CCK11 Characteristics of an autonomous learner

The principles of connectivism are autonomy, diversity, connectedness and openness. Stephen has written and presented about this on a number of occasions. My experience of connectivism in MOOCs or even OOCs is that these principles are not straightforward to apply to course design or learning.

My current interest is in autonomy, as I believe that when thinking about the principles of connectivism – autonomy rules, i.e. it is not possible to experience diversity, connectedness or openness without autonomy, i.e. being an autonomous learner.

Being an autonomous learner seems to be a pre-requisite for successful participation in a MOOC/OOC – but what is an autonomous learner? Are you an autonomous learner? Am I an autonomous learner? Are our students/colleagues/children/friends autonomous learners? How do we know? What are the characteristics of an autonomous learner?

I have spent a bit of time trawling the web and journals with this question in mind and there has been loads written about autonomous learning, much of it in relation to language teaching (haven’t quite got to the bottom of why language teaching yet).  I have been wondering whether learners who participate in MOOCs/OOCs have unique characterstics in relation to autonomous learning – and I invite anyone who ventures here to read this blog post to join me in thinking about this – if you are interested. For me the design of a course based on connectivism principles will have to take account of the characteristics of autonomous learning – hence my desire to get my head round this.

So far I have come up with the following characteristics – the problem is that few of them could be said to be specific to MOOCs/OOCs.

Autonomous learners….

  • show responsibility for their own learning
  • show initiative
  • are able to monitor and evaluate their own learning
  • are reflective and show ‘high’ (in inverted comments because I’m not sure how high is high) levels of metacognition
  • are self-aware in relation to their own learning (need unpicking)
  • are intrinsically motivated
  • are life-long learners (not sure about this one)
  • can manage and regulate their own learning (OK but what does this involve?)
  • are adept at taking/making decisions (how adept is adept?)
  • are meaning makers
  • are risk takers (not sure about this one)
  • have specific skills and strategies for managing their learning online (OK but what skills and strategies?)
  • are adaptable and flexible in their approach to learning (how adaptable is adaptable and how flexible is flexible? How would these characteristics manifest themselves?)
  • are pro-active (i.e. they don’t wait for things/people to come to them)
  • are critical and analytical thinkers (this might be too much of a supposition)
  • know how to ask questions (and ideally good questions – but what is a good question?)
  • are good at filtering and selecting the information they need
  • can take constructive criticism
  • can navigate the web
  • are technically adept (not sure about this)

I am aware that each one of these characteristics could be questioned. After all how autonomous is autonomous?

If you think autonomy is important to learning in MOOCs/OOCs, then I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

CCK11 – Interesting start

An interesting start to CCK11 – which was marked by the synchronous Elluminate session tonight. I find these synchronous sessions critical to keeping a handle on what is going on and I noted that Sia Vogel (who I remember from CCK08) felt the same. CCK11 is not using Moodle for discussion as previous CCK courses have. Stephen suggested that the scaffolding of the course for CCK11 will be from the Daily rather than from Moodle – I think it also comes from the synchronous sessions – which is perhaps why – at one point – there were 103 people in the session, which finally settled down to about 96.

In terms of learner autonomy – this is a good indication that at least 103 people have been able to find their way around the course well enough to attend the Elluminate session and 40% of these people are new to MOOCs – according to George’s poll. I’m not sure yet how many of these people are talking to each other, although there is already plenty of sharing and group formation. A Second Life group (I think), a Diigo group, I think I noticed a Facebook group, a Pearltrees site, and posting of screencasts and other presentations – all examples of autonomy in action. Another aspect of learner autonomy would be that people are able to choose with whom to make connections, where, when, how to connect and what to discuss once the connection has been formed. I am keen to discuss and learn more about learner autonomy. What does it mean? How will we design our courses to encourage it? I see learner autonomy as being at the heart of what ‘teachers’ need to consider when designing their courses on connectivism principles – but I don’t think it’s straightforward. There are so many potential constraints.

It did occur to me to wonder at one point during this evening’s Elluminate session (evening in the UK :-)) to wonder how autonomy works between Stephen and George. To what extent do they feel that they have the autonomy to work on the course in the way they wish and how much do they need to compromise? Now there’s a thought. Does autonomy obviate compromise or not? Will have to think about it.

There was quite a lot of ‘talk’ about the need to ‘give’ and ‘create’. We didn’t discuss how much is enough giving and creating – or how we might interpret this. I suspect that one person’s giving might be another person’s arrogance or patronising – and one person’s creativity might be another person’s kitsch. We probably each need to work this out for ourselves and then hold firm to our beliefs. Is this autonomy?

The course was described as: ‘This is complexity by design… it is about enabling each person to have their own distinct perspective on the material’.  This is a noble aspiration but I wonder if it is a reality in the face of considerable (probably implicit) peer pressure from the CCK11 and wider networks. Another thing I am still thinking about as it relates to the reality of autonomy.

There was an interesting question about duplication of effort – are we, because we are all working in distributed environments rather than in one place – all inventing the wheel? Stephen’s answer was that there is an astonishing amount of duplication of effort in existing traditional courses, but in this type of course each person is creating their own representation (see his presentation on The Representative Student). We all have different perspectives which we express in different ways and this multiplicity of points of view creates a more rounded overall view. What does this mean for understanding learner autonomy?

It’s good to know that three or more MOOCs on, I still feel as though there is lots to learn. Perhaps – or very probably – I am a slow learner 🙂

Learner Autonomy – First thoughts about Stephen Downes’ model

(Stephen Downes’ model in black font) Overall question which I shall come back to later is: How do the recent MOOC/open course designs foster learner autonomy and from the learner perspective, are they successful in this?

A – Factors affecting epistemic states

– empirical factors

– external

– past experience and memory

– current experience

– internal

– emotional state

– pain and suffering, etc

– fear

– psychological

– traumas

– phobias

– philias or needs

I interpret this to mean that any consideration of autonomy must recognise that learners bring with them prior experience on at least three levels. This has a ‘constructivist’ learning theory feel to it. The ways in which learners recognise, interpret and experience autonomy will be influenced by their prior experience. Learners can probably be helped with these by their ‘teachers’ because they are externally recognisable and ‘measurable’.

– cognitive factors

– world view or belief set

– frames or traces – recognition of ranges of alternatives

– metaphors or underlying models

– causation, spirit, or other mechanisms

– morality, sense of agency, responsibility

– reasoning mechanism (if any), including:

– logical capacities (including modal, probabilistic)

– mathematical capacities

– degree of certainty attained, required

– language – languages learned, vocabulary

I interpret this to mean that a learner’s experience of autonomy, or ability to act autonomously (bearing in mind that this is not a constant state) is influenced by their ‘internal’ mental state, frames of reference. This may not be visible to the teacher and therefore may be harder to influence, from a teacher’s perspective.

– external factors

– rewards and incentives

– financial

– intrinsic or non-financial

– punishments, sanctions and threats

– expectations

– professional standards

– organizational vision or strategy

From my initial and brief reading of related research, this is related to motivation. My personal perspective is that truly autonomous learning relies heavily on intrinsic motivation, in the absence of punishments, sanctions, threats and expectations. That’s not to say that these external factors do not exist, but that learners must be in a position to choose to reject the extrinsic in favour of the intrinsic or vice vers

B – Capacity to act on epistemic states

– physical factors

– mobility and location

– perceptual (can you see, is there light?)

– effective (can you project into the environment – do the buttons respond, do the pages turn, etc)

– physical support – housing, health, nutrition, etc

– time

This seems to relate to ‘independent’ learning – which has been raised in past research. Autonomy is interpreted in a variety of ways and independence is one of those. My husband is disabled and I know the importance of independence as a pre-requisite to autonomy. They are not the same thing. The conditions have to be right in order to be able to make decisions/choices. This is interesting and I am still thinking about it.

– social factors

– laws, rules and regulations, including flexibility of these

– peer pressure, mores, threat of sanctions

– mode of collaboration – authoritarian, democratic, consensus,         deliberative, etc

– leadership – capacities, temperament, inclinations, etc

– responsibility or authority

This relates to the social constraints of our personal circumstances – so for example my mother married an extremely Victorian man who believed that women should not go out to work – her role was to support her husband (which she did extremely effectively) – but her autonomy in terms of her choice over how she could express her talents was controlled by someone else. Whilst this particular example might not be so common today – autonomy can be restricted in these circumstances.

– structural factors

– predictability of the environment

– complexity of the environment

– barriers, locks, detours, traps, loops – eg.

I interpret this as relating to organisational constraints. The organisation in which a learner works may not be able/capable of coping with autonomous learners. An example of this is when University staff are not permitted to use certain softwares within their courses. There might be good institutional reasons for this but it stifles innovation and learner autonomy.

– resources

– range and depth of resources available

– medium of resources – staff, money, equipment

– language and complexity of resources

– quantity of resources (eg., finances)

– mode of presentation of those resources

– sequence of presentation

– duration of presentation

This is similar to the above point in relation to organisations. My son who is doing music technology and cannot do the modules he wants to because of lack of University resources (staffing) is an example of constraints on learner autonomy. But there will also be other constraints on a personal level. In CCK08 and other open courses we have seen how participants whose first language is not English experience constraints on their autonomy. I’m assuming that mode of presentation might be related to ‘learning styles’ although I know that some people don’t believe that there are such things as learning styles. Shall we call them learning preferences instead?

C – Scope and Range of Autonomous Behaviour

– expression

– medium of expression

– language of expression, word use

– association and assembly

– definition of size, scope of social network

– directionality of communications

– selection

– of associates – can you choose your friends? Family?

– communication options – do channels exist? Can they be open?

– of tools, eg., of software, hardware

– resource allocation – spending, delegating, assigning, etc

– method

– operating principle, methodology, pedagogy

– background – influence over environmental factors generally, including:

– noise or music

– colour scheme or visual appearance

– lighting, air supply, mobility

– range

– tolerance – allowed range of results or effects

– quantity of choices available

– quality of choices available (cf. Hobson’s choice)

This section seems to me about the choices that learners can make and the extent of those choices. CCK11 has probably offered more choice than any prior open course. My brief reading of research however indicates that designing for autonomy does not mean that teachers abdicate responsibility for their learners and I will be interested to see how the CCK11 course design balances learner autonomy with ‘teacher’ facilitation and whether even minimum teacher facilitation will be perceived as a constraint.

D – Effects of Autonomous Behaviour

– impact (ie., the degree or scope of the effect)

– audience – range of persons affected by behavior

– efficacy – amount of change potentially caused by behaviour

– improvement (ie., the nature of the effect)

– internal

– psychological – satisfaction, lessening of pain,lessening of fear, etc

– cognitive – beliefs formed, knowledge acquired

– external

– material condition, employment, etc

– capacities, rights, autonomy, etc

– associative – improvements ascribed to others

– social – improvements to society generally

This section feels to me a bit of a departure – it is not about what autonomy might mean to the learner or how autonomy is experienced, but how we might ‘measure’ its effects. How will we know when we are autonomous learners? How will teachers know that their course designs which attempt to promote autonomous learning are successful?

This is my first response to Stephen’s model. I am aware that I have probably not done it justice.  I now want to see how CCK11 and other open courses have been designed with these ideas in mind and also how this model compares with the other models that Stephen posted on his blog.

CCK11 Learner autonomy

In reflecting on my participation in the open connectivism courses (CCk08, CCK09), I realise that I am more interested in these than the other open courses on offer at the moment, because whilst they require technology to run, they are not so much about technology as about how learners learn and how teachers need to develop to help learners to learn in this fast moving digital age. Currently, my interest is in learner autonomy. What does this mean? Stephen has written a blog post about this, which I really need to get my head round.

Three things have cropped up in the last week, which have refocused my attention on learner autonomy.

1.       One of my sons is doing a music technology degree. He has just entered the second year and was excited because the course outline stipulated that he could choose a module to work on and choose a group to work in. He wanted to do a video/music module and wanted to work in a group of three. As it turned out this year two key lecturers have gone on sabbatical and one has left – so the students (for administrative purposes and logistical reasons) have been told which module they must do and the working group has been reduced from three to two. I can see why the University has had to do this, but I do wonder about the reality of student autonomy. This is a mild way of saying that I feel quite cross about it. After all his fees are huge and this is his once chance. He had already worked out what his video/music project would be – was motivated and keen to start. Now he has to do a module he is not so interested in, simply because the University allowed two lecturers to have a sabbatical at the same time. But presumably the lecturers must also have autonomy – so if everyone has choice over what to do when they want to do it, how do we deal with the inevitable conflicts?

2.       I have been invited to be an External Advisor for a University post-graduate course which is being revalidated. To my delight I read that the new post-graduate course will put a heavy emphasis on student autonomy – but then I read that this is interpreted as self-assessment, peer-assessment and reflective learning. Whilst all these contribute to student autonomy, I see students’ control over their own learning as being the most crucial element. Now I’m wondering whether this is possible in Higher Education – or to what extent it is possible. I need to think more about this and will be interested to hear what the tutor team has to say when the validation panel meets.

3.       A feature of the CCK11 course is that there is no central meeting place. Past courses have had Moodle discussion forums – but this course is taking a true distributed learning approach . This is going to be very interesting in terms of learner autonomy. Will participants be able to cope with this? Will they find each other? Will they be able to have ‘meaningful’ conversations? How will they forge connections? Will they like/value/appreciate the amount of autonomy that has been built into the course design? This will be a real test of whether learner participants can handle the level of autonomy on offer.

So for CCK11 – I will be observing/participating (probably more observing than participating) with a view to understanding more about learner autonomy.

Open courses in January 2011

The net seems awash with open courses at the moment. Three have captured my attention are:

Learning and Knowledge Analytics (LAK11)

Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2011 (CCK11)

Digital Storytelling (ds106)

Digital storytelling is already in its second week, but as Jim Groom (convenor) has pointed out it has been anticipated and discussed for many more weeks. It is fun just to look at the assignments that have already been submitted – a wonderful example of the talent and creativity that can be tapped into on the net and also a wonderful example of the four key activities of connectivist teaching and learning in action, i.e. aggregation,  remixing, repurposing and feed forward. There has been quite a lot of work on Digital Storytelling here in the UK and a few years ago I attended a Digital Storytelling course at the University of Gloucestershire here in the UK, where the focus at the time was on using digital storytelling to enhance students’ learning and reflection – a different focus to Jim Groom’s course where the learning objectives are:

  • Develop skills in using technology as a tool for networking, sharing, narrating, and creative self-expression
  • Frame a digital identity wherein you become both a practitioner in and interrogator of various new modes of networking
  • Critically examine the digital landscape of communication technologies as emergent narrative forms and genres

Information about the work in the UK can be found at the following sites:

I will be interested to find out more about ‘why’ people have signed up for Jim Groom’s course and whether people will ‘stay’ the course.  I expect it will be a lot of hard work.

Learning and Knowledge Analytics has also been going a week and got off to a good start with a lot of participants signed up and plenty of discussion. The first week’s invited speaker – John Fritz – gave a really thought provoking talk. Over 90 people attended this.  John started his talk with a slide providing us with a vision of the future of academic analytics, which listed the possible stages of the use of analytics as:

  1. Extraction and reporting
  2. Analysis and monitoring
  3. ‘What if’ scenarios
  4. Predictive modelling and simulation
  5. Automatic triggers and alerts

He asked us what our institutions are already doing and most were at the 1-3 levels. This reminded me of a JISC programme that I worked on last year – Institutional Innovation – where one of the projects was collecting data to ensure e that they could monitor student progress, catch potential drop-outs early, intervene and thus ensure student progress and retention. This was the Mining Course Management Systems project at Thames Valley University. The question that was raised for me by John Fritz’s talk and by the projects that I have worked with in the JISC Institutional Innovation programme was who controls the data – so  – do the students get to analyse the data or see the results of the data analysis? What voice do they have over how the data is interpreted and what interventions will be made – given that they will be the recipients? Interesting!

Finally to Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2011 (CCK11). Despite the fact that I have already attended CCK08 and been aware of CCK09, I think that this is the one that I will be following the most closely, although perhaps still from a distance.  As a learner, it suits me better to be on the edge. Stephen Downes and George Siemens have urged us to ‘share with others’.  I have thought about this. Do I do this or not?  Well – I have to say – not very publicly – although I do have a few people with whom I feel very connected and with whom I have some deep ‘back-channel’ conversations/discussions (which have now resulted in 4 research papers/projects). These have all resulted from CCK08.  I do blog from time to time which I regard as my ‘wider sharing’, but it is the closer connections that I really value. So I am looking forward to CCK11 once again – but I will be keeping an eye on Digital Storytelling and Learning Analytics – for interest and from the perspective of being interested in how people learn in open courses.

Information overload and connectivity

On one side we are urged to increase our connectivity – we are told that all learning starts with a connection, to learn we need to be well connected, to keep up in a fast moving digital age we need to know how to filter, select, aggregate, remix, repurpose, feed forward. We are urged to be open and connected, and to become involved in global networks.  It is not enough to simply join these networks and observe – this is regarded as ‘taking’ – we must share, create for the benefit of others and reciprocate.

On the other side, when people stop to think about it, such as over the Christmas break, there is a realisation that all this connectivity can very easily get out of control and become an unbearable burden.  Blog posts by Will Richardson and Beth Kanter both discuss this from different perspectives. There has been a discussion on Quora to which George Siemens contributed and we have been reminded in some posts of Clay Shirky’s suggestion that information overload is a consequence of filter failure.

Of course, as soon as people have a break – such as we have just had with Christmas and New Year – it suddenly hits us that there must be more to life than …… whatever it is that puts our life out of balance – such as has been perceived in recent online discussions and posts as an imbalance between connectivity and information overload.

But I’m wondering whether it is information overload that is the problem. Isn’t it more a lack of understanding about what we mean by connectivity and what role connectivity should play in our lives and learning? It seems that it is often interpreted that more connectivity is better – more connectivity means more learning, more connectivity means being able to keep up. But is this true? Would an answer to this question sort out the information overload problem?

Connection is why we’re here

I want to thank Heli for posting this video link to a talk by Dr Brene Brown. Brene Brown is certainly a gifted speaker and as Heli discusses with John Mak on his blog – vulnerability is inside everyone. I think this would be hard to deny – especially in relation to online connectivity.

I have watched the video a couple of times and have thought about it a lot. I have also heard an alternative perspective from a valued friend and have come to the conclusion that the problem with these talks is that they play on our emotions to the extent that it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees.

Brene Brown starts her talk by saying:

Connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.

She then goes on to say:

… the ability to feel connected ….. is neurobiolically how we are wired – it’s why we are here.

And then she goes on to talk about the vulnerability of those who feel disconnected and the reasons for this. She is a very entertaining speaker, so it is easy to be swept along on the emotive wave of her talk.

But the thing is that her talk was based on the massive assumption that everyone wants connection. I can see that those who want it and feel disconnected might have the problems of vulnerability that she describes – but what if you don’t want it?

Or alternatively – what if your personal interpretation of connection is connection to concepts rather than to people. Brene Brown talks about us being neurologically wired for connection – but that does not mean that these connections have to be social.

To me it seems that the emphasis in connectivism is often on social learning and social connections. My friend and colleague Matthias, has discussed this on this blog (see for example this blog post – . Personally I very much enjoy discussions with close friends/colleagues about mutual interests, so I am not anti-social – but I am aware that the extent of my social connection is very small compared to others on the web. I have no need for a wide circle of friends or connections and I respect those who prefer to be connected to concepts rather than people.

So it seems to me, that if we are talking about connectivity, we need to first surface some assumptions about what it means.