Learner Autonomy and Teacher Intervention

I am sorry that I missed Paul Bouchard’s talk. I see that the recording has finally been posted today, but I have not yet had a chance to listen to it (so I am more than a week behind now in the Crit Lit course) – but I had to make a long train journey today, so had the time to  read his article…

Bouchard, P. (2009). Some factors to consider when Designing Semi-autonomous Learning Environments. European Journal of e-learning, Volume 7, (2),June 2009, pg. 93-100. Available from http://www.ejel.org/Volume-7/v7-i2/v7-i2-art-2.htm

… which offered some perspectives on learner autonomy that I haven’t previously though about.

For the most part his article reflects my own experience. Online/distance learners often equate the flexibility offered by the environment with ‘easier’, ‘less-time consuming’ etc.  which of course isn’t true – and – as he says/writes, it’s up to the course convenors to make this explicit at the start.

However, I was surprised by the generalisation that distance education equates with excessive teacher control. My experience is that instructional designers may tend to do this, not with the intent of controlling the learner, but because they get carried away with the design and technology and lose sight of the learner. Also from my experience, online teachers/course designers can get carried away with the possibilities offered by online resources/information/technology. Again, they don’t necessarily want to control their learners. Rather it may be that they think that the web offers their learners increased choice in the resources available and therefore increased autonomy in choosing which resources to select, so they overload the course with resources and hyperlinks. In doing this they assume that the learners have the skills to filter and select from the wide range of resources that they upload, or even understand that that is what they are supposed to do.

Alternatively online teachers may be concerned that they need to support their learners and they cannot do this unless they can see them visibly online, so unwittingly subject them to the tyranny of participation in discussion forums, in the belief that this is a form of support.

So I suspect it is not so much a matter of teachers/instructors wanting to control the learning, but more that they may lack understanding of how learning occurs in an online environment, what learner autonomy means and that learner autonomy can be a double-edged sword.

One thing I am having difficulty with in Bouchard’s article is where he writes that the teacher/instructor should not participate on a level with the students. Bouchard doesn’t explain or justify this. For me this assumes a distinction (possibly hierarchical) between teacher and learner and that the teacher can’t learn from discussion with the learners or that the learners wouldn’t know, understand or want this. This does call in to question again, who is the teacher and who has the expertise?

Jean Lave in her article Teaching as Learning in Practice (1996) Vol.3, No. 3. Mind, Culture and Activity, about apprenticeship learning, gives us lots to think about. She discusses the case of apprentice tailors in Liberia and apprentice lawyers in a mosque in Egypt, where there is is a lot of self-directed learning, but it is clear who the ‘experts’ and ‘masters’ are – and the experts/masters do intervene. Jean Lave emphasises the benefits of situated and social learning. Is it possible to have an apprenticeship model of learning at a distance and does having a clearly identified ‘master/expert/teacher’ militate against learner autonomy?

So the two key questions that come out Paul Bouchard’s article for me are:

1. Is there a common understanding of what learner autonomy means?

2. Does teacher intervention militate against learner autonomy?