Autonomous and social?

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This topic contains 37 replies, has 22 voices, and was last updated by  jojacob_uk 6 years, 4 months ago.

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  • #10181


    When thinking about activities i ask students to perform, i can easily think of ones that are individual and directed or even social and directed (eg prepare a group presentation on a topic). These activities are also easy to assess as they are directed and rubrics can be developed.  However, giving students autonomy to “direct “their own learning and to discuss and do this in a group is, in theory, a great idea.  As a teacher, it means that I will need to respond to the unexpected (rather than the planned). For students, perhaps this may also be unsettling as they are “used” to being directed and may have adapted to this approach. This comment is based on my observation of student reactions when I flipped the classroom- a number of students who had good academic records found it difficult to adapt to as they had spent a number of years in undergraduate degrees mastering how to succeed in a traditional learning system

  • #10272

    Maren Deepwell

    Hi Jennifer, that’s an interesting reflection. I would be interested to find out what you think about the role of technology in there different types of activities you describe.

    • #10339

      Hi Jennifer,
      I too have observed that when some students are confronted with the “wide open spaces” of self-directed learning, they can become overwhelmed and have difficulty in figuring out how to proceed.
      This may be because, as you suggest, that students are used to learning  as being comprised of very structured activities in which their role as learner was well defined.  In self-directed learning, the “script” is completely changed, turned on its head even.  So learners now have new roles, different roles and for many of these learners, there is no “script” that they can call upon to help them navigate the situation.
      I think it would be the same for any of us who went into a situation with expectations for norms that were not met.  We too would be disconcerted and there would be a period of transition as we learned to adjust to the “new normal”.
      I suspect that, as instructors who are interested in promoting self-directed learning, we may find ourselves having to lead many learners through a ‘transition phase ‘ as they acclimatize to this learning approach.



      • #14670

        meg colasante

        Hi Jennifer and Kathy-ann,
        I’m late in adding my 2 cents worth in this discussion (any #ocTEL discussion!), but I think this is a really important discussion you raise. I know of teachers at my University who have integrated excellent autonomous-social learning designs, but haven’t noted immediate benefits. Thinking at the moment specifically of one particular cohort, the students rose to the change of problem-based learning in an intensive post-graduate program, using their LMS discussion features to collaborate outside of class hours. They contributed a good deal of effort, then gave the teacher a not very healthy score in the student experience survey. However, some of these students who stayed connected through their alumni were able to feedback to the teacher that the real ‘aha’ moments came in their post study practice. There are three issues here (the first two are both rather shallow): (1) the survey is too soon – the students haven’t reflected on the learning benefits of being challenged just yet, (2) should this teacher give up something complex that works just to get a better teaching score? (3) Making sure debriefing activities include real and applied examples of application of this learning into the real workplace (e.g. input from a current practitioner).
        Kathy-ann, ‘the “wide open spaces” of self-directed learning [becoming overwhelming’ and Jennifer the messiness in ‘[responding] to the unexpected (rather than the planned) [and] For students… unsettling’ is much appreciated. But I feel the students will miss out on being challenged and better prepared for professional life if we don’t incorporate these messy autonomous-social activities in at least parts of their learning program (not saying that you don’t – you both obviously do as you are grappling with this).
        Thank you both for catching my eye with this important issue – this is my first reply to anyone in ocTEL! (I’m obviously not as autonomous-social as I believed I was…!)

    • #25165


      Chosen learning activity: small group exercise sorting attributes cards into skills and qualities. Learners post-16, unemployed, usually male. Part of employability programme.

      Currently sits in: social/directed
      Could move it to: social/autonomous
      To move it to social/autonomous would require additional time for activity and ICT resources so that learners could explore what skills and qualities are valued in their selected industry.
      The assessment in both cases would still have to be individual.

      Would this be an improvement?
      Yes and no…. This activity happens very early in the course, too early perhaps to get small groups working cooperatively enough together to decide on their own autonomous approaches and outcomes to tasks – though this would be a useful strategy later on in the course. But the positive difference would be they might be more more motivated if they feel in charge of the activity and they might learn more.

      Technology required:
      At least one computer per small group. They could use their own devices but this might highlight disparities within the group – the have s and have nots.

      At what points are there opportunities to express opinions and instincts?
      I like to get people talking about their own ideas a lot – and there are no seriously wrong answers in employability at entry level 3! Or in management at level 3 for that matter, as long as people can justify their opinions at that higher level.

      At what point do learners need to absorb info and how?
      Not a massive need on this course, particularly since learning and assessment happen simultaneously.

      At what point do learners work with fellow learners?
      Almost constantly during each learning activity, and less so during assessment although they can if they want. Occasionally a learner does not want to work with others, and most of the time I am ok with that if that is their preference or it is linked to some learning difficulty or disability. But I try to encourage them to work collaboratively over time.

      What percentage of the course is assessed individually or as a group?
      Almost 100% individually. I would like to do more group projects but, although I think the assessed work would be better and more interesting, the awarding body will want details of which bits are the learner’s own work, so they will have to do extra work on top to explain their own work – extra tedium.

      Do I think this would be better done using TEL?

      I think the success of this activity as it stands is in its face to face immediacy and speed. You get good discussions and debates going very quickly, plus the cards are tactile and facilitate physical presence. I think doing this asynchronously online would be very stilted and slow (if you got any going at all – I think most people would compile their own list and go no further). If people had to do their own research it would take a lot longer, with much opportunityfor ‘social loafing’ in small groups – so perhaps better done in pairs. What about some kind of game, where pairs had to race against the clock to sort the cards? That might be quite fun…

  • #10484

    Tom Franklin


    I don’t know which sector you work in, but in schools (in the UK at least) so much of what children have to learn is dictated by the curriculum, and exam results are so important for both children AND schools that it can be very difficult to give children much autonomy most of the time. I have just been watching this video which is an appreciation of Seymour Papert and his ideas, and the need to think about thinking about thinking (I think that I think that I think that I have the right). 50 years ago he was pushing for some of the same ideas.

    • #10804

      Gary Vear

      I think it is becoming very difficult for learners to be autonomous.

      This is my biggest grievance with the UK Education sector, thee is no correlation across levels.

      Learners spend so much time in secondary education learning how to pass an exam. They have required information they must know about and GCSE’s have now become a glorified line learning exercise.

      This is increasingly frustrating for those that teach in FE as by the time the learners get to us, they panic when given an autonomous task and really struggle to achieve. The truth of the matter is that they have the notion of independent thought bludgeoned out of them by the curriculum between 5-16 and they effectively are starting all over again when they go to college.

      • #11386

        Santanu Vasant

        @vearg – I agree with your comments here, this is a common issue that teachers all standards have on the preceding level and as someone who’s seen and taught (a little) at all age groups over the years, it’s often that teachers are, as you say teaching to the test, which isn’t allowing time for autonomous and social learning, because it doesn’t fit the model of assessment. You can design assessment that is flexible to autonomous and social learning, but too often the ‘test at the end of a module’ is the assessment, leading to a pedagogical approach that is narrow.

        @philtubman – I agree, so just to ask an open question to this forum, how would you go about making learning autonomous and social in a HE setting, whilst meeting the University guidelines for assessment? I ask this, because as a Learning Technologist I get asked this all the time “but I want to do this, but the Senate Regulations or the way it’s done in my department is like this”….

        • #11391


          Santanu, I think I can answer that question. I think it is to do with a portfolio approach to assessment. This also can work well I think in a work placement setting.

          The learning outcomes for tasks need to be negotiated in advance with the learners, within certain boundaries. We have a tutor at Lancaster who teaches project management in a practical way, whereby they work with someone real to complete a project, so the outcomes are different every time. He gets them to submit reflective pieces every week which get peer reviewed through the workshop tool in moodle.

          I think this is where HE should be – working with real people, and in small reflective groups, producing portfolios of practice, and peer reviewing the process. 🙂

        • #14094

          Santanu Vasant

          Thanks Phil, yes I agree totally, I wanted the other OCTEL-lers to have their say here ;), but yes, Portfolio based assessment is so under used in Higher Education. I think it’s because the curriculum has be altered and lecturers are not as comfortable with letting go of teaching in a traditional way. Seen good and bad examples of practice in this way.

          There’s no easy way to get good practice with technology to get learners to autonomous and social, it requires just as much if not more preparation as face to face, as a video I saw many years ago from Professor Gilly Salmon taking about preparation of teaching with technology versus face to face teaching, the latter you can wing it, the former you can’t!

        • #13053


          Would a social and autonomous approach work in a mainstream 11-17 school environment?   How would that look?

          It seems to me, also, that children are learning in order to be able to pass A-levels. I used to think that this was an awful approach but by watching my daughter who currently repeats exam papers over and over in prep for her A-level exams,  I can see that learning is taking place as she tries to understand why she gets something wrong, finds out the correct information by videos on web sites (!) or the teacher, then finds out how to put it right and how to work it out correctly next time – isn’t that process autonomous?

        • #13067


          Hi Louise, I think that approach is individual, rather than autonomous, as it is directed by the paper, although there are aspects of autonomy to the research process. I think autonomous study is a bit like this course as in you make up your own learning outcomes and then autonomously strive towards them (socially in this case).

          I think the problem with doing exam papers over and over is that although it teaches you how to pass the exam, it doesn’t necessarily include the ability to apply the new knowledge in a different situation ie with creativity.

          I did past papers over and over with my schooling, and it did get me fair results, but i did feel a bit ‘schooled’ by the end of it which I didn’t realise about until after starting a philosophy degree which opened my mind to new things. i think there is a danger we confine knowledge and learning to certain situations such as formal tests, we become less able to question the process of learning, and end taking the path of GCSEs, A Levels, Degree for granted when there are other ways…

          Going a bit off topic here, but hope it helps in some way.

          • This reply was modified 6 years, 5 months ago by  philtubman.
        • #13407

          Cinzia Gabellini

          Hi Louise

          Sugata Mitras ‘whole in the wall’ experiment is a great example showing that children are able to learn social and autonomous. The children even had to learn and teach each other english before understanding how to search the interent. See videos at Explorer activity 1.4. What’s the theory?

          I think autonomous can be for to both. A single task/activity, such as your daughter is learning for the exam as well as to choosing the topics and learning outcomes as @philtubman describes.

        • #14667

          Paul Rettey


          A lot of interesting observations here that are pointing in the direction of a more joined up approach

          Santanu’s comment: “ask this, because as a Learning Technologist I get asked this all the time “but I want to do this, but the Senate Regulations or the way it’s done in my department is like this”

          Garys comment “This is my biggest grievance with the UK Education sector, there is no correlation across levels. Learners spend so much time in secondary education learning how to pass an exam. They have required information they must know about and GCSE’s have now become a glorified line learning exercise…”

          It seems to point to a disconnect in the way learning is thought of, and I’d point towards the way the systems and policies are set up across the UK.

          The system is set to be competitive instead of collaborative and this is not something desired by some teachers or learners. You just got to look at the way funding works and the competition for places at top institutes (even among some academics), and I have always thought that the league tables misrepresent the good work that goes on across all Institutes, they are also destructive for senior management, but the DfE aren’t interested in this, and it could be argued that neither are the leading academic institutes, after all they need to maintain their position as leaders to make sure that funding continues to pour in.

          All you have to do is look at the way institutes promote themselves and the marketing literature they push.

          The threat to this is MOOC’s after all, all you need are good tutors, well designed materials, a decent internet connection and a passion to learn. You don’t need traditional lecture theaters or classrooms, you just need spaces to learn and occasional face to face contact, it just so happens this is conducted at schools, colleges and universities, but these aren’t really needed other than to maintain a sense of ‘brand’,  they are learning environments.

 needs a rubber stamp of approval from a top institute for it to be credible with employers, this is where it likely becomes an issue for learning through MOOC’s. I digress a little but bear with me, there has been discussion about leading technology companies getting involved in learning (Google, Microsoft, et al) and to be honest their intervention is likely to be pivotal as nothing says it better than a qualification accredited by Google (or Microsoft) as they DO know their stuff. However the question remains if they can go it alone or do they need to work with leading academic institutes in order to gain publicity. If they go it alone and decide not to engage with institutes this is likely to be perceived as a large threat to their position and the likely reaction is ‘prepare to repel boarders’.

          None of this is helpful for the learner or the economy as a whole, personally it’s a small wonder that some survive the education system and even learn something. I maybe a bit of a philistine in my thinking, but I put this down to the efforts of teaching staff managing to enable the learner despite the institute trying to sabotage their chances.

          And.. to get you thinking

          Why not just tear down all the Schools, Colleges and Uni’s in Oxford, Cambridge and London, build super campuses that will carry the learner through from pre-school to post grad? It’s got to more efficient and joined up and it’s also got to be less socially divisive among learners….

          I’ll get off my soap box now.

          “The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn.”
          ~Alvin Toffler


          • This reply was modified 6 years, 5 months ago by  Paul Rettey.
        • #25166


          I agree that his experiments are really interesting, and we see and do this all the time when we want to learn about something because it is a new interest. Recently I have become something of an expert in gallbladders and gallstones (you can guess why) while my husband is learning all about cigars for some unfathomable reason. But both of us are motivated to learn about these things in multiple ways and through different channels.

  • #11581


    I agree that students are not always keen or even able to take a larger role in the learning process.  Generally, students in my institution (adult learners from many nationalities) are willing to make small changes towards more autonomy, but still believe that the teacher should step in frequently.

    • #14210


      I’d agree with this, Vanessa. I am in the process of writing a blog at present about the ‘veneer of autonomy’ that I think exists in my classroom at present. If someone observed my students in class, they’d fully believe they had strong independent working skills yet they still rely on me for the answers. I actually believe that using technology has provided them with more autonomy and I’m looking forward to developing these skills with them next year. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has been working to make a course more autonomous.

      • #15998

        Santanu Vasant

        @vanessa-todd and @hannahtyreman – I agree about the making students more autonomous – I didn’t come in until now to give you the veneer of autonomy 😉 !

        I think the assessment practices of A-Level programmes don’t help, as the student lock down and focus on the mark and in the arts subjects where the answer is less defined by right or wrong and more about reason, this hinders the true autonomy of the subject. I found this when teaching A-Level ICT too, where to get the answer was the be all and end all for the student. I think some scenario based learning via plays and real world ‘tasks’ to get the real passion for the subject across. Probably a bit of a late ramble to this topic, some great answers here!

        • #25167


          The veneer of autonomy – what a great topic! That will certainly set me thinking about things as I am working!

          But how much autonomy is there when the awarding bodies specify what is to be learned and how it will be assessed. The teacher has some autonomy in some circumstances, but I don’t think many of us would hand too much autonomy to the learners in case success rates drop along with funding and OFSTED grades.

  • #14541

    Alicia Vallero

    Reading these posts I feel I could have written them!
    Education has killed any curiosity and any opportunity of self-determined learning (I found reading about heutagogy this week particularly enlightening!
    We have a hard job in front of us and we will probably never see the education system reformed in such a way that it restores student motivation to learn just because they want to (they want to be a doctor a teacher or an engineer, they want to know about literature or science or whatever it is that they WANT) and not to pass an exam and get a piece of paper that says that they are a doctor or a teacher or an engineer, that they know about literature or science or whatever they have pass their exams for.

  • #14618


    Hi Jennifer – I think the idea of students being ‘’unsettled’ by autonomy is a very real one. In Further Education, where I work, there are always learners who feel this is ‘second chance’ education. Often they tell me that they messed up before, but this time they are committed to being a ‘good’ student. And that they are going to sit still, not speak in class, listen carefully to what the teachers say … and then they look most surprised when I tell them we want them to move around in class, talk to their colleagues and challenge what he teachers say.
    It dies take some time to get used to, but the two things that help are(1) persevere & don’t give up – if learners feel that developing autonomy (or anything) is a two week fad then they’ll treat it as such (2) demonstrate to them the benefits of why you are developing autonomy in them. As soon as one or two feel they’re making progress, then others will follow.

  • #15942


    Very interesting forum. I totally agree with Santanu’s entry earlier that at the end of the day preparation for autonomous learning is the key. What strucks me with some lecturers/teachers is that they look for short cuts when using technology but that’s simply not how it works. After reading this forum i have many ideas from all of you what I can suggest to lectures to embed in their more autonomous pedagogy.

    Indeed the mind set of students needs to shift but this can only be achieved by engaging them with a good practice that they can see benefits off.


  • #24052

    Simon Fokt

    I think that giving students autonomy to “direct” their own learning is very important, though not particularly easy. This is something I find to be the most important part in student essay writing – students are required to do independent research on top of the compulsory reading (at least that’s how it works in Philosophy). They are given a general essay topic which can be approached in various ways, and need to find a way themselves. I find though that students are often quite unaware of the technologies they can use in such independent research – it’s likely that they don’t even know how to effectively use the library website to find physical and electronic resources, and they have little idea on how to use various online databases such as JSTOR. At the St Andrews University we offer students help with such matters, but we don’t really require them to use that help (i.e. it’s delivered in form of non-compulsory library or Student Services modules – unsurprisingly, not many students decide to participate in such non-compulsory modules). I think it would be very useful if students were required to prove their ability to use the library and the internet to find resources needed for their independent essay research, and preferably at the beginning of their course. Do other universities require students to do this? It would be useful to know how it is done elsewhere.

  • #24233


    I agree with this.  Many learners require a good deal of scaffolding in order to get them to the end of the journey!

  • #10562

    Moira Maley

    test – I did that test as I know I made a response about the role of technology to Maren’s post higher up and it seems to not be there … it made an analogy of technology as an invisible way of directing learning as an electric fence does stock moving from paddock to paddock.

    I put a tag of electric fence – can you search for that in this area?

    • This reply was modified 6 years, 5 months ago by  Moira Maley.
  • #10853


    I think it might help to think of this in terms of a frame work like Blooms taxonomy or Maslows hierarchy of needs.

    Social and autonomous learning almost always requires confidence in the subject matter, and in oneself (most importantly). It is about presenting your ideas within a group situation and finding your own way through the advice received, and consolidating it back into your own thinking (or your own ‘learning outcomes’)…

    …so not best placed for an introductory task to the subject matter then 🙂

    I think it would help to reflect on where these activity might sit on the Maslow hierarchy. I suspect we are looking right to the top of the triangle with most of these learning activities.

    Also, with reference to Bloom, and to reply to Maren’s comment above about technology use, you might find this link useful as it details technologies and use cases at different points of the taxonomy.


    Social and autonomous learning (and learning how to social and autonomous learn) is vital to studying at university, and the change of learning style is a well documented problem for undergraduates. It is however, a key life skill, and a precursor to digital fluency that will be required to navigate the changing work environment…. I think for this reason it is worth trying to include in secondary and FE curricula although it is difficult as directed study will always be more controllable and therefore favourable.

    • This reply was modified 6 years, 5 months ago by  philtubman.
  • #11595

    Gary Vear

    Hi Phil

    I think your point about social and autonomous learning being vital to study at HE is a fair point, however I would not just limit this to HE. In the past 18 months, there has been a big push in FE for tutors to showcase how they are embedding employability skills within their subjects. My response to this was to highlight the social and autonomous nature of my course/sessions. Regardless of teh learners chosen vocation, the transferable skills they can develop will benefit them in the future, whether that futures is in FE, HE or employment.

    Granted, there are subjects and courses (A-Levels spring to mind) where this may be a pipe dream as the final exam is clearly the focus of the two years of teaching.

  • #13293

    Moira Sarsfield

    I have just participated in a really challenging and enjoyable learning activity that was both autonomous and social.

    This was part of an xMOOC that I’m working on (The Analytics Edge from EdX – Pedagogically this was a fairly typical xMOOC for the first 6 weeks, with lectures, demonstrations and automatically marked assignments. This was mostly directed and individual learning, though there was some helpful discussion amongst participants, mostly focused on specific activities/learning.

    And then in Week 7 we had an online competition ( where we used the skills we’d learnt so far to address an analytic problem. Participating in the competition really consolidated the practical skills and the underlying theory that we’d been learning, and took us far beyond what we’d been taught in the previous weeks.

    Much of the new learning occurred socially through discussion with other course participants; the EdX tutors did not participate in the competition discussion boards at all. While everyone was working on their own models to address the analytic problem, there was great benefit in sharing ideas and discussing approaches. There was also much sharing of useful resources.

    The course and the competition both make extensive use of technology. I wonder if the approach would also work in a face-to-face setting.



  • #13314

    ed3d (Peter)

    @moira I’m curious as to what percentage of students completed the challenge? I appreciate that the dropout rate on MOOCs tends to be high but by week 8 it’s mainly the committed who remain. Were you interacting with people you “knew” from previous weeks on the forums or were you browsing more widely? Having a leader board seems to be borrowing from gamification. Was this a motivating factor for many?

  • #13414

    Cinzia Gabellini

    Hi Moira
    Very interesting experience this shifting from individual to social, the competition task made you curious to start looking what other participants are doing.

    Not sure if this would work in f2f settings. Maybe it could depend if participants know each other.

  • #25168


    Can you give some examples of the types of autonomous learning activities you let them loose with?

  • #13311

    ed3d (Peter)


    • This reply was modified 6 years, 5 months ago by  ed3d (Peter).
  • #13316

    Moira Sarsfield

    The course team gave the following info in week 6: “There are over 25,000 students enrolled. About 3,300 students, or about 13% of the class, worked on the Quick Questions from Week 4. About 2,400 students, or about 9.5% of the class, worked on the Homework Assignment from Week 4.”

    1,686 teams completed the Kaggle challenge, which ran in Weeks 7 and 8, each team consisting of one student.

    I didn’t ‘know’ anyone from the earlier weeks of the course, but connections formed during the competition.

    The leader board was motivating, encouraging participants to keep trying to learn more and improve their models. This led to a much richer learning experience.



  • #13573

    Moira Sarsfield

    Hi Cinzia

    I am unsure if it would work so well in a face-to-face environment.

    Students may be more competitive, rather than collaborative – even though in the long run everyone’s score (and learning) improves if they share insights and help each other.

    The fact that all discussion relating to the Kaggle competition was via online forums meant that it was open and available to everyone; in an offline situation, useful conversations would not be recorded or available for everyone’s benefit.

    I also wonder whether there is another way in which the ‘distance’ of online learning can be beneficial: in that we see others only/predominantly as fellow learners. We don’t have to form a social connection, just a learning connection.

  • #14058

    Cinzia Gabellini

    Hi Moira
    You point at an important issue, the need to be open and visible.
    Looking back at my classes, I teach web technologies to adults in FE (face-to-face), participants create a webpage and make their work visible in the classroom or on the group webserver. Sometimes other ask a peer ‘How did you do it’ and discussion or presentation get started. I also try to foster exchange of knowledge or peer learning by adding social components into teaching (in practice websites are created in teams). It does not work the same for all classes. As a teacher I should be able to shift dimensions.

    I like your thought on the type of connection. Also think “distance” or “online” learning can be a benefit, as it can remove social structures or barriers. It does not matter where you come from, how old you are, what education you have ect., to connect for learning together.

  • #14081

    Moira Sarsfield

    Hi Cinzia

    It is great if everyone can benefit from each other’s learning – leads to a whole lot more learning overall! 🙂

    I like your comment that “As a teacher I should be able to shift dimensions”.  I’ve been trying to think of this question in 3D, with online/offline being added to the individual/social and autonomous/directed axes.


  • #14212


    Hi Gary!
    I’d definitely agree with you about the push for employability affecting the choices we make with the curriculum and technology in positive ways. I teach on A level programmes and live on dreams of a different future. Anyone else out there working on making their A level programmes more autonomous?

  • #25169


    Ooh I like the 3d suggestion!

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