Building Self-Determined Learning Spaces

Resource from Navitas

by Dr. Staci Vicary

The progressive move to online and blended learning environments within Australia has changed the face of learning in higher education (Crawford, 2017). As of 2016, one in five students in Australia were enrolled in online study, and even those enrolled in on-campus delivery reported completing nearly 50% of their studies in an online format (Norman, Cherastidtham, & Mackey, 2018).

The ease of access to information online and the advent of effective learning-based technology means that educators are no longer seen as the “sole purveyors of knowledge” (Hairon & Chai, 2017, p. 81), and the transfer of information is no longer a linear relationship from teacher to student. Given the vast array of different learning experiences available outside of the formal education sphere, there is a growing need for educators to shift from teachers or facilitators in the traditional sense to becoming “learning curators” or designers of learning experiences (Conole & Willis, 2013).

It has long been accepted that pedagogy, referring to the art of transferring or imparting knowledge, places the learner in a predominantly receptive role and is best suited to environments such as childhood learning in which the teacher takes an active and directive role (Blaschke, 2012). By contrast, traditional adult learning environments are said to be better informed by andragogy, or the art of self-directed learning, wherein the relationship between teacher and learner is bidirectional, and learners are given freedom to explore ideas and content based on their own prior experience and motivation to learn (Hagen & Park, 2016). However, a third conceptualization of learning termed heutagogy, breaks from both models to position learning as self-determined and situates the learner as the designer of their own educational experiences (Anderson, 2016). Given the currently shifting face of higher education in Australia it is useful to consider how academics might promote self-determined learning spaces and produce learners that have not only mastered the course content but become efficient and metacognitively aware students that are capable of success in an ever changing world.

What is a self-determined learning space?

As a teaching philosophy, heutagogy considers learners to be inherently ‘self-determined’ and the natural designers of their own learning experiences (Anderson, 2016). Critical to the heutagogical educational approach is the meta-analytical task of not just learning (looping through the “problem- action- outcome” cycle) but also considering the problem solving and learning process itself. This ‘double-looping’ approach becomes central to the learner being capable of determining the relevance of the learning experience to their own subjective context and engaging in higher order conceptualisation of how the learning material fits within their own system of beliefs and values. The learner is forced to think “What have I learned, how have I learned it, and why does it matter?”. Thus, the learner not only becomes competent in the knowledge that they are gaining, but also becomes capable of flexibly demonstrating this knowledge in both familiar and unfamiliar situations.

Taking a heutagogical approach to your learning space means opening the space for learning and allowing learning to take one of many possible directions or pathways. You must accept, as the educator, that learners will best flourish when they are able to apply the learning outcomes to their own subjective world.

Practical tips for creating a self-directed learning space

  • Flexibility of curriculum

While course and unit learning outcomes must be in place, learners should be given flexibility in how they will approach curriculum and the aspects of topics on which they will focus. Educators can facilitate this by ensuring that material is ecologically valid and allows the student to draw from their own experience when exploring the topic.

  • Flexibility of assessment

Learners should be part of the assessment design process. Educators should set clear guidelines for achievement and then negotiate (reasonably) with learners on how this achievement can be demonstrated. Freedom of approach (e.g. essay, report) or choice of topic is a good place to start.

  • Reflective practice

Reflecting on experiences and integrating new knowledge with old is essential in self-determined learning. Educators should create learning environments that require the learner to place themselves directly within the environment and connect personally with the ideas being explored (in safe and ethical ways).

  • Collaborative learning

Learners should work together to create a shared meaning and reflect on the learning process. Educators should promote the creation of communities of shared resources and knowledge by allowing students to work together on tasks, in assessments, and engage in reflective discussion.


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