Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Autonomous Learning

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Feb 23, 2001

Posted to IFETS, February 20, 2001

I would like to weigh in briefly on the subject of autonomous learning, the topic of several recent posts. A number of people have advanced a case against autonomous learning, which I will discuss. But first I would like to reiterate an important point.

Chris O'Hagan makes the excellent point - and in my view, the inassailable argumment - that if we are to ensure that everybody receives an education, and not merely an elite, then we must reduce costs. The current system is unsustainable for large numbers of people and therefore impedes both national and global development. Online learninh - and especially autonomous forms of online learning - offer this opportunity..

That said, let me now turn to autonomous learning itself. A post on this list recently, as I recall, indicated that a large percentage of new media professionals were self-taught and self-directed learners. I include myself in this grouping to a large degree; everything I know about web design, graphic design, and computer programming I taught myself. So clearly there are some forms of self-taught and self-directed learning which work, at least in some disciplines.

I have taught myself may other things as well: how to play darts, how to use a map, how to buy an airline ticket, how to cook souffle, how to operate a microwave, how to use Ms Word, even how to program a VCR. Nothing unique here: we all teach ourselves many things, sometimes very complex and difficult things, all by ourselves, without the aid of formal instruction. If I wanted to build a house, or fix my plumbing, I could probably figure that out too; I know other people have done so.

So why do people think it can't be done for such topics as English Lit., physics and engineering? Well, I think it has a lot to do with how they conceive of autonomous online learning. An example illustrate this:

Erroll Thompson, for example, wrote, "The assumption behind many autonomous learning systems is that we just have to codify the knowledge and it will be passed on." And although he admits that online interaction may help some, the core of online learning is, to him, the standardized courseware supporting the system.

Thus, he continues,

Arguing from my own field, I would contend that there are lots of books and materials around that teach or explain the various software development approaches. However, reading those books, completing exercises, and attending courses doesn't turn people into good software developers. Experience in a team of software developers in a master apprentice role is still required.

Erroll Thompson's reasoning is not unique; I have heard the same argument stated by many people on other discussion lists, seen it in Mother Jones, and even heard it from organizations which ought to know better, such as the Canadian Association of University Teachers. They all assume that autonomous online consists essentially of online courseware and that the practice consists essentially of a student working alone in front of a computer, unmotivated, unsupported, uncorrected, and ultimately, uneducated.

And although this description captures a lot of what is passed on as online learning by the major educational institutions (and indeed also charaterizes more traditional distance education), there is a series of significant differences between this picture and the picture of self-directed online learning when practiced by, say, self taught computer programmers. You have to look a bit outside the realm of traditional academia, but it is there, for all to see.

In a nutshell, self-directed online learning consists not merely of online courses (not at all, hardly), but rather, of three major elements:

  1. An online knowledge base of resource materials, FAQs, examples, background information, and more.

  2. A learning environment, a place to practice skills without causing damage, simulations, problems, question sets, and more.

  3. An online community of practice, often centered around a discussion list (like this one), but also supported by collaborative development environments.

Or as I sum up these elements in slogan form:

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Traditional online courses as they are currently offered by colleges and universities tend to make mistakes in each of these three major areas. And it is precisely these mistakes which create the picture of online learning as stilted and unproductive.

Take the first element, the knowledge base. In the traditional online course (or the traditional distance course, for that matterm or even the traditional in-class course), the knowledge base is composed of a restricted set of materials. These materials consist, in order of importance, of: lectures and lecture notes, required readings, and library resources (consisting almost entirely of academic texts and refereed journals).

In a real working environment in any discipline you care to name, of course, the available knowledge is much wider: in addition to including more mainstream press, it includes email message, discussion list posts, corporate while papers, proposals, reports, and much, much more. Moreover, the material available is not pre-sorted and filtered by an expert professor: while this is on one hand its weakness, it is also its strength, proving the learner with the many diverse points of view whicy characterize a real domain of discourse. In a nutshell: the knowledge available to a learner should be the knowledge available to a working person in the field: indeed, it should be the very same knowledge base.

In the second area, the learning environment, online learning needs to move away from the artificial structures it has created over the years and provide concrete, hands-on experience. Artificial mechanisms such as tests or academic essays need to be replaced with practice in a safe environment. One thing online learning enables is the capacity to escape the classroom and actually go to places where these activities are conducted.

Where is it written that self-directed online learning must be conducted completely in front of a computer screen? True, in traditional education we rarely remove students from the classroom or lab. But no such restrictions need apply to online learning; part of the whole point is that learning can take place anywhere. Just as a self-directed learner should be immersed in the knowledge of a practising discipline, so also the learner should be immersed in the workplace.

Finally - and most crucially, in this discussion, is the aspect of community. It has always seemed odd to me that people who are studying a discipline are often removed or set apart from people who are practising that discipline. The 'community' and 'interaction' in typical online courses typically included only interactions between students and instructors, or students with each other (see, e.g., Moore).

But a student in an online environment can be immersed in the community of practice in a particular discipline. The student can take part in discussions with accomplished masters or gurus, pose questions and have them be answered, be directed to resources, attend conferences or tade shows, submit ideas, projects or other work for wider evaluation, and more.

And this is exactly what happens on the internet. In almost every discipline, specialized discussion lists and websites have been build. Scores of experts in the field are always willing to take a look, solve a problem, write a FAQ and refer people to best practices. Far from being alone when studying online, a person is immersed in a much wider community than a classroom could ever provide.

In summary, then, critics of autonomous online learning need to move beyond their conception of online learning as computerized versionss of university classes. Though it is true that much work in the field has been dedicated toward emulating the classroom environment, the classroom environment is itself sterile, a weakness magnified in an online setting. Critics of autonomous learning need to study instances of learning which really happen online, they need to look at the many sectoral communities that have sprung up over the last few years, and they need to analyze the interactions and the learning that takes place in these settings.

Just as I have always said that I learned more in university pubs and clubs than I every did in a university classroom, so also I say now that I learn more through online discussions and simulations than I ever did from an online course.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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