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Developing Learner Autonomy in Distance Education

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Group Literature Review


Developing Learner Autonomy in Distance Education


Distance Education: an Overview


As defined by Encyclopædia Britannica, distance education is a “form of education in which the main elements include physical separation of teachers and students during instruction and the use of various technologies to facilitate student-teacher and student-student communication.” Therefore, the main idea of distance learning is that teachers and students are located in different places for almost all the time the learning process takes place. In their review of the history and the evolutionary developments of distance education, Holmberg, Börje, Hrsg. Bernath, and Friedrich W. Busch. (2005) summarised the distance learning idea as “the basic principles of teaching and learning taking place without students and teachers being present with one another on the same premises from the very beginning” and that “led to mediated presentation of learning matter and also to mediated interaction between students and tutors.” According to Moore and Kearsley (2011), distance education can be defined as “teaching and planned learning in which teaching normally occurs in a different place from learning, requiring communication through technologies as well as special institutional programs”.  

Nontraditional students such as full-time workers or learners living in remote regions away from the place where actual classroom lectures occur are the focus of distance learning. According to Holmberg, Börje, Hrsg. Bernath, and Friedrich W. Busch. (2005), reasons why learners make use of any distance education programme include being a person who wants to study to acquire competence, a university degree, or develop certain skills beside his/her work and family commitments. Other learners may seek distance education for the mere aim of gaining personal development with no practical purpose. One more reason is that some learners at “traditional universities” need to take a course or two as distance study due to the nature of these courses and their relation with distance learning.

As for technology, it provides the tools used to make interaction between both the learners and the teachers possible. At the beginning, technology use was simple, then, as the needs of the users evolved and a better quality of teaching and learning was required, technology that is more sophisticated was developed to cater for the needs of the distance education society. To teach through those gateway technologies, teachers need to design and organize the resources that the students will use to learn. On the other hand, students also need to learn how to use those technologies and to interact in different ways than those they use when interacting in real time. Remarkably, the nature of distance education context has witnessed a dramatic change over the years, especially in terms of negotiating the learning materials. Traditional contexts used to include facilities like video, audio and videoconferencing. Recently, there have been numerous and various opportunities for distance learners to communicate and collaborate among themselves and even to choose the materials they want to work with (White 2003). Modes of delivery in distance education vary between synchronous and asynchronous learning. Synchronous learning means that “all participants are present at the same time while being located remotely” (Wikipedia). Hrastinski (2008), adds that synchronous learning is usually assisted by the use of videoconferencing and instant chat by learners (For example, Adobe connect, Big Blue Button, Second life) that acts as a supporting role of “socializing, brainstorming... in distance education courses (Park, Yun Jeong, and Curtis J. Bonk., 2007). Asynchronous learning means that learners “access course materials flexibly on their own schedules and that they are not required to be together at the same time” (Wikipedia). Asynchronous learning depends on many forms of technology such as wiki, discussion boards and email.


Moore and Kearsley (2011) set three types of interactions in a distance education program. The first type is the (Learner-Content) interaction, where learners “construct their knowledge through a process of personally accommodating information, attitudes, or behaviours into previously existing cognitive, attitudinal, or behavioural structures”. They also assert that interaction with the content is the main reason behind the learner’s change in understanding or performance. The second type is the (Learner- Instructor) interaction. This type of interaction is considered as an essential part of the distance education program. The instructor’s role in the distance-learning program mainly revolves around assisting the learners to discover, explore and interact with the content. Instructors also assist in evaluating the learner’s progress and monitoring the learner’s application of the new knowledge. The third type is the one related to the (Learner- Learner) interaction. This type of interaction has two forms; synchronous via any teleconferencing software, or asynchronous using discussion boards, email, or web blogs. The nature of learner’s interaction with any of the three types along with his/her own needs and capabilities determine largely the nature of autonomy developed in this context.


Learner Autonomy: an Overview


Holec (1979), known as “the father of learner autonomy”, defines autonomous learner generally as the one who “takes charge of his own learning” or in other words “knows how to learn”.  For the learner, this view implies that most of the learning responsibilities are imposed on him including knowing his learning objectives, selecting the learning methods, directing and evaluating his own performance, and also planning for future learning. From a teacher’s perspective, the new concept of autonomy, if applied, will mean that he has to redefine his role in the teaching-learning process as he supports the learner to find his own path starting from the learner’s personal objectives until he acquires autonomy. However, Little (1991) adds a rather advanced view of autonomous learner: “Autonomy in learning depends on the development and exercise of a capacity for detachment, critical reflection, decision making and independent action” (Little 1991).  These definitions, though, do not explain how autonomy is carried out by the learner, or supported by his learning environment. Interestingly, educators found out that learner’s autonomy can take different shapes according to the learning phase the learner goes through. As a result, there have been trends in the late 1990s to view autonomy as a process where the learner undergoes different levels. One of these attempts is proposed by Scharle & Szabo (2000) in a three phase model which includes ‘raising awareness’, ‘changing attitudes’ and ‘transferring roles’; however, Little (2004) , from a more pedagogical perspective proposes an applicable theory that encapsulates the main principles of learner’s autonomy. These principles are:

1.   Learner empowerment: where he assumes responsibility for his learning. This includes the learning goals, activities and materials. This differs from one learner to another because it depends on his previous knowledge and his previously developed language skills. The teacher’s role here is to initiate and support the learner’s attempts to take control.

2. Learner reflection:  a learner continuously evaluates his learning experiences, past and present to identify the areas of strengths and weaknesses. Little states that if the learner  can successfully take charge of his own learning, then his reflection on his learning experiences is simple a natural outcome.

3.  Appropriate use of the content: this demands the teacher to develop scaffolding activities and to encourage collaborative activities. The scaffolds will help to trigger the learner’s knowledge of the new content while the interactions will foster the internalization of it, so whatever he missed in his individual learning endeavors can be grasped through interacting with his peers.

In order to discuss learner’s autonomy with all its phases and principles in the distance learning context and understand the reasons why it differs from learner autonomy in traditional f2f contexts, we first need to determine the general main differences between the traditional teacher-directed context and  

The distance-learning context:

White (2003) identifies three basic differences:

1. The distance learner has to work in an isolated context away from the teacher and peers’ real time interactions and ongoing motivation.

2. The teacher’s traditional roles as a continuous and overall monitor of the learning process, the direct mediator of the learner’s interactions with information, and the direct source of decisions and feedback (Doughty and Long 2002) are not always provided.

3. A lot of responsibilities, and skills the learner needs to adopt in order to successfully acquire the new knowledge. Among the skills, those that are mostly linked to the ways he makes use of technology applications to learn better.

These fundamental differences place the distance learner in a distinctive position where he in effect needs to self-direct his own learning more than many other contexts (White 1997). Holmberg (2005) states that “Distance education has usually been regarded as a type of study requiring a certain amount of maturity and independence on the part of the students. Furthermore, the drastic changes in the nature of the distance learning context itself, including the affordances that the distance learner has recently granted to better interact with teachers, peers and materials, have changed the educators and learners views of learner autonomy in this context.” In the evolving paradigm, there is more emphasis on learner development through “collaboration control of learning experiences” (White 2003). As a result, learner autonomy has been redefined according to the new demands and opportunities.

Concisely, learner autonomy in distance education has been viewed from two different perspectives:

1. Learner independence (the traditional view): This view has been linked with terms like autonomous learning, self-directed learning and individual responsibility (White 2003). Paul (1990) explains that the main aim of independent learning is to “develop the learner’s capacity to look for his own needs”. Accordingly, teachers are assumed to provide the learner with the needed course materials that support his endeavors to self-direct his own learning at his own pace.

2. Control/Collaborative Control (the advanced view): Proponents of this perspective assumes that they have a better consideration of the distance learner requirements. Anderson and Garrison (1998) suggest that self-reliance does not mean that a learner is totally isolated from the learning context and learner choices offered to him. With reference to Anderson and Garrison (1998), the early concept of Control” encompasses three related components:

a) Independence, (the choice of what, when and where to study and that includes the use of affordances like synchronous and asynchronous tools)

b) Proficiency (learning potentials to engage in the learning context including motivation and dealing with technology), and

c) Support (resources available to achieve meaningful learning)

More recently, the concept was developed to focus more on “Collaborative Control” which adds that a successful distance learner needs to carry out meaningful interactions with teachers and learners, and which invite learners to recall their prior experiences and purposes for new learning (Breen and Littlejohn 2000).

If a distance learner is capable of developing a balance between these three components of “Control”, and collaborating effectively with his peers and teacher then it can be suggested that he has made his first steps towards achieving autonomy.


Some Elements that Foster Autonomy in Distance Education


As we have discussed, there have been a variety of studies and views tackling many elements that foster autonomy in the distance environment; nevertheless, we have selected the three elements that we regard as among the most crucial for distance learners to achieve autonomous learning. These elements are:

a. The teacher

b. Learner motivation

c. Learner reflection on the learning process


Autonomy and Teacher:

Taking responsibility for one’s own learning is the basis of distance education; however, if we refer back to the three components of control (independence, potentials and support) the teacher remains the web that guide the DL learner to link all these components hence take responsibility. The teacher is the basic source of materials, group tasks and even learning options. He is also a basic source of motivation. Firstly, the role of the teacher is not only to answer students’ questions, but he should mainly provide a variety of resources relating to the course content and encourage students to take full advantage of them. Furthermore, as suggested by Millis (on her website), teachers must be certain that group activities further the course objectives. Teachers must also give clear instructions of the task and what is expected from the students. Taking the time to build the groups is important to get students working together on meaningful tasks. This sense of connectedness and collaborative learning can be accomplished by following Salmon’s (2012) five-stage model, where interactivity between the tutor, learner, and content is key to enable learning. A good strategy to build online teams is to make students share personal-but not too intimate- information through relevant autobiography to introduce themselves at the beginning of the course (Millis). Sung and Mayer (2012) suggest that “online instructors and learners need to share personal information as a way to build social relationships between the instructor and learners”.


Autonomy and Motivation:

There is no sufficient evidence in literature to support which comes first: autonomy or motivation. Though it has been discussed that motivation is “usually” the product of autonomy, Spratt, Humphrey and Chan (2002) suggest that motivation is a key factor that influences the extent to which learners are ready to learn autonomously. We do believe in the second view and we think that teachers must start developing student motivation before they train them to become autonomous; however, the challenge in motivating distance students is complicated because motivational problems can be managed in conventional face-to-face settings where instructors have more contact with learners than in distance education settings.

Visser et al (2002) discussed four dimensions of human motivation; four components of the ARCS model (Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction). Attention: motivating distance students by giving them attention through frequent communication, rapid feedback, and genuine interest in the learner. Relevance: show students how the course can attribute to solving their problems and enrich their life in general. In this case, they must set goals and define priorities for themselves or they will feel lost and lose desire to learn on their own. Confidence: fear of failure is high for distance learners because they are not familiar with distance education and working on their own. One technique to help students gain confidence is by chunking the instruction or the syllabus into manageable portions, which makes the students feel they are in control of what they are learning. Satisfaction: distance learners need frequent evidence of success as they progress through the learning process. Such satisfaction can be fulfilled by frequent feedback and a clear consistency between objectives, content, and assignments.

Students can be motivated to learn the new content, but they may lack the necessary skills to take control over their own learning. On the other hand, students may not be motivated to learn autonomously because they are bound by the curriculum the teacher or the institution may have set. Granting students more control over the curriculum or grading criteria is a possibility to promote motivation and autonomy as proposed by Miles (2012). She confirms that although some educational institutes have fear of the danger in becoming entertainment centers when students gain “too much” autonomy and control, in her study a higher level of motivation in students in Japan arises from a sense of ownership in the course.


Autonomy and Reflection:

Danjun (2005) suggests that it is important to find a way to help students be aware of what they have learnt and further reflect on it to develop learner autonomy. The use of journals is not something new in the field of learning. Carrol (1994), as quoted by Danjun, indicates that learner’s journal is “some form of personal reflective writing that helps students understand themselves and make sense of their experiences”

Yahong (2009), for instance, carried out some steps with her students to promote their autonomy and proficiency in English. She started by asking them to reflect on what they have learned during the past year and helped them realize the purpose of their learning. After setting goals for themselves, students were asked to keep learning journals at least once a week. Yahong had access to their journal and therefore could see issues they are facing and problems interfering with their learning. She found that most of her students were not content with their performance even though they worked hard. She decided to acknowledge their achievements by expressing appreciation even if they had made slight progress. Whenever she had the chance, she urged her students to take risks and examine other resources that are not in their reading lists. Yahong declared her mission a success because she noticed students working diligently and becoming more active and motivated to complete their assignments independently.

One popular tool that is used as an online journal is blogs. Lee (2011) discussed one of the beneficial effects of the blog project she conducted was the development of critical thinking that allowed students to engage in self-reflection. Blogs or Weblogs, according to Belderrain (2006), are best used as student portfolios that keep records of learners’ progress, accomplishments, and reflections. Moreover, because blogs are for everyone to see in the internet community, they are no longer personal. Social interaction supports the development of learner autonomy, according to Lee (2011), by allowing students to share knowledge and exchange ideas with their peers. Many students self-connected and gained a sense of community where they worked collaboratively. All these DL learners can achieve through blogs and also through discussion boards. Herrington and Oliver (2002) mentioned the influence of socially-mediated reflection on enhancing collaboration, and discussed what Seale and Cann (2000) found, that the use of a discussion board was helpful for students to make links with other learning experiences and see things from different points of view. Numerous studies have concluded that increased levels of interaction among learners resulted in increased motivation, Sutton (2001). Discussion boards and online forums (asynchronous text-based discussion tools) offer four major benefits for learners according to Hammond (1999):

1- An opportunity to articulate ideas on a topic and receive feedback on one’s contribution.

2- An opportunity to reflect on the ideas and perspectives of others, especially peers.

3- Help when needed.

4- A social environment which increases motivation and supports learning.

However, providing learners with tools to interact does not necessarily mean they will reflect on their learning process. In order to avoid that, the teacher must set a time for induction and reflection sessions after synchronous classes, for example. Other solutions may be found in the use of diaries or carefully designed tasks that require collaboration (Schwienhorst 2010).



In this paper, we have tried to define autonomy in the context of distance education, and discussed some techniques online tutors can embrace to develop autonomy through motivation. In order to become fully motivated to learn independently, students must know why they are learning by setting goals for themselves through reflection. The use of online journals, discussion boards, and forums are some of the tools we discussed that may be used by the teacher to stir up learners to reflect and share information with their peers. When social presence is established, learners feel more confident and motivated to participate in collaborative activities.


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"distance learning". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 11 May. 2013 retrieved from: http://global.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1482174/distance-learning


By: Hanan Oraby, Marwa El Deeb, and Mawaheb Khojah

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