Learner Autonomy, Control and the Balance of Power

This blog post relates to my study of CCK11.

I have been struggling with how to express my view of the future role of educators in the 21st century.  I have had an idea that centres around learner centred, control and individualism, but simply haven’t been able to articulate this in my writing.

I have just listened to the Facilitator’s elluminate session for the 11th of March.  I am excited to say that after listening to this session, I think I have figured it out, and it is with the help of the participants and the facilitators.  So this article is my first attempt at putting into writing what I believe is the future role of the educator.

Towards the end of the elluminate session, discussion centred around learner empowerment.  The class was asked “What Can Educators Do to Empower learners?”  Many responses included the idea that learners should have choices and control over learning.  Stephen provided a quote from an article by Tony Bates that reviews an article by Sarah Guri-Rosenblit and Begoñia Gros where they state:

… the time seems ripe to acknowledge the fact that putting the students in the center of the learning process, and assuming that the information and communication technologies have the power of turning them into self-directed and autonomous learners have turned out to be quite naïve and unsubstantiated assumptions.

Stephen’s interpretation of the article is that in order to educate people properly, you have to exert power and control.  This then implies the above idea of empowerment as incorrect.

So it would seem that there are two opposing positions.

  1. That learning should be learner focused, and controlled.  Learners decide for themselves what they need to learn, and how to learn it.  Learners are self-sufficient & autonomous.
  2. That learners are incapable of managing their own learning and therefore must be managed and controlled by the teacher – by an expert.  Learning should produce consistent outcomes to assure competency.

Is this a dichotomy?  Funnily enough, a participant in the elluminate session made the point: “its not either / or”.

I have this little philosophy that when faced with two extremes, often (but not always) the answer is somewhere in the middle.  In this case, neither extreme is ideal, so the hard part is finding that middle ground.  The middle is a compromise in gaining most of the benefits of each extreme, with the least of the drawbacks. In this vein, I can see benefits and drawbacks from both positions above.  Too much control and learners become stifled, constrained, inculcated – they become a cog in “the [education] system”.  Too little control and in some circumstances, the learner may be unable to manage their learning to achieve their goals.

So from my perspective, learning can be managed and controlled by a teacher to the extent that it is necessary.  Leading into adult education, teachers and learners should work together to determine when this is necessary and to what extent.  A partnership if you will.  It is necessary when the learner does not know sufficiently enough to make informed decisions about how they go about learning something.  The old adage, “you don’t know what you don’t know” fits here for example.  Think of this level of control as a bootstrapping process (if you are knowledgeable of computers). Wikipedia describes bootstrapping (or booting a computer) as “a technique by which a simple computer program activates a more complicated system of programs.”  This is part of a computer’s startup process.  The teacher provides the simple (or not so simple) computer program that activates a more complicated system of programs – self-learning.  Put another way, the teacher provides the structure to assist the learner in making good decisions about how to learn what they wish to learn and achieve through the learning.  Depending on the context, this may be little or no assistance through to continuous and comprehensive management and support of learning.

Guri-Rosenblit and Gros continue in their concluding remarks: “Most students, even digital natives that were born with a mouse in their hand, are unable and unwilling to control fully or largely their studies.”  I have blogged previously on the notion of learner management in the context of PLEs/PLNs, but I believe it also fits here.  The excerpt below from my article is in response to the suggestion by Educause that “… less experienced students may not be ready for the responsibility that comes with building and managing a PLE”:

Managing one’s own learning is not a trivial task – it’s a big responsibility.  Is it reasonable to expect that everyone be able to manage their own learning to this level of detail?  A noble vision, but is it practical or reasonably attainable, or simply a fairy-tale view of education? … I believe this downside is understated, and why I don’t believe this ideal [PLEs/PLNs] is realistic in a global way – a panacea.

Younger learners will require much more bootstrapping than more mature learners – generally. 🙂  Another trend relates to the motivation of our learners.  Why are they learning something?  Is it to satisfy a burning desire or to attain a piece of paper to get a job?  Is it intrinsic, or extrinsic motivation.  Consider the example used by John Biggs in his theory of Constructive Alignment.  He described two very different students as I explain in my review of his book Teaching for Quality Learning at University:

Biggs introduces two student characters that represent two distinct groups of students that comprise a class.  They are also featured in a short film titled Teaching Teaching & Understanding Understanding.  Their names are Susan and Robert.  Susan is the typical academically minded student.  She comes to classes prepared, including pre-reading class materials, reflection on this material, and questions about her understanding of it.  Then there is Robert.  Robert is characterised as a student who is there out of necessity rather than desire.  He only wants to achieve sufficiently to be able to get a good job.  The course he is doing may not have been his first choice.  He comes to class with little preparation or prior reflection.  He hopes to rote learn and memorise to be able to pass his course.

Robert is not ready to manage his own learning – to be an autonomous learner, and requires considerably more bootstrapping than does Susan.  Susan is motivated to learn, rather than obtain a piece of paper (qualification).  Susan is better prepared and motivated to manage her learning and be autonomous.  She will require less bootstrapping because she is intrinsically motivated to take on the role of being an autonomous learner.

But bootstrapping only provides the contextual knowledge and structure required to support learners to the point that they can autonomously carry on and report back if necessary.  The skills to be autonomous and self-sufficient must also be learned.

This is where I believe our modern education system is letting down society.  The balance isn’t right.  In modern times it is becoming increasingly focused on control and measurement, particularly in K-12, to the detriment of broader skills such as learner autonomy.  The net effect of this focus is task corruption.  It’s no longer about the learning.  Teachers are focused on the measurement.  They are teaching to the test.  As learners move into higher education, they have been conditioned to do the same – learn to the test.  How many times have you been asked, “do I need to know this for the exam?”  So we have our measurement, the learner can do xyz in a classroom with an invigilator, pen and paper, and a wall-clock.  Rowntree said of exams, as quoted by Phillips:

The traditional three hour examination tests the student’s ability to write at abnormal speed, under unusual stress, on someone else’s topic without reference to his customary sources of information, and with a premium on question spotting, lucky memorisation, and often on readiness to attempt a cockshy at problems that would confound the subject’s experts

Is this how we perform in the real world?  Modern education is an assembly line – a sausage factory, churning out shrink-wrapped uniform graduates, with a GPA stamped on their forehead, in the name of quality and standards.  I acknowledge that graduates need to differentiate themselves and that employment is a competitive market, but when you are learning to a test, ultimately how meaningful is a GPA?  My point is that we are too focused on measurement.  We need to get the balance right.

I recently commented on Stephen Downes’ article 10 Things you really need to learn. With the exception of reading, none were integral components of my formal education.  Yet, they are sound in my view because they develop your ability to be self-sufficient – to be an autonomous learner.

So my hope for the future of education is that we can get the balance right.  That learners are sufficiently supported and encouraged to develop the life-long skills of learner autonomy and learning management.  Yet, there are also appropriate structures – a bootstrapping process to help learners make their way and achieve their goals, whatever they happen to be (personal enlightment, or a decent job).



8 thoughts on “Learner Autonomy, Control and the Balance of Power

  1. Hi, Damien

    A nice post and I’m with you on most of your points.

    For the record though, the comments you are attributing to me were in fact made by Sarah Guri-Rosenblit and Begoñia Gros in an article I was reviewing, and Stephen was disagreeing with both their comments, and my views on the article.

    Of course, I believe that we can all learn a great deal informally without a teacher, but I know students often want help and guidance from a teacher, especially when students are seeking qualifications. At a higher academic level, merely providing often unorganized content is not going to help most students. It needs to be located within a learning framework, which teachers are often able to provide. This is my main criticism of a lot of open educational resources, and it is on this that Stephen disagrees with me,

    Best regards

    • G’day Tony,

      Thanks for your feedback, and your point of clarification on the origin of the article. I’ve made the necessary corrections in the original post. 🙂

      I understand what you are saying. That simply having access to content does not imply learning.

      I am concerned with this though. I think that learners are too reliant on teachers to provide this framework or structure. Not to say that it shouldn’t be available or provided, but it should not be mandated. Learners should be able to decide for themselves what is required to learn.

      I guess I am challenging the status quo of our existing society and education systems.

      Society does not value informal learning. It is all about the qualifications – the objective measurement of one’s knowledge and skills for the purpose of employment. Yet, I would contest that our life is made up of more informal than formal learning, and the informal is much more valuable. I for example have learned considerably more through my work experiences than any formal education. I would estimate I learned more in my first year of work than my whole undergraduate degree.

      We should support learners through structured learning to the extent that they require it, but not constrain them in the name of uniformity or standardisation. In the meantime, we should also be developing their ability to be more autonomous, so that learners are less reliant on teachers and the need for pre-conceived frameworks and structures. I don’t think teachers will ever be superfluous, but I think modern education has deskilled learners’ ability to be self-sufficient.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment on my blog Tony.


  2. […] “… So it would seem that there are two opposing positions.That learning should be learner focused, and controlled.  Learners decide for themselves what they need to learn, and how to learn it.  Learners are self-sufficient & autonomous.That learners are incapable of managing their own learning and therefore must be managed and controlled by the teacher – by an expert.  Learning should produce consistent outcomes to assure competency. Is this a dichotomy?  Funnily enough, a participant in the elluminate session made the point: “its not either / or”….”  (Damien) […]

    • Why do some adult people study without help of parents or teachers? They have a network of people with expectations. They learned to be autonomous, there is shame or pride, emotions.

      I’m not sure it is to do with hurt pride in seeking assistance. I think it is more about avoidance of meaningless control – meaningless to the learner.

      We should be developing skills in learners to be able to determine when it is that they need assistance and when not. Decisions are made by teachers that affect the learner. Sometimes this is necessary, such as a child being reminded to do their practice when learning the trumpet. But at some point learners need to become more autonomous and responsible for their learning, and able to make their own decisions. The child at some point might find that late in the evening works better for their practice than when their parent instructions them to do so in the morning. It is this partnership between the teacher and the learner that should lay the foundation of the learning with the aim that the learner continually develop to the extent that they can manage their life-long learning themselves. Part of this skill is the ability to determine when they do require assistance.

      Thanks for your comments Jaap. 🙂


  3. Hi Damien,
    I think you have struck a chord on this – and that our ultimate goal as educators should be supporting each others, and those who want to learn in becoming autonomous learners.

    I resonate with your views: “I think that learners are too reliant on teachers to provide this framework or structure. Not to say that it shouldn’t be available or provided, but it should not be mandated. Learners should be able to decide for themselves what is required to learn.” Often, this has led to a class of learners waiting for the teachers to provide all the necessary resources, and then, the students would become somewhat passive in the whole learning process, as they think their role would be to assimilate all the set resources, and not to sensemake, or wayfind in order to interact, connect with others in the networks.

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