Unified Active Learning: models for inclusive hybrid learning

Dr Andrew Middleton

What is the idea?

Anglia Ruskin University’s Unified Active Learning (UAL) adoption framework was designed to inspire academics to think innovatively about incorporating active pedagogies.

UAL is a hybrid design model composed of a set of design principles, an evaluation framework, and four high-level models. Consequently, it reveals a multitude of possibilities for active, inclusive and collaborative learning. The four models are discussed here: blended bubbles; location neutral; hives and observers; and connected co-creators. Specific example pedagogies are outlined for each.

Why this idea?

UAL was devised by the University’s Active Inclusive & Collaborative Learning (AI&CL) task group in response to the 2020-21 pandemic to ensure all students, wherever they were co-located, could engage in learning together. The framework presents an accessible connected classroom approach intended to stimulate and support all students in uncertain times.

However, UAL was intended to be a sustainable framework. We wanted sustainable design to avoid wasted energy and imagination, and avoiding the danger of ‘falling back’ (Bryant, 2021) to delivery-based teaching. In effect, we were aware that the need for change in response to a crisis should align to the hard-won commitment made the previous year by the academic community across the university when our Active Curriculum Framework was introduced (Middleton et al., 2021). Indeed, it became clear that an active learning strategy brought many advantages to the situation: our staff understood the rationale for designing a liberating student-centred learning experience. Changing tack would have sent a confusing message and undermined curriculum quality for years. The UAL framework signalled our positive intention to build upon what we had recently achieved, therefore.

How could others implement this idea?

A design and evaluation framework

UAL is a hybrid curriculum design framework structured around the following principles:

  1. Active and collaborative engagement around stimulating content
  2. Unified experience that involves all students learning together
  3. A whole student experience that fosters belonging and becoming
  4. Inclusive, diverse and socially balanced

The design principles allow academics to make design decisions based on the essential values underpinning active learning.

At ARU, our Canvas learning management system is widely used, however, staff have not consistently used it as a space in which to engage students through synchronous learning activities. Like other VLEs, it predominantly reflects an organisational, rather than pedagogical, paradigm. Creating a rich, collaborative online learning experience was a new challenge for many staff. However, the pandemic forced many students into isolation and staff needed to be guided towards involving their students as members of productive and supportive learning communities. Uneven digital fluency in staff and students emerged and we were aware that feelings of technological inadequacy can obstruct creative people-centred design thinking.

The UAL Framework prompts academics to evaluate their hybrid practice and pinpoint areas for development. It does this by setting out three dimensions using a positive tone that suggests most academics will already understand the implicit values and, to some extent, see their practice in all of the dimensions.

The first dimension, labelled ‘Identity’, reflects the essential idea that being on a course should feel like being part of something. The other two dimensions extend this to reflect a course experience that is active, inclusive and collaborative by design. As academics reflect on and think about developing their practice, the framework proposes that the third dimension, ‘Commitment’, will increasingly reflect their norm.

The framework is presented as follows:

In their formal engagement, all of my students, however and wherever they access their learning, normally:

1. Identity Learn alongside each other, being aware of each other and their common purpose, having a strong association with their course and feeling a strong sense of being part of something.
2. Connection Learn through regular interactions in their connected class and through formative and summative group work in which they have a clear and equal role. They learn from their different perspectives, regularly working as supportive teams.
3. Commitment Value each other, coming to refer to each other habitually in all that they do as co-producers of knowledge and co-creators of their learning experience.

Application models

With the principles in mind, development work proposed four overarching UAL models. They are reproduced here with some example activities to illustrate the model. In reality staff came up with their own responses, however.

Location neutral model

Learner location need not be a factor that unduly affects the learning experience or outcomes: the session design or activity engages all students equally, whether they are on campus or online.


Voting Polling of opinions or voting for decision-based learning is a common approach to involving students in thinking about topics. Being asked to make a decision can involve the application of knowledge or it can surface assumptions and questions that lead to further investigation.
Co-writing Accessing, writing and editing a shared document (see Co-writing chapter)
Chat-based games Using embedded apps such as polling, whiteboards and third-party tools.

Hives & Observers model

A core co-located classroom group has an active synchronous role (‘hive’ group). They are observed by students located remotely, either off campus or clustered in other rooms or sites.

Both the hive and observer groups have a valuable role in the same synchronous activity by being assigned different roles. Assigning roles or attitudes can underpin a range of interactive pedagogies. Example roles can include: ‘players’, ‘operators’, ‘experimenters’, ‘performers’, ‘reviewers’, ‘monitors’, ‘directors’, ‘agitators’, ‘advocates’, ‘observers’, ‘commentators’, ‘reporters’, ‘coaches’, ‘scorers’, ‘game changers’, etc. Roles can instil a degree of safety as students develop their voice and identity. Nevertheless, both the co-located and the dispersed online students learn in a mutually beneficial, interdependent relationship.


Crowd in the Cloud Goldfish bowl conversational challenges are not new. Here, hive members undertake a task, e.g. discuss the pros and cons of a situation. Observers note and challenge key points.
Puppet role play Establish a scenario and run it, inviting onlookers to ‘fill in the blanks’ to set parameters and define variables that affect outcomes or ‘put words in the mouths’ of in-class actors to enrich the scenario.
Connected labs The approach gives the onlookers a degree of control over their running of classroom-based activities through the setting of variables and conditions. The idea of ‘lab’ can be broadly applied, being essentially the running of a process e.g. scientific experiments, role plays, discussions. The Observers take responsibility for recording and comparing outcomes, making notes, and providing feedback to the in-class participants.
Home and away debates A lot can be learnt about teamwork by all students when one group can collaborate while the other students can’t. For example, when used with care, the dynamics of a debate in which co-located students are pitched against dispersed students can be illuminating. Ground rules for each can be devised, e.g. online students can Google information, on campus ‘hive’ students can’t and must draw what they know.

Blended Bubbles group formation model

Co-located students are partnered with dispersed student peers (‘bubbles’). They work together both in real-time and asynchronously on problems, addressing scenarios, researching texts or ‘Google Jockeying’ (EDUCAUSE, 2006) data and images.

Triads Create problem or scenario-based learning challenges. Establish mixed groups of three made up of a: ‘Co-ordinator’ who has responsibility for chairing, keeping the group on task, and summarising the groupwork; ‘Questioner’ who seeks clarification, challenges assumptions, and asks “What if…?”; and ‘Observer’ who observes, records and writes up what the group did and found out. Consider which role works best online and whether you should rotate roles from time-to-time.
Digital collaging Group members assemble a multiple media portfolio in response to a topic-based challenge. Each person in the group is given responsibility for researching the topic by searching for a specific media-type: numeric data, quotations, images, music, video, podcast, for example. After the allotted search time, students analyse the assets and compile an immersive media collage or digital story.
Project-based learning Student team members have agreed (either assigned or negotiated) roles with clear responsibilities. To be successful, interdependencies between those roles need to be explicit along with co-working tasks. Within their teams, students can be advised to break down into pairs to support each other in tackling dimensions of the team project, with one student being online and the other on campus.
Resource building using Google Jockeying and commentaries Online students can scout for relevant information and develop commentaries. On campus students can do the physical lifting! In the case of Nursing students, this was literally the case at ARU. Together, they can create video skills-based resources by capturing activities in Teams or Zoom and creating commentaries for them.

Connected Co-creators model

All participants are engaged as a community of co-creators taking part in research-led or inquiry-based learning. Any individual or group can be charged with researching a topic between sessions with the expectation that what they discover will be used in session either as the basis for their own learning (e.g. application of case studies) or as part of a programme of student mini-lectures or the co-construction of a wiki resource.


Co-writing Accessing, writing and editing a shared document. (see Co-writing chapter)
Group digital poster or recipe book Each student group creates a structured presentation using PowerPoint. In the case of a recipe book, it backgrounds and presents a process useful to a relevant real-world practitioner. Optionally, the group’s poster presentation or recipe is developed as a screencast (captured as a video presentation) in which all group members build upon the presented information together. Key to the task is the flow of the presentation; how each dimension relates to the slides that preceded it and how it then connects to what follows. This in-presentation connectivity ensures collaboration amongst group members is needed and ensures marks can be assigned for evidence of this flow.

Transferability to different contexts

The examples given above indicate some of the many possibilities that can be developed to engage students actively, together, wherever they are located. In this way, activity can take advantage of the apparent dislocation of students as they enact a connected classroom philosophy.

As a principle-based approach, the framework removes a sense of prescription and encourages creative thinking about how to adapt to specific curriculum contexts.


Bryant, P. (2021, January 12). The snapback. https://peterbryant.smegradio.com/the-snapback/.

Educause. (2006). 7 things you should know about Google Jockeying.  https://library.educause.edu/resources/2006/5/7-things-you-should-know-about-google-jockeying

Middleton, A., Pratt-Adams, S., & Priddle, J. (2021, March). Active, inclusive and immersive: Using course design intensives with course teams to rethink the curriculum across an institution. Educational Developments, 22(1), 9-13.

About the Author

Andrew Middleton is a National Teaching Fellow committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.


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100 Ideas for Active Learning by Dr Andrew Middleton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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