Learner Autonomy in Open and Flexible Learning: the Facilitator’s Role

Dr Abdel Halim Sykes, Teaching and Learning Centre, SIM University

Learner autonomy appears to be an essential factor of success in open and flexible learning. It is, therefore, necessary for facilitators to understand and promote learner autonomy to empower learners to be active and informed decision makers, who take control of their own learning. Learner autonomy is not a matter for learners alone, but should be of concern to all facilitators who wish to maximise the potential of their learners and themselves. Indeed, learner autonomy should be modelled and supported by facilitators exercising autonomy within their own teaching domains.

Facilitator Autonomy

One of the earliest proponents of learner autonomy, Holec (1981), suggests it involves:

  • determining objectives;
  • defining content;
  • selecting methods;
  • monitoring learning; and
  • evaluating what has been learnt.

On closer inspection, it can be seen that these components of learner autonomy apply equally to facilitators’ roles and responsibilities: and, as such, present a description of facilitator autonomy. The corollary of this is that learner and facilitator autonomy ‘are interrelated and overlapping concepts that involve both parties in critical reflective enquiry’ (Murphy and Hurd, 2011, p.44). In addition to critical reflective enquiry, Little (1991) suggests autonomy also requires ‘the capacity for detachment, decision-making and independent action’ (p.4). The ability to step back and reflect on decisions and actions, to assess them and use the assessment to inform further decisions and actions is essential for developing and maintaining autonomy in both learners and facilitators. Facilitators can best promote autonomy among learners by providing a good model of a reflective and autonomous individual within the learning context. Facilitators who are unwilling or unable to reflect on practice and adapt accordingly (i.e., be autonomous) have no right to expect or demand autonomy from their learners. Therefore, flexibility and adaptability are required from facilitators and learners if autonomy is to be fostered and thrive. Simply, facilitators must be free to make decisions and take actions based on the needs of the learners: just as learners should be free to make decisions and act according to their individual and collaborative learning needs.

However, in the context of open and flexible learning, in which blended methods are used, facilitators used to a more didactic approach may feel their identities disrupted and challenged (White, 2007). Foremost among these challenges is the need for I.T. literacy to deliver learning via a variety of technology-based modes: a literacy in which many learners may be more proficient than their facilitators. This situation places learners in a position of power over their facilitators: thereby creating a ground shift in the traditional balance of power between learners and facilitators. In such cases, facilitators need to establish their own autonomy as learners and users of I.T. often in collaboration with their learners, who are more proficient and experienced users of technology.

In a truly blended and flexible learning environment, autonomous facilitators and autonomous learners negotiate and collaborate throughout the learning process to maximise the potential of both to deliver the specified outcomes. Research (Sinclair et al, 2000; Murphy, 2007; Lamb and Reinders, 2008) shows how the changing role of teachers as facilitators is driven by the increasing need for learner autonomy arising from the blended learning movement. Facilitators need to be autonomous in delivering, monitoring and assessing learners and have the liberty, willingness and ability to intervene or not in the learning process as they see fit. Integral to facilitator autonomy is the ability to stand back and allow learner autonomy to flourish and take precedence over facilitator-led intervention when it is appropriate and efficacious. Essentially, facilitator autonomy complements and promotes learner autonomy. Therefore, in addition to imparting knowledge, facilitating for autonomy is a requisite of blended, open and flexible learning.

Facilitating for Autonomy

Facilitators need to have an understanding of learners’ motivations and goals for learning. This understanding can help facilitators to better address the needs of their learners as the course progresses. First contact with learners should involve an activity, perhaps a survey, in which they are required to share their motivations and goals. ‘As well as helping facilitators add the dimension of relevance to tasks, it also enables them to give guidance on how to make best use of the different elements in a blended context’ (Murphy and Hurd, 2011, p.53). Thus, teaching and learning become appropriate and relevant, and meet the needs of learners.

Effective, independent decision-making is central to the concept of autonomy. Facilitators should guide learners by highlighting options available and the kinds of decisions that need to be made as part of a course or programme. This kind of support provides direction without determining specific choices; specific choices must be made by learners themselves. By making learners aware of a range of options and the consequences of each, facilitators encourage autonomy, and motivate learners to be independent and critical thinkers. Learners need to be aware of potential outcomes of given activities and how these contribute to and enhance their knowledge or abilities so that they can make informed decisions about their own learning. Facilitators should offer guidance on expectations, priorities, time management, and materials, in addition to offering guidance on developing a study plan and learning strategies. It is the facilitator’s role to ensure the relationships between all the components of learning, and the usefulness of tasks and activities, are made explicit to learners so that the decisions they make can carry them farther along on their learning journey.

Facilitating for autonomy means encouraging learners to accept ownership of their learning by taking control through thinking critically and making informed decisions: something many learners may find difficult to do. However, facilitators need to step back and allow learners to develop autonomy. This autonomy can be achieved when facilitators take an approach that involves:

  • adopting the role of guide;
  • relinquishing control over decision-making;
  • accepting learners’ decisions on how they choose to proceed; and
  • assuming a passive role in many activities and tasks.

By taking this approach, facilitators promote autonomy through the active participation of learners in making their own decisions and determining the directions they take based on their individual motivations and goals. Moreover, learners are encouraged to draw on the experience and knowledge they bring to their studies as factors in their learning autonomy.

While facilitating for autonomy means offering learners greater freedom in decision-making, it does not mean learners must be wholly independent. Learners need interaction with facilitators and other learners. The facilitators role is to provide purpose and impetus for interaction among autonomous learners, who learn from their peers and collaborate on given tasks as and when necessary. This interaction provides a source of motivation to learners: providing an opportunity to exchange ideas, knowledge and skills. Essential to this exchange is feedback received from peers and facilitators, which validates the learners’ ideas, knowledge and other contributions. Also, as Ryan and Deci (2000) suggest, feedback sustains motivation through positive self-evaluation, which promotes a greater sense of competence in learners. Therefore, facilitators should support the exchange of feedback, not only from themselves to their learners, but also between learners. Autonomous learners have the confidence to share their ideas and offer feedback to others, while being open to receiving feedback from their peers. Developing feedback networks is an integral part of facilitating for autonomy.

Summary

This brief article has addressed the facilitator’s role in learner autonomy. To promote and sustain learner autonomy, facilitators should:

  • practise autonomy as a facilitator;
  • provide a model for autonomy;
  • be aware of learners’ motivations and goals;
  • outline learning outcomes;
  • provide opportunities for learner decision-making;
  • encourage learner decision-making;
  • help learners with choices over activities and tasks;
  • help learners make decisions on materials, resources and technology;
  • encourage interaction and collaboration between learners; and
  • encourage the exchange of feedback between learners.

With facilitators using their own autonomy and facilitating for autonomy, learners are provided with good role models and the guidance needed for developing a more individualised, autonomous and meaningful journey through their studies.

References

Lamb, T. and Reinders, H. (2008) Learner and Facilitator Autonomy: Concepts, Realities and Responses, Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Little, D. (1991) Learner Autonomy 1: Definitions, Issues and Problems, Dublin: Authentik

Murphy, L. (2007) ‘Supporting learner autonomy: theory and practice in a distance learning context’, in Gardner, D. (ed.), Learner Autonomy 10: Integration and Support, Dublin: Authentik, pp.72-92

Murphy, L. and Hurd, S. (2011) ‘Fostering Learner Autonomy and Motivation in Blended Learning’, in Nicolson, M., Murphy, L. and Southgate, M. (eds) (2011) Language Facilitating in Blended Contexts, Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, pp.43-56

Ryan, R.M. and Deci, E.L. (2000) ‘Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: classic definitions and new directions’, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), pp.54-67

Sinclair, B., McGrath, I. and Lamb, T. (2000) Learner Autonomy, Facilitator Autonomy: Future Directions, Harlow: Longman

White, C. (2007) ‘Innovation and Identity in distance language learning and facilitating’, Innovation in Language Learning and Facilitating, 1(1), pp.97-110

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About tlcunisim

This is the TLC UniSIM blog: the virtual community space for associates and faculty members to share ideas on teaching and learning. This blog is edited by Dr. Abdel Halim Sykes, Lecturer, Teaching and Learning Centre, SIM University, Singapore.
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