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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A 9-Stage Continuum of Teacher-Centered to Learner-Led Classrooms & Communities

Inspired by a recent thread about student-centered versus student-driven learning in a Facebook group and on Twitter, I turned to my keyboard to think through the topic. In recent years, it has become popular to champion what many refer to as student-centered classrooms and schools, often described in contrast to what people think of as teacher-centered contexts.

Yet, education is a messy field of study when it comes to definitions. Consider the phrase “student-centered learning.” One person’s understanding of student-centered learning might simply refer to teachers taking the time to get to know their students, adapting their teaching methods based upon the knowledge gained. For those teachers, student-centered learning is really a synonym for differentiated instruction. Another teacher might use the same “student-centered” phrase to describe a classroom where students are granted the authority to decide much of what and how they learn.

With so many competing definitions of the same terms, it can be challenging to make sense of the current landscape. So, I’ve decided to complicate the matter by offering my own definition of terms. I certainly don’t claim to be the definitive source for these terms. Instead, I offer them as working definitions to provide a way for us to add greater depth to the student-centered versus teacher-centered conversation in education.

While some people might think it would be nice to have a set of universally-accepted definitions, that is beyond the scope of this article. For now, it is enough for me to contrast different approaches, and I’m using the following terms to achieve that goal.

Also, while we might think of these terms as being part of a continuum, that is a bit too linear for me. The continuum construct is easier if you are just comparing and contrasting two terms, but it gets complicated when we add the others into the mix. As such, some people might choose to look at the following in a linear fashion, but in the real-world, there is often a mixture of these philosophies and perspectives in the same classroom and school. One concept might be the focus, but others are still present, influencing the culture and climate.

With that introduction established, consider the following.


Some people use this phrase to describe sage-on-the-stage teaching methods, instances where teachers lecture and students are expected to “sit and get.’ Yet, the more consistent use of the phrase in the literature relates to where the power resides in a classroom or school. A teacher-centered classroom is one where the teacher is in charge of deciding what to learn, how to learn it, what will be graded, and how it will be graded. The teacher chooses the pace of the learning as well as determines the learning pathway followed by each student.

This term is also used even when the teacher doesn’t actually have full say over what is learned or how it is learned. There are many classrooms where the teacher is given a set of standards or maybe even a pre-existing curriculum. That teacher might have some choice and voice in what to do and how to do it, but part of all of those decisions might have actually been made by an outside group or organization.


A nuanced but important distinction from teacher-centered, the teaching-centered classroom puts the quality of teaching at the center of what happens. If you want to improve student outcomes, some argue, the best way to do that is the increase the quality of the teaching. So, while teaching-centered classrooms are sometimes also teacher-centered, the focus here is upon improving the quality of the school by celebrating and championing the quality of teaching. Get teachers to embrace and embody the best practices that are well supported by the research, and everything else will fall into place.


Content-centered is often teacher-led, but not necessarily. Instead, the focus is upon exposure to and experiences with a given body of content. These classrooms tend to be content heavy, but contrary to common straw-man arguments against content-centered education, these classrooms are usually about both content mastery and progress toward higher levels of thinking with that content. What is distinct about the content-centered classroom is that the focus is neither upon the teacher’s action or the student’s actions and interest. It is more about getting lost in what is being studied. Great content is at the heart of great schools.


While some might think that the content-centered and standards-centered classrooms are similar, a standards-centered classroom is often agnostic to specific content (as in a set reading list). Rather, attention is placed upon concise statements (called standards) of what students are expected to know and be able to do at different stages or levels of their education.

The focus is upon student’s making progress toward mastery of academic standards in each academic area. By its very nature, this tends to put heightened attention on what is happening with each student, and assessment tends to became a greater focus. Diagnostics that allow one to track students movement toward mastery of standards gets much greater attention in this type of classroom.


The learning-centered classroom makes student individual and collective learning the top priority. It could be focused upon students progressing toward mastery of standards, but it could also be about the relative progress (or improvement) of a student from the beginning of the semester to the end.

Because the focus is upon learning, there is obviously significant attention to what is happening with each learner. As such, it is common for people to describe the learning-centered classroom as also a learner-centered classroom.


This is a classroom where the focus is placed upon the learner. What are the individual needs of each learner? What are the interests, goals, and aspirations of the learner? What is the prior knowledge that each learner brings to the classroom? What is the cultural background of the learner? What are the beliefs, values, joys, and fears of the learner?

Notice that this is not just about getting to know a group of learners. It is about getting to know each learner in a deep and substantive way, and then adapting the learning plan accordingly. At the same time, some who describe their classrooms as learner-centered don’t necessarily engage in an in-depth investigation of these factors. Yet, the idea is that knowledge about each learner is what shapes decisions about what students learn and how they learn it. In some cases, the teacher is still making most of the decisions. In other cases, students are given greater voice and choice (even though I’ve set aside a different term for classrooms where that is the focus).


I thought twice about including this category, but without it, there is a significant gap. This represents classrooms where the focus is not actually upon the teacher, the learner, standards, or specific content. Of course, each of these are a part of the mix, but the problem-centered classroom is one that that is actually more focused upon engaging in acts of service, or understanding and engaging in solving real-world problems. Much learning happens, and in most schools or classrooms that embrace this approach, there are typically ways to document (if not assess) student learning along the way. Yet, the primary attention is upon doing something real in the world…and learning by doing that thing.


In some ways, this is the most direct contrast to the teacher-centered classroom because it is about where the power resides. The learner-driven classroom is the one where learners are the primary decision-makers about what they learn, how they learn it, and maybe even how they demonstrate their learning. There are instances where each learner has almost complete control. In other instances, the learner has to fit plans within a set of standards (so a mix with a standards-centered classroom) or some pre-developed fences within which the learners are permitted to work. In other cases, the learner is co-creator of what and how to learn, doing that work with the teacher (mentor, coach, guide) and/or other classmates.


It is probably sufficient to simply acknowledge that there are different levels of learner-driven classrooms and schools, but I’m compelled to create this last category to acknowledge what some might describe as the most immersive expression of being learner-driven. That is when the learner (and collective of learners) not only has voice, choice, ownership, and agency of the learning process. The learner also has significant influence on what happens in the entire learning community. Learners have say on the rules, policies, practices, the physical environment, and more. In fact, while less common, there are examples of schools that are entirely learner-led, with no teachers, or where learners can vote on which teachers stay or go.


I’m sure that I missed other important distinctions, but my main goal here was to acknowledge and reflect upon a level of nuance that gets missed when we simply contrast teacher-centered versus student-centered learning. While breaking things into these nine categories was an exercise in organizing my own thinking as much as anything else, perhaps others will find it useful as well.

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Are You Teacher-Centered, Learner-Centered, or Both?

In much contemporary education, there is a growing trend toward praising the benefits of learner-centered versus teacher-centered education, but what do we actually mean by those terms? Are all people using them the same? As you’ve probably come to expect in the field of education, terms are rarely precise, or when they are, it is common to have two or more working definitions for the same term. That is certainly true when it comes to the terms teacher-centered and learner-centered. The more I have conversations with people around the world about education, the more I see a few working definitions for each of these terms.

This is important because I also see a fair bit of labeling, as if some consider teacher-centered an insult, and still others considered learner-centered a less rigorous, fluffy, touchy-feely approach to education. Some argue that teacher-centered is dry, stodgy and heartless. Others argue that learner-centered is idealistic, unrealistic, and irresponsible. As expected, there is much more nuance to the conversation. To use one term or the other does not usually put you in a single camp, nor does it really tell us what sort of practice a person embraces. In fact, there are many variations at work, and many of us are more teacher-centered in one context and more learner-centered in another. It might vary by content, goal, student age or background knowledge, or any number of other factors. As a result, the following do not represent all the possibilities, but they offer more nuance than what we see is some articles and discourse about the subject (including some of my own).


1. Essentialism – One camp that proudly promotes teacher-centered education includes those who hold to a philosophy of education known as essentialism. The earliest champion of essentialism was William Bagely, author of Essentialist’s Platform for the Advancement of American Education in the late 1930s. A more recent name associated with Essentialism is E.D. Hirsch with his focus upon “core knowledge.” He is the one to popularize  that series of books about what every kindergartener (or name your grade) should know. Essentialists argue that a key function of school is to root young people in the essential knowledge for good citizenships, the basics. This is teacher-centered because the teacher is the one to direct the class, promote high academic standards and discipline, and lead student practice and rehearsal of the basics. The content is not selected because of student interest but because it represents the essentials.

This is where things get confusing for those who want to put each idea into crisp non-overlapping categories. While essentialism is typically a teacher-centered approach, core knowledge curricula is most recently promoted through computer-based instruction (like what is use by K12, a very large curriculum provider for public virtual schools). In the case of K12’s curriculum, much of the content is introduced through readings and computer-based instruction, with teacher facilitation of some online sessions and careful review of student progress. This is not what might initially come to mind for a teacher-centered environment, but it is teacher-centered in that the teacher or authority selects and delivers the content.

2. Perennialism – This philosophy is also teacher-centered, and there can be similarities between the content in essentialism and perennialism. However, perennialism is not just about the basics or essentials. It is rooted in the classics, the great ideas that have stood the test of time. Students learn by studying and analyzing the great texts, led by a teacher. The teacher decides what is taught, when it is taught, and how it is taught.

However, as with essentialism, there are models today where the great ideas and books are a focus, and students are directed to texts and analyze them. Yet, it might be done more independently, with students having a greater measure of (at least partial control) over the time, pace, and learning pathways. In other words, the teacher leads the content and the class, but some measure of student voice may well help inform what happens.

3. Teacher-Centered Practice – Others who talk about being teacher-centered are not thinking specifically about essentialism or perennialism. Instead, their concern is more with the way the class is managed. The teacher decides what is learned, when it is learned, how it is learned, and how learning is assessed. The teacher designs lessons with the goal of keeping students engaged and focused upon their learning. The teacher manages classroom behavior.


1. Progressivism – This is the educational philosophy that comes to mind for many people, and John Dewey (sometimes Jean Jacques Roseau) is a common name associated with it. Progressivists emphasize learning through experience and experimentation. Hands on and real world learning is the priority. The emphasis is less upon a planned curriculum and more about the needs, interests, and readiness of each child. Progressivists place a heavy emphasis upon the learning community, and the teacher serves more as a guide and facilitator.

2. Existentialism – This is a philosophy of education that has high value for student freedom. Students have choice about what they learn and how they learn it. Teachers serve as guides and facilitators, but students typically have immense choice, sometimes almost all the choice. The democratic schools (schools like Summerhill and Sudbury) are examples of existentialism in action. In the example of democratic schools, there may or may not be teachers who facilitate classes. These schools sometimes don’t even have people called teachers. However, there are also more moderate examples of existentialism, where there teachers are stronger and more visible guides for student learning and progress, as is the case with some of the project-based learning charter schools around the United States. In fact, in these schools, there is often great choice and freedom for students, but they must still show (with the help of a teacher or learning coach) how they are meeting various required standards or fulfilling requirements for graduation.

3. Student-Centered Practice – Then there are many who do not think of such educational philosophies. They may work from an established school curriculum or standard content, but they also find ways to adapt to the unique needs, interests, and abilities of each learner. Some may provide chances for students to choose some topics, choose how they demonstrate their learning, and maybe even choose how to monitor and show their progress.

4. Teacher-Led Student-Centered – There are others who still run their classes quite similar to what we see with the teacher-centered approaches, but they describe themselves as learner-centered because they are committed to helping each learner get what is needed to be motivated and make progress. Differentiated instruction, which calls for adapting the learning strategies and types of assessments to make sure each student is learning, is such an approach. There are still common learning objectives for all students and the teacher leads and directs most parts of the class. However, amid that the teacher centers his/her attention on what each student needs to develop and make good progress. This approach might also, for example, take into account Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences or try to understand the learning style of each student (although, if you’ve ready my blog, you probably know that I am suspicious about many of the claims about learning styles in educational design).

From Teacher to Learning-Centered

Then there is another approach, one that we might called learning-centered. This one recognizes that sometimes students don’t know what they don’t know. They might not know the most important questions to ask to grow in readiness to become a doctor, for example. There is a curriculum and an expert teacher/mentor to direct instruction. However, the teacher’s job is to help students progress toward greater levels of independence as a learner. As learners are ready, the teachers relinquish greater control to the leaner. Learners eventually come to own more of the learning process, even to the point of being able to select what is to be learned (when appropriate), how to learn it, how to self-monitor for progress, along with how to assess and prove what is learned. Learners are given growing levels of control over the time, pace, and path of the learning. Proponents of this approach warn of doing the educational equivalent of throwing students into the pool with the hopes of their learning to swim. Give only as much guidance as needed, with the goal of them eventually being able to swim independently. Different students will be ready for such independence at different times.


These are eight of probably dozens of common understandings of teacher-centered and learner-centered education. As you can see, there is overlap. Some may use the term teacher-centered while having a practice that embraces many elements of a learner-centered approach. Just as common is the teacher who is proud of being learner-centered, but also has strong convictions about having some of the control or the curricular focus common in a teacher-centered philosophy. In the end, it isn’t especially important to know where we fit. Instead, exploring these approaches serve as a helpful way to clarify our own convictions about education.

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