The Uncharted Waters of Learner-Driven Online Learning

The dominant online learning of today is more than a digital expression of face-to-face learning. Over the last twenty-five years of online learning (I designed my first online course in the early 1990s), we have witnessed a distinct body of research, theories, models, and frameworks for designing online learning experiences, courses, and degree programs. While some persist in thinking about online course design in terms of replicating what they know and value about face-to-face learning, the field as a whole has moved well beyond that. Even what might seem like the simple recording of a lecture is now understood to be a fundamentally different learning experience (you can’t pause, fast forward, rewind, and share an in-person lecture; nor can you benefit from instant closed captions and other accessibility features).

The use of face-to-face metaphors still dominate the discourse when we talk about online learning, however. Even though online threaded discussions are fundamentally and qualitatively different from in-class discussions, we still hear people refer to them as discussions. Then we hear references to lectures, assignments, tests, quizzes, and other features that are not unfamiliar to us in face-to-face classes. As such, the persistence of face-to-face metaphors to think about and describe online learning might allow people to easily transfer their knowledge from one context to the next, but it also limits our thinking.

That is how metaphors work. They have the power to expand our thinking, to focus our thinking, or to clarify our thinking. They also have the ability to narrow or thinking, hiding new and promising possibilities from us. Consider this simple exercise. To say that online learning is like a digital classroom is to use the metaphor of the face-to-face classroom. It conjures the memories, emotions, and constructs that we use to think about traditional classrooms. What if we shift that metaphor? Instead of calling it an online classroom, what if we called it an online learning collaborative, remove learning co-op, a virtual mentoring platform, a networked learning platform, a digital gym for the mind, or an online group coaching forum? Each of these will lead us to think about the experience and possibilities in new ways.

The use of the physical classroom is not the only dominant construct for online learning today. We’ve also brought along the other trappings of the traditional school environment. We’ve brought letter grades, syllabi, instructor-led environments, required readings, assignments & papers, quizzes & tests, and much more.

Yet, there is a long tradition of face-to-face learning environments that don’t use any or most of those traditional schooling technologies. While many people don’t know about the long history of higher education experimentation with learner-driven education, it is still flourishing, even if in small pockets. And while there are a few exceptions, it has not yet ventured into the online space in any significant way.

Consider schools (k-12 and higher education) that don’t use letter grades, students get to establish some or all of their own learning goals, there are few or no required readings, students co-create projects and other expressions of their learning, and there is deep and ongoing mentoring from faculty. These are communities where the school exists to help nurture and celebrate learner voice, choice, ownership, and agency; and they are doing it within a school that doesn’t force students to do it within the narrow restraints of traditional grades and courses.

This is a niche approach to education that will likely never be the dominant format. Too many people like the safety and securing of being told what to do for that to happen. There will always be human interest in more teacher-directed and prescribed learning pathways, but these other learner-driven communities continue to play an important role in society. They foster a different type of learning, thinking, and being. They honor, support, and celebrate the goals, values, priorities, experiences, and voices of learners in ways that are rarely accomplished in legacy school environments (online or face-to-face). They create spaces for people to flourish, people who sometimes found legacy school construct to be stifling and inhibiting the learners from truly and fully blending their life beyond school with what they are learning in school.

This, I contend, represents largely uncharted waters in online learning. I say largely because some of the early connectivist experiments with MOOCs ventured into this space, but there are very few examples of schools that have taken their full vision of a learner-driven community and converted or re-imagined it for online learning. This is an incredibly promising and exciting space to work and research. I only hope that I’m fortunate enough to be among the early explorers of this new and promising digital frontier. No, that was too subtle. I can’t wait to be part of the community that helps create models and exemplars for what is possible when you blend online learning and learn-driven education.

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