Posts Tagged ‘autonomy’

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Fifteen years ago I was working in an institution which invested in Blackboard as its first VLE. Looking back, I remember how relieved I was when the institution got Blackboard. We had been running a distance learning programme by email and paper correspondence. The mixed messages going to the students by email from all the different tutors on the programme was a bit of a nightmare. Blackboard saved us from that. We were able to have all the information about the programme in one place, visible to everyone, we didn’t have to send out endless emails to large cohorts of students and we were able to cut down on paper correspondence. However, what we did need to do was learn how to use Blackboard, how to organise the programme on Blackboard so that students could easily find their way round and access the materials, and most of all (and most difficult) learn how to interact with students and teach on Blackboard, which involved a new pedagogical approach. Some tutors found this problem insurmountable, others, myself included, found the potential exciting.

Fifteen years later, I don’t see huge changes in Blackboard and there are still tutors for whom online learning is an anathema. But 15 years later I am no longer relieved to be working in Blackboard. I now find it an obstacle. Things that should be easy, such as blogging, editing and uploading videos, live synchronous sessions, using wikis etc. are unnecessarily difficult in Blackboard, or they are in the version of Blackboard that I am using.

A bit of context is needed here because others using Blackboard might not have the same issues in their courses and in their institutions. The context is the development of an online MA in Education. This is a recently revalidated programme which is ambitious in design. Hats off to the programme team and programme leader for this. The programme includes thirty-four modules varying between 10, 20, 30 and 60 credits which are distributed across 6 different learning pathways. The idea is that this will allow people in full-time demanding work, who are time poor, to build up the required 180 credits slowly or more quickly, as they wish, and thus have a chance of fitting the MA around their demanding work loads. I am currently working with 10 tutors on this programme, and thoroughly enjoying working with them face-to-face and learning from them.

From the perspective of the management of a complex programme, a centralised location such as Blackboard can help students to orientate themselves. A well managed programme can ensure a consistency of approach which will reduce confusion and help students to navigate the site and find the appropriate modules for their personalised programme. Tutors and students can maintain an overview of the entire programme, whilst at the same time easily locating their modules. The Blackboard programme site also provides a centralised and secure location for any work related to assessment. These are arguments that can be put forward in favour of a VLE/LMS like Blackboard.

But what are the downsides of working within a VLE like Blackboard? In 2009 Stephanie Coopman, in a critical examination of Blackboard’s e-learning environment, wrote:

…. the intensely hierarchical nature of Blackboard persists producing a textualized approach to teaching and learning. This hierarchy reflects the power structure embedded in e–learning management systems: Blackboard Inc. designers and marketers who determine the learning environment’s structure; university administrators who determine which features should and should not be included as well as instructor access to managing features; instructors who determine which features should be available to students and how the class website should be structured within the platform’s parameters; and, students, who determine how they will use the interface within the structure designed by Blackboard Inc., university administrators, and instructors.

Notice that students come right at the bottom of the list here. In Blackboard it is easy as a tutor to fall into the trap of thinking of teaching as something that is done to students, and as students to think of learning as something to be received. For both tutors and students autonomy can be constrained by the functionality of Blackboard. As Audrey Watters writes (2014) it ‘shapes, limits and steers our practices’.

In September last year Audrey Watters gave a talk to Newcastle University – Beyond the LMS , where she ended up by saying …

Let’s move beyond the LMS, back to and forward to an independent Web and let’s help our students take full advantage of it, because in her view ‘Blackboard sucks’.

Whilst I hold many of the same reservations about Blackboard, how is a tutor or student to respond to this? The fact that ‘Blackboard sucks’ doesn’t help those tutors and students who have to work within these constraints. They don’t have much of a choice.

For the people I am working with i.e. the tutors and the IT and library support people, the students are not at the bottom of the hierarchy but are their first concern. These are people who are immensely skilled at what they do, with years of experience behind them, but there’s no getting away from the fact that Blackboard is a constraint. For some this is a conscious constraint, for others it is unconscious. But isn’t that life? We all work within constraints of one sort or another.

How could Blackboard’s constraints be minimised? How can students and tutors reap the benefits of Blackboard, i.e. ease of finding resources, maintaining an overview of the programme, and the security of the assessment submission process, whilst at the same time reaping the benefits of autonomy, openness, diversity and connectivity offered by the open Web? On reflecting on this I think it has a lot to do with having an appropriate mindset. We have to recognise what the positives of working within an LMS might be, acknowledge the constraints, keep an open mind, be willing to experiment (and fail sometimes) and look for ways to overcome the constraints.

I have not been contracted to work with students, but if I were, I would look to see how I could support student autonomy and I would also want to increase my own autonomy. I think these are some of the things I might try. I would try to encourage students to set up WordPress blogs and would aggregate them within Blackboard, I would try using Skype and Google Hangout, providing links within Blackboard, I might try using a Facebook site or Google + for discussion, again providing the link within Blackboard (although personally I am not a fan of Facebook) and if I wanted to use a wiki I would try using pbWorks or Wikispaces, and provide the link in Blackboard.

The question would then remain, how open should these spaces be, and how accessible would they be for all the students? I know that the institution I am working for is concerned, quite rightly, about mobile access. And I also know that students can feel very vulnerable in open spaces. We ourselves, as tutors, can feel vulnerable in open spaces. These are not easy decisions to make and each tutor has to individually decide how best to work with their students, and what is best for them.

Ultimately it all comes down to personal philosophies of education; what do we want for our students, what kinds of spaces and environments do students need to learn in this digital age and how will we meet them in these spaces?

As I wrote in a recent post after hearing Ron Barnett speak at Liverpool John Moores University

The curriculum is not as important as pedagogy, i.e. the student/teacher relationship. We need to open up pedagogical space for our students and search for spaces of possibility. We should support our students in developing the dispositions needed for a world of challenge.

I think this can be done, even within Blackboard!


This is what I have thought most about over the past month – so this is my post for June 2015, although I have also made other posts during June.

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rhizo Screen_Shot_2013-09-17_at_8.51.41_PMWhen I saw the title for the Week 2 topic – Enforcing Independence –  my immediate thoughts were ‘Oh no – here we go again – another one of Dave’s provocative statements’,  and ‘Of course you can’t ‘enforce’ independence’.

Other people in the P2PU forum seem to have had similar thoughts, some people have dismissed the idea out of hand and others appear to have completely ignored it, going off down their own rhizomatic paths. But Dave has given us an example of what he means by ‘enforced independence’ by sharing his syllabus for his f2f course ED366 Educational Technology and the Adult Learner, which he says is an example of how he tries to balance the enforcement.

Having read this document, I find myself, as with the topic ‘cheating as learning’ last week, not opposed to the underlying reasoning, but thinking that both ‘enforce’ and ‘independence’ are once again the wrong words.

By independence I assume we mean ‘capable of thinking or acting for oneself’ . Well yes we want learners to be able to do this. How would this be exemplified?

The thought that immediately comes to mind is that in nursery school we want little children to be able to put their own coats on, take themselves to the toilet and so on. But more than this we want them to be capable of deciding when they need to put a coat on and when they need to go to the toilet. And beyond this we want them to have the freedom to make their own choices and take the consequences of those choices, and this is what I would call learner autonomy – which I see as different to independence and more what I would aspire to.

Dependence is not necessarily a problem. Some learners, for example those with special needs, will always need to be dependent on others to support them, but they can still be autonomous – free to make their own choices.

And as some have already mentioned in the P2PU forum, we don’t necessarily want learners to be isolated from each other, but rather learn to learn through interdependence.

In Dave’s course that he has shared with us, learners seem to have some autonomy, some choices that they can make, but is there scope for more?  That would be my question. Ultimately we want learners to be able to make their own choices. This might mean that the learner chooses not to comply with course requirements if the learner thinks that is in his best interests. This level of autonomy is very challenging for teachers, who even when they build choices into the curriculum, still tend to have some sort of a surround safety net which they hope learners will not fall through. I used to admire those students who were able to say – ‘Sorry, but this is not for me’, recognized their own autonomy and acted on it removing themselves from the course – but of course this autonomy had a negative effect on my programme’s retention figures! Just in this one example you can see the tensions that autonomy can raise for a teacher.

Despite this, I would prefer the aspiration of autonomy rather than independence. Independence implies cutting the apron strings, but autonomy is not about casting adrift – more about freedom.

And I don’t think autonomy can be enforced – otherwise it wouldn’t be about choice!

I don’t think Dave has ‘enforced independence’ on his students. I think what he has done, as he is doing in this course, is to create the conditions in which learners have opportunities to exercise their autonomy. Autonomy is not black and white, but comes in degrees on a scale of less to more. We can’t make people autonomous or independent. Any attempt to do this would be to consolidate the teacher’s position as based on a whole set of power structures, further creating a reliance on the teacher for setting objectives, assessing progress and giving direction.

But we can model what we mean by independence and/or autonomous learning, as Dave is doing in this course. We can provide the opportunities and learning environment in which autonomy is fostered, but then we have to let learners make their own choices. You don’t need mature learners for this. One of the best places to see this interdependence and autonomy in action is in a nursery classroom, where the teaching approach is based on a High Scope Curriculum  and where

The most important segment of the daily routine is the plan-do-review sequence, in which children make choices about what they will do, carry out their ideas, and reflect upon their activities with adults and other children.

So autonomy and interdependence are the words for me – not ‘independence’ nor ‘enforce’.



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An interesting discussion on the Pedagogy First course blog has sparked off further thoughts about issues around ‘openness’.  This post is, in part, a response to some of the thoughts posted by Alan Levine, and the responses of others, which have provoked this further thinking.

Martin Weller has said that ‘Openness is a state of mind’.   Overall I agree with this, but is openness context dependent? My mind isn’t your mind, my experience might not be your experience, my location won’t necessarily be your location and so on. How we understand and experience openness is individual to each learner. Carmen Tschofen and I discussed this in our paper  –  Connectivism and dimensions of individual experience.

No place is  it more important to remember this, than in a small course/community/MOOC in which novice learners are working alongside ‘expert’ or experienced learners and where the topic is learning to teach.

FSLT12  was such a course, and so too is Pedagogy First – they are both small open online task-oriented MOOCs  focusing on developing learners as teachers/lecturers/facilitators, with an emphasis on developing an understanding of pedagogy. In addition, both these courses are offered for assessment, so, for example, an assessment requirement of the Pedagogy First course is for regular blogging and open sharing of completed tasks; the first task for assessment in FSLT12 was open reflective writing.

‘Openness’ in these circumstances is no mean feat.

Experiences of learners new to working in online environments have been well researched (Sharpe and Benfield, 2005). Feelings of over-exposure, isolation, inability to cope with navigating the online environment, inability to cope with the abundance of information, the lack of visual cues to support interpretation of others’ comments, feelings of disorientation, not knowing how to balance time on and offline, feelings of anxiety and intense emotional responses – are all common examples of how people new to the online environment might feel.

But in an open course we have people with these experiences working alongside ‘veteran’ MOOCers who are familiar with the chaotic complexity and hustle and bustle of the open MOOC market place. These veterans enter an open network knowing what to expect.

So how do we bring these two groups together?  In the Pedagogy First course, there has been a call for mentors, meaning that there is an expectation that experienced MOOCers will support novice MOOCers.

As part of the Pedgaogy First programme we have been asked to buy the book –  Susan Ko and Steve Rossen (2010) Teaching Online: A Practical Guide (3rd ed) Taylor and Francis – and I am looking forward to reading what it has to say about initiating newcomers into an online course. My copy is in the post!

In the meantime I am revisiting my well-thumbed and very familiar copy of Gilly Salmon’s book ‘e-Moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online’. In this she presents a 5-stage model for facilitating online learning.

Gilly Salmon 5 stage model


In my experience, following this model helps to avoid a lot of the pitfalls associated with online learning. Salmon recommends starting with ensuring access, as has been done in the Pedagogy First course, and focusing to begin with on socialization, which she says helps to ensure the success of an online course.

Socialization will of course continue throughout the course, but it is necessary at the beginning to develop the sense of belonging and trust needed to enable later, weightier and more challenging discussions. Salmon says these discussions happen at Stage 5 –  ‘different skills come into play at this stage. These are those of critical thinking and the ability to challenge the ‘givens’ (p.48).

So how does this relate to ‘openness’ in small connectivist MOOCs such as FSLT12 and Pedagogy First? My thinking following discussions in Pedagogy First is

  •  ‘Openness’ as a ‘state of mind’ takes time to develop. It is not a given and cannot be assumed. It should not even be expected, if we believe in the autonomy of learners, i.e. freedom to choose. But if we want it in our MOOCs (thinking here of MOOCs as ‘courses’ as in the case of Pedagogy First) then we should allow time for ‘novices’ to work through the 5 stages of Gilly Salmon’s model.
  • Veteran MOOCers may need to hold back, or at least carefully consider how their posts might be interpreted by novices. This doesn’t necessarily apply to an open network or even to a MOOC such as CCK08, but I think it does apply to a MOOC that has been designed for novices and where there is a recognition that novices will need mentoring.
  • For me when I facilitate or convene an online course/MOOC I hope that the course design/environment will encourage the development of autonomous and connected learners who embrace openness, alternative perspectives and diversity, and engage in critical thinking, stimulating dialogue and reflective learning. This will not happen if they ‘drop out’ in the early stages. One of the criticisms of MOOCs is the high drop out rate.

Stephen Downes has said, to teach is to model and demonstrate, and to learn is to practice and reflect.  So maybe modeling and demonstrating, practicing and reflecting on Gilly Salmon’s model is not a bad place to start for small task-oriented MOOCs.

And finally, perhaps in the case of small MOOCs it is easier to think of them as open courses rather than open networks. Maybe this would bring a different perspective to the way we work in them and what our expectations might be.

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On reflection #fslt12 was a SmOOC – a small open online course. I suspect that just as the number of Massive Open Online Courses of the Stanford type will proliferate – at least in the short term – so too will SmOOCs.

SmOOCs have a lot going for them, principally in terms of the relationship between size, diversity and openness.

We had 151 people register for FSLT12 and 168 register for the Moodle site.  Canada, USA, South America, Africa, Europe, India, the Far East and Australia were all represented and at the time of writing 60 people have accessed the Moodle site within the last 3 weeks. We haven’t yet examined the data in any detail, so these are just rough estimates and we don’t know how many people accessed the Moodle site as a Guest. We had 28 people add their blog to the course WordPress site, but again we don’t yet know how many people blogged about the course, without aggregating their blog.  12 people completed the assessment activities.

So in my terms, compared to some of the MOOCs I have been involved with, this was a small MOOC.

As a result of this experience, my perception is that in SmOOCs, ‘openness’ is safer. It was interesting to observe this in FSLT12, which was open enough to ensure diversity, but small enough to ensure that ‘cliques’ didn’t form and that there was a very good mix between novice and experienced participants, different ages, disciplines and cultures. This in itself is interesting, as in the early days of MOOCs it was thought that large numbers were required for diversity. I have thought about and discussed this before – see

Mooc principles and course design

Change 11- massiveness and diversity

For me the question remains as to how massive does a MOOC have to be to hit the ‘sweet spot’ of diversity and openness. In 2012 Roy Williams, Sui Fai John Mak and I published a paper about the Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC, where some of these tensions were discussed.

In FSLT12 I was surprised at how much diversity there can be in a much smaller MOOC – and equally surprised at how this did not lead to sub groups or cliques but to an apparent genuine desire to interact with this diversity.  In past MOOCs I have been involved with it has been the different cultures and resources that have offered the diversity, but in this MOOC, although it was enriched by different cultures, it was the mix of experts and novices that worked so well. This was particularly evident in the microteaching activity where both novices and experts engaged, supported and learned from each other. My feeling is that this was made more possible because of the smaller numbers and also because the smaller numbers made the learning spaces (Moodle and Blackboard Collaborate) feel more intimate, supportive and safe.

So I can see that SmOOCs can offer diversity with relatively ‘safe’ opportunities for connectivity, interaction, autonomy and openness, but do they avoid ‘group think’? This is something that I need to think more about.

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Yesterday Frances Bell made a presentation to FSLT12 MOOC on

The role of Openness by Academics in the Transformation of their Teaching and Learning Practices

This was a thought provoking session. Frances didn’t throw content at us, tell us what to think or how to think, but challenged our thinking with the questions

  • How can openness benefit my practice?
  • What risks are presented by open academic?
  • What impact is your participation in #fslt12 having on your personal network?
  • What role can openness play in learners’ practice?

Of course there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. It’s all a matter of perception. Frances states

I prefer to think of openness as a default option that can be turned off, not as a zealot’s precept

But when  I recently wrote a blog post raising the question (in response to a post by George Veletsianos)…..

Is openness becoming a ‘tyranny’ that we are all just drifting into? Or is openness essential to the future of education and scholars?

…. Stephen Downes emphatically responded ‘Yes’ it is essential to the future of education and scholars’, but ‘No’ it is not becoming a tyranny. He feels that we have the autonomy to decide whether to be open or not and writes

First, nobody’s imposing anything here; if you want to go back to your structured formal education, where you pay a substantial fee, there are thousands of institutions who would be happy to help you. Second, the openness (and the rest of it) is the result of a critical examination. As I have argued with respect to the principles of successful networks, if you want your social organizations to be effective at all, you need to embrace things like autonomy, openness, interatcivity and diversity.

This was on the 18th May and I have been thinking about it since because I have a great deal of respect for Stephen, but for me the answers to the questions are less clear cut.  I think in the context of Higher Education the problem is that we are in structured formal education, where, if we want to keep our jobs, we sometimes do have to conform to the institution’s requirements – and that may or may not include a requirement for openness. I should say here that I am not in this situation (I am an independent consultant), but I have been in the past and I know from experience that resistance to an institution’s principles might mean handing in your notice, which is probably not an option for many people – although I have done this twice in the past, and fortunately on both occasions was able to move straight into another job. So I think in certain circumstances, openness could be imposed if you do not have the autonomy to resist it.

But I do agree with Stephen that openness is the result of critical examination – which I think fits with Frances’ statement that openness can be thought of as a default option. As she said in today’s session it will not be for everyone in every situation. We each, individually need to decide how open to be, when and where.

So what might be the benefits? I know that the benefits can be considerable, although I think I benefit more from others’ openness than being open myself. I get access to free information and a wide range of alternative perspectives. More importantly I receive support and encouragement from people I may not even have met. People’s generosity through openness on the web and indeed in this FSLT12 MOOC never fails to amaze me.

But I am equally aware of the risks. Openness necessarily means a certain degree of exposure. For introverts and private people in particular this can be difficult. I think I’m in this category. For novices it may be even more difficult. As Stephen says, we don’t have to be open. We can choose not to be. But first we have to have the freedom to make this choice and second we have to have the skills to weigh up what is gained and what is lost by being open or not open, what we should be open about and what we should keep to ourselves – and then of course we need to decide who to be open with – the whole worldwide web, or just a small working team? As Frances has said in the Moodle discussion forum

I really don’t understand why anyone would want to be open (different from honest in that we can choose not to say certain things) all the time – some remarks are better kept from the public gaze.

Openness is not straightforward. It clearly means different things to different people according to their context and it may be something that we cannot take a stance on in the moment. I suspect it may take considerable experience and time to determine what openness means on a personal level and how that understanding will be reflected in our personal practice.

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This year’s fourth Hot Seat discussion in the area of networked learning (in preparation for the 2012 conference) runs from January 9-13. Lone Dirckinck-Holmfeld, Vivien Hodgson, and David McConnell are facilitating a week-long asynchronous discussion, Exploring the Theory, Pedagogy and Practice of Networked Learning.

The Hot Seat discussion has 3 parts:

  1. History of Networked Learning in the UK and underpinning values (this thread has, so far, attracted the most discussion)
  2. The history of networked learning in a Danish context and its relationship to problem based learning (pbl), the role of technology and web 2.0, and the net generation and digital literacy
  3. Ontology, epistemology and pedagogy of networked learning, and relevance to mainstream higher education in the 21st century.

I arrived late for the discussion and it has been difficult to catch up with such a wealth of posting – but so far I have taken away two key ideas.

First, the definition of networked learning used for these Hot Seat discussions is quite narrow and only relates to networked learning in higher education courses. As such David McConnell introduces Part 1 of the Hot Seat by saying that

Networked Learning is based on:
Collaboration and cooperation in the learning process
Group work
Interaction with online materials
Knowledge production

With such a heavy emphasis on interaction, collaboration and group work, this raises the ever difficult question of whether or not participation should be assessed and if so how. In the Hot Seat David McConnell shares his model for assessment which is based on peer and self review. He writes:

The model is discussed, with examples of the process, in CHAPTER FOUR, “Assessing Learning in E-Groups and Communities”in the book: MCCONNELL, D. (2006) E-Learning Groups and Communities. Maidenhead, SRHE/OU Press (pp 209)

With respect to learner autonomy, the premise is the same as that expressed by Erik Duval in his presentation to ChangeMooc (Week 10) – i.e. that if a learner chooses to take a particular course, then s/he must expect to abide by the conditions (such as collaboration, interaction, online participation) stipulated by that course and be assessed in line with these. This was discussed in a previous blog post – https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2011/11/18/the-tyranny-of-sharing/

However, it is clear from the Hot Seat that a lot of thought has gone into and continues to go into, how assessment can be best designed to fit with principles such as learner autonomy, peer-to-peer learning and negotiation.

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Lisa Lane has written a blog post  – The Guiding  Force –  that has captured my interest. In her post, she asks us to identify  our ‘guiding forces’ in planning our work as teachers – or as she calls them – instructors.  (As an aside, I find the use of language here an interesting cultural (?) difference – I assume it is a cultural difference – because I interpret ‘instruct ‘differently to ‘teach’).

For me my guiding forces (as they stand now – but this has not always been the case) are informed by my involvement with MOOCs and connectivism. I cannot think of better guiding forces than autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness – the four principles of learning in Moocs  (described by Stephen Downes ) – with for me an emphasis on autonomy. If we understand what we mean by autonomy (which Carmen Tschofen and I have discussed as ‘psychological autonomy’ – autonomy as an expression of the self – in a paper we have had accepted by IRRODL – but not yet published), then diversity, openness and connectedness all fall into place.

I think assessment would also fall into place – because it would mean that the control of assessment would be in the hands of the autonomous learners – but as yet I can’t see clearly how this would work – other than it would need to be negotiated. So, if autonomy is the ‘guiding force’  and part of that autonomy is that students want their efforts to be validated and accredited – then students will need to have much more control over their assessment. But where does this leave ‘the expert’ and will students have the skills to take control of their assessment?

I think Lisa’s question about guiding principles, highlights the changing role of the ‘teacher’, ‘educator’ ‘instructor’ in relation to their students. Lots to think about in this – thanks Lisa 🙂

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