Understanding and Promoting Autonomy in UK
PART 1. Conditions evident in teaching and learning
a. Community/peer learning & dialogue
b. Peer review
c. Reflection on learning
d. Negotiated learning activities
f. Evaluation of performance (though supported by tutor feedback)
PART 2. External influence learners
h. Peer support
i. Peer group (social)
j. Financial and family concerns
k. Other concerns and the experience of personal development
l. A need for [life] change and taking responsibility (attitude)
PART 3. Characteristics of learners (intrinsic)
m. Perception of competence
n. Perceived internal locus of control
o. Intrinsic motivation
According to the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2005) one of the consequences of higher education's emphasis on autonomous learners is the emergence of new strategies to promote autonomy, including distance learning and the use of electronic materials. How such strategies are able to promote autonomy is not made explicit. A link is provided without explanation.
In a National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) report Green et al. (2005) consider how personalized learning, particularly learner choice and technology may be achieved. Whilst the authors state that in working towards personalized learning, assessment has a key role and should be "a positive and constructive experience, engaging the learner and the system in a process of constant monitoring, updating and dialogue" to promote ownership the of assessment amongst students, they offer no pragmatic illustration of the possibilities of technology in enabling this process.
To explore autonomy in an online higher education, the BA (Honors) Learning Research Technology provided a case study environment. A case study was undertaken to establish what methods are available to encourage autonomous learning in a fully online higher education program and to simultaneously explore the nature of autonomy online. The methods used were three fold.
The first was observation of the course provision was undertaken, observing the provision of resources, learning activities and the way things were done within a cohort (year group). The observations were reviewed and developed by two other learning facilitator practitioners for completeness and accuracy.
Second, to gain view of the provision from the researchers perspective, an online discussion was instigated with the aim of exploring researchers perspectives of autonomy and to understand their perceptions of what provision contributes to their autonomy levels. The decision to instigate a discussion in the online community was made to allow asynchronous and thoughtful discussion particularly to allow researchers to act without time pressure. It also allowed thoughtful probing. This method of engagement left a written record of exchanges and thus alleviated data recording issues. Seventeen researchers engaged in the discussion; the size of the year group from which the sample (discussion) group came was eighty-one.
Third, an exploratory researcher case study was undertaken to consider effectiveness of the strategies to promote autonomy and illustrate how an individual engages with these factors.
A single researcher was interviewed and her online community participation analyzed, any engagement with visible autonomy promoting opportunities (including the Independent Learning Plan tool) were identified and analyzed; moreover asynchronous email discussion was undertaken to harmonize the interpretation of the data with the intended conveyance of meaning by the case study researcher.
Facilitator observation of the program structure revealed six ways in which autonomy was promoted. These were inline with the factors found in face-to-face higher education settings. Researchers added further factors, not present in literature or seen through facilitator observation. A summary of the factors present in the program can be seen in Table 2.
Lack of face-to-face contact
(a) Community peer learning and dialogue
(b) Peer review
(c) Negotiated learning activities
(d) Self evaluation
(e) Evaluation of performance
(f) Reflection on learning
a bracketed letters correspond to Table 1 to show the commonality between literature and reality
Having identified the factors that promote autonomy in the degree’s online environment, explanations of how each factor contributes to learner autonomy are hereafter offered.
Community/peer learning & dialogue: Researchers primarily communicate with each other through community messaging (one to many). Initially learning facilitators encourage researchers to join in the community using a range of methods; in the early stages this may involve introduction posts or responses to ice breaker activities. In time the community strengthens and dialogue becomes more developedthe community begins to learn collaboratively, moving towards social learning which is not heavily dependent on one to one support. Researchers are exposed to, and are able to make choices about, their learning within the flow of community dialogue.
Peer review: In the community environment researchers are actively encouraged to share research and research products with the purpose of mutually acting as critical friends and motivators. The researchers gain confidence and a degree of independence through peer review but emphasized the importance of guidance in making this process effective. Guidance on how to give peer review helped researchers to give effective feedback to other researchers. The peer review process was empowering for researchers enabling allowing them to make decisions in what to feedback to others and about how to respond or act based on feedback. depth not
Reflection on learning: Within modules and notably also in assessment there is an emphasis on reflecting upon what has been learned as well as stating what has been learned.The theme of reflection in modules was cited by researchers as a way in which may develop skills for autonomy, as they are able to examine their learning and see their progress and so gain confidence and a sense of control assists reflection as it,ie cuesenvironments; there is a textual record of activity and dialogue upon which thoughtful reflection can occur
Negotiated learning activities: The assessment criteria used within the first year (and beyond) reinforces the desirability of negotiation. To achieve an excellent in the realm of task completion researchers must demonstrate the active negotiation of activities. The negotiation of tasks is supported by online workshops in how to personalize tasks (basic negotiation) and how to renegotiate tasks.
The actual canvas for negotiation varies by module but technology is always involved. One method for negotiation is the electronic Independent Learning Plan (ILP).
Amongst researchers there was a consensus that personaliz
zation is desirable with clear guidance. The need for guidance was captured articulately in the researchers online discussion; “the ILP … is a journey planner using existing networks. - Perhaps I am more comfortable being 'guided' rather than exploring - at the moment anyway". Guidance for the negotiation of learning was seen to come from learning facilitators and peers in the community and also from module resources.
Though negotiation is a key factor in permitting and promoting autonomy it is inherently limited because of the context in which it was being sought; though the program has mechanisms for promoting high levels of autonomy the degree of achievable autonomy was ultimately constrained by those parameters which ultimately define formal qualifications.
Self-evaluation: The use of assessment which gives credit for a researchers skill in evaluating their strengths and weaknesses is a permanent feature in the first year of study across all modules. Like negotiation it is rewarded in assessment. Through guidance in module learning activities researchers are continually encouraged to assess their strengths and weaknesses. Such evaluations and identifications then support research topics in subsequent modules. The need for strength and weakness assessment is both for assessment and for research development.
In addition a skills assessment skills assessment module is presented to the researchers: This module demands researchers reflect upon their academic year, make plans to improve areas of concernThe assessment for this module is not a reinforcement of the decisions made in the process but is based upon the quality of the evidence, discussion and the ability of the researchers to identify strengths and weaknesses. In identifying these areas and engaging in subsequent planning researchers are empowered to take control of their learning, the scaffolding that the module framework allows researchers to choose pathways for development.
Evaluation of performance (though supported by tutor feedback): The use of coversheets (here a document for summative feedback after assessment), learning facilitator formative feedback and self and peer evaluation all contribute towards this condition for autonomy. This combinational approach to evaluating researcher performance may promote planning and researcher control.
Flexible access: The most frequently cited as being a provision for enabling autonomy was simply the provision for researchers to learn whenever and wherever they choose. The ability to communicate with peers in an asynchronous community and to study at a time that suits the situation of individuals, offers a high level of choice for researchers. For some researchers, this flexibility of access and ability to choose comes with high levels of self-sacrifice to participate. They make room for the program or squeezing into busy schedules of existing commitments at home and with work. This requires high levels of commitment, personal organization, and time management.
No face-to-face: The researchers in discussion cited a push towards autonomy from lack of face-to-face contact in the course. Not seeing other researchers encourages independence. It also gives impetus to converse, share work, give peer reviews and accept advice and constructive criticism from others.
Support from Learning Facilitators (guidance): It has been discussed hitherto that researchers require guidance from learning facilitators to prevent isolation, assist in negotiation of tasks and offer feedback. The facilitator’s role is one of scaffolding autonomy. Community facilitation limits the sense of isolation as it gives access to advice from a range of 'guides'. The nature of this guidance is often initially in the form of reassurance and also prompts for the development of ideas as well as the provision of praise and critique. The technology allows access to multiple sources of advice at any time. Accessing a team of facilitators online rather than an individual facilitator only was also seen as a way of exposing researchers to a range of inputs which help in making informed choices in the learning journey. The subtle differences in guidance between the facilitation team offers exposure to a range of ideas, being exposed to a range of views in guidance has the knockon effect of creating the need for choice and decisions.
Media choices: The BA Learning Research Technology actively encourages researchers to use a range of media and genre, often experimentally in their assessment production. Encouragement comes by way of reward for the appropriate use of media in assessment, through modeling in the presentation of media rich and experimental resources, seeding with suggestions for media possibilities in task outlines and also through community discussion. The course in media terms is a blank canvas and researchers can make all of their own media choices. The highly skilled facilitation team, which has expert technical backing are able to receive and assess a plethora of media and genre. One research in discussion outlined the significance of the guidance mechanisms for media choice empowerment; "Being presented with brief lists of media and genre types earlier in the year gave me ideas about how I might present work and thoughts. I am now, as a result of this, having more ideas for the future … because of the wonderful feeling of freedom in self-expression that I felt when working creatively”.
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Selection of autonomous learners at the point of entry: Researchers themselves believed that the act of enrolling online (the method of enrollment for the pathway) for a fully online research based degree set an expectation that the course would involve self reliance. The use of a range of pre-registration taster activities may also have filtered out learners for who the detailed methods of learning did not feel comfortable.
It became clear in the research online discussion that the act of instigating a dialogue had actually caused researchers to consider the concept of autonomy and it was not necessarily something that was articulated or explicitly considered previously. In effect this meant that despite the program providing opportunities for autonomy there was no widely held acknowledgement of the benefits. Researchers were then engaging with an array of opportunities for autonomy but are not equipped with the vision of why they are engaged in this way and what the benefits are.
Learners within the program showed themselves to have different perceptions of autonomy, in their discursive explorations they associated to the concept of autonomy the juxtaposed terms of ‘isolation’ and ‘social learning’, and also ‘freedom’ and ‘guidance’ – paralleling. These associations echoed the way that authors in literature associated different meanings to the concept of autonomy. Particularly it was seen that autonomy could be a negative state of isolation or a positive social experience, autonomy within a group. It was also believed by researchers that autonomy means a sense of freedom, choice, but only after a period of guidance.
An analysis was undertaken (see Table 3) examining how each online autonomy promoting could cause isolation or how it could act to promote freedom and learner control, simultaneously the potential freedom offered by an enabling factor was also identified along with the guidance which is available to reach levels of social freedom and to avoid isolation within the online environment.
The researchers conceptual associations demonstrated how factors seen as promoting autonomy can be potentially isolating and though freedom is sought, guidance may be necessary to achieve this. Analyzing and interpreting the associations between these concepts led to the formulation of a proposed model outlining four possible states of learner autonomy in the online environment (depicted in Figure 3 below). The phases may be seen as:
Guided social learning (NW)
Social learner controlled (NE)
Guided isolated learning (SW)
Isolated learner controlled (SE)
Flexible access (learning whenever and wherever the individual researcher chooses)
Learning without peers in the same space and time can be isolating for some.
Encounters asynchronously and without geographic bounds spark relationships otherwise impossible to maintain.
Choice of study context.
The need for routine amongst some researchers means that guidance in this area may be needed.
No 'face-to-face' contact/physical isolation (creating independence)
Feelings of isolation created by separateness.
New types of relationship.
Freedom for online personas, freedom from physical attributes.
New forms of guidance sought.
Negotiation of modules
Maybe create a sense of being lost when common module content is not shared.
The negotiation process may be a social experience amongst peers and LF's
A sense of self determination may arise
Guidance may be needed to meet the criteria of a formal program and to assist researchers in exploring individual contexts.
Self-assessment done in isolation may be seen as a secluded activity where judgments are difficult.
Self assessment can be completed using community support.
Self-assessment can be seen as a freedom from traditional and unilateral tutor feedback mechanisms.
Outcomes of this process can be an additional source of guidance even when self determined.
Generally seen as social negative reviews and private
Responses may be seen to promote isolation.
Reviewing work in the community can be encouraging and motivating.
Peer review can be seen as a freedom from traditional and unilateral tutor feedback mechanisms.
Reviews and suggestions in this process can be an additional source of guidance.
Community dialogue can combat isolation by providing a link to others.
Dialogue is a social activity.
Community dialogue can allow new ideas to be explored and contribute to personalization.
Dialogue can guide actions in research.
Support from LF's (guidance)
Support from LF's outside of the community may maintain researchers in isolation.
Facilitation may promote social learning through seeding, redirecting individuals back to the group and by weaving discussions to bring individuals together.
LF's can offer guidance that enhances researcher freedom, customizing advice, negotiation and the seeding of ideas for the researcher to develop.
Guidance may occur in community dialogue and through module negotiation, formative and summative feedback.
The online learning autonomy model was formulated from interpretations of researcher discussion. Thus an emerging question is
How does the model work at an operational level?
How does it match individual experiences?
Researcher L BA Learning Research Technologyas a parent and play researcher in February 2005. She by her own measure "low confidence" when she began the course. She felt isolated from others and "daunted" by the online environment but quickly settled in to the community and became a social learner seeking engagement.
In examining this transformation, L herself identified a measure of the change that she felt over the first semester of the program visually marking her sociability on a scale between isolated and social for two points in time; at the start of the course and three quarters of the way through the first year (see Figure 4). Clearly, L felt that she had evolved from being an isolated learner to being a social learner.
In marking herself on a scale of guidance (see Figure 5) L noted the high degree of guidance sought at the beginning of the course; however into her second semester L noted the predominance of her need for freedom.
Figure 5: L's perception of her guidance need levels
L’s journey towards autonomy was scaffolded and facilitated by the factors outlined hitherto. Through the journey she enjoyed freedom to make choices about where and when to study, used guidance from facilitators to combat isolation, used team facilitation as a way to frame choices in learning, used the ILP, took control in her learning through a level of negotiation of activities albeit not a deep level, engaged in peer review which was empowering, and deepened in significance because of guidance, asynchronous community and community trust. Moreover she used the module design (specifically reflection and review of strengths and weaknesses) to plan and control her pathway. L’s journey took her from being a guided isolated learner to a social controlled individual learner. In effect she moved from the SW quadrant to the NE.
There is a great fragility in the online researchers journey towards autonomy. Although in time L considered herself to need less guidance and to be a learner in search of freedom and who had pulled away from isolation, a temporary change of situationcan potentially undermine this for example some downtime of the community servers. Such an unexpected change can cause "panic" and a sense of isolation again. Thus temporarily moving L here in to the guided social learner (NW) quadrant of the autonomy journey. A return to a need for guidance and a sense of isolation can re-emerge.
There are numerous ways in which autonomy may be promoted in online higher education. Six of the methods of autonomy are congruent with those identified in a traditional context, dand In
n the context programme particular.in principle similar to face-to-facee face-to-face onbe otential forface-to-facethe technology can learners experience and
In addition parallels found with face-to-face five not identified in literature as autonomy promoters were identified .Of these five factors, three (flexible access, lack of face-to-face and self selection) exist because of the inherent nature of the online course; they are consequences of online environment. However the three factors act to be enabling because they sit in a wider approach that scaffolds autonomy, these factors alone may result in isolation without the guidance and scaffolding which are present by design.
The researchers perceptions of autonomy were peppered with apparent contradictions, as they viewed autonomy as isolation but also in a more positive vain as involving social interaction. A further contradiction was the idea that guidance was needed to achieve autonomy but that autonomy was in essence about seeking freedom. Through an exploration of these relationships a model depicting the possible phases of online learners autonomy has been formulated. The success of the autonomy promoting factors may be judged in terms of their ability to move learners to become social learner controlled individuals. The model proposed was an interpretation of the data and thus is context bound, whether the stages correspond to the experiences of learners in other online contexts, in face-to-face learning situations and at later stages within an undergraduate journey remains unknown, an area for further research.
The effectiveness of strategies used to foster autonomous learning is dependent upon the ability to oust isolationism as a force within the same factors that seek to promote degrees of freedom and self-determination. The path to online autonomy is determined by guidance provision as well as the availability of opportunities for freedom. How technology and the online environment can shape guidance and enhance opportunities for autonomous freedoms is charted here within one context, there is no order of priority attached to the factors in this exploratory study. Nor is the degree of interdependence factors explored in depth beyond noting that the whole pathway experience influence autonomy. This study relates to the first year of an online degree course; whether the autonomy related needs of researchers and the conditions for autonomy change as researchers progress to years two and three remains an area for further consideration.
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Lydia Arnold is a researcher and online learning facilitator based at Ultralab, Anglia Ruskin University, England. Within these roles she has been involved in the development of online resources for learning and has contributed to the development of successful learning communities. Her current research interests include facilitation methods and distributed teams. After completing her degree in Education and Geography with Mathematics at Keele University, where she also completed her Post Graduate Certificate in Education she moved in to research at Anglia Ruskin University's Health Business School where she had became involved in researching online communities for health professionals, with particular attention to the use of video resources as a stimulus to social learning. Lydia now works fully remotely as part of Ultralab’s distributed team.
Lydia Arnold, Ultralab, Anglia Ruskin University, Bishop Hall Lane, Chelmsford, CM1 1SQ. England.
Tel: (+44) 1245 252 007
 Ultralab, Anglia Ruskin University, Bishop Hall Lane, Chelmsford, CM1 1SQ.
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