#rhizo14: Week 2 – Encouraging Independent Learners

Coming in a bit late to this week’s Rhizo14 course, and as others have written about, it’s a challenge to read through the massive stream of tweets and blog posts. This week we’re discussing the issue of how to enforce independent learning, or more specifically coerce/teach people how to be independent learners. Specifically, two questions were brought up:

  1. How do we create a learning environment where people must be responsible?
  2. How do we assure ourselves that learners will self-assess and self-remediate?

My thinking about this issue is framed from a few bits of understanding I’ve gleaned from engaging with this course, and thinking about digital media/social media and learning in my own work. A few conundrums must be resolved before we can think about creating an “environment” where people are responsible.

First, we have to resolve the issue of knowledge that “should be learned” as determined by an external community vs. knowledge that the learner cares about (which is where rhizomatic learning aligns well). Any community – of scientists, poets, basketball players, or Star Wars fanatics etc. – has a shared body of knowledge that delineates expertise. So to learn is almost to become part of the community by learning the knowledge that the community values (Lave and Wenger, in their Communities of Practice framework, describe this well). Thus, we have things like “standards” in the U.S. public school system that outline what student’s should know to be “educated people”.

To create an environment where learners feel strong responsibility for their engagement and outcomes, we have to allow them to learn what they care about. However, this requirement directly contradicts the idea that an educated person knows certain things… how do we resolve this conundrum?

Perhaps the answer is embedded in the second question posed to us this week… how do we assure that learners self-assess and self-remediate? Perhaps if we can create a learning system where self-assessment/self-remediation is the norm, but that learners also have a clear sense of the larger body of knowledge they can pursue, we can create an environment where strong learner independence + sustained expertise development can occur. Here’s an example:

What if at the end of a course, students were allowed to suggest their own evaluation? A student could state to the instructor that he/she has read and focused deeply on a certain part of the course, and so they desire to be evaluated (could be by test, oral examination, written paper etc.) on their expertise of that area. The student will know that they will be thoroughly questioned about this area; that the evaluation will be difficult. And so they know they must work deeply to understand something and clearly articulate this understanding by the end of a course. I imagine that students in this environment will be highly motivated to learn independently.

However, the challenge of this example is the real possibility that a given student might really have learned something quite shallow. In a rhizomatic learning sense, this is not an issue. We want learners to learn what they want, how they want, and for outcomes that they care about. However, there is also a real value to laying benchmarks for how much of this self-learning is reasonable to expect in a given course (about 14 weeks of time in my university). The real challenge is to clearly outline for students what varying levels of success – for their independent learning – actually looks like; then give the students the freedom to set their own marks (e.g. I want to reach a level of “C” and I’m fine with that), and then set them on their way.

Contract grading is a step in this direction, and I am experimenting with it in my own teaching. However, this setup is still largely students deciding how much work (defined by the course instructor) they agree to do in order to get a grade. Truly independent learners would set a goal, and define levels of engagement towards that goal (on their own), that maps onto established benchmarks for a truly engaged expert in a given topic. If we can figure out how to facilitate this form of learning environment, and scale it out, then we may be able to resolve the conundrum of fostering independent learning in formal (enforced) environments.