be unconsciously competent per Noel Burch’s model (Brizga, 2016) therefore never thinking to actively teach these competencies or skills. They also have the benefit of not being interactive at the time, so can be recorded once and used time and again, while inviting questions or comments at a later time. This foreshortens lesson time and allows more knowledge to be imparted in a more time-dense fashion.

Links to tools and resources


Brizga, D. (2016). Competence development model for occupational safety specialists. In Conference Proceedings 15th International Scientific Conference (special issue), Engineering for Rural Development 15, 774-780.

Dahlstrom-Hakki, I., Alstad, Z., & Banerjee, M. (2020). Comparing synchronous and asynchronous online discussions for students with disabilities: The impact of social presence. Computers and Education, 150.

Lambda Solutions. (2020, May 5). Andragogy: Why adult education and online learning make a perfect fit. Lambda Solutions.

Petress, K. (2008). What is meant by “active learning?”. Education, 128(4), 566-569.

Saxton, S. (2021, March 25). Covid-19 remote learning is an opportunity to adopt active learning in STEM. Imperial College London News

Zawacki-Richter, O. (2020). The current state and impact of Covid-19 on digital higher education in Germany. Human Behavior and Emerging Technologies, 3, 218-226.

Image Attribution

Woodturning photo by Austin Ramsey on Unsplash

About the author

Matt Parkman is an Instructional Designer who aims to create fun and interactive educational content, with the learner at heart. He found himself drawn to learning technology and instructional design to create content learners wanted to engage with, rather than feeling they had to.


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100 Ideas for Active Learning Copyright © 2022 by Matt Parkman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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