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. http://tihane.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/motivationalbarriers_seci.jpg

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.

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