Supporting Student Autonomy Online

David Wiley
"Supporting student autonomy: students' creation and reuse of learning objects" Event
University of Strathclyde
18 June 2004

1. The Value of Informal Learning

How much of the value of your formal educational experience came from interactions with other students as opposed to interactions with faculty? Odds are it was much if not most of the value came from interactions with other students outside of class.

Realize students have valuable contributions to make.

2. The Possibility of Informal Interaction

Since students never walk past each other in virtual halways on route to class, is it even possible for online students to have outside-of-class interactions with each other? Chances are they're already going to great lengths to (in most cases subversively) do so. But where could the value be? How much could a handful of students know? They're just students after all.

Realize that being on the network affords different student-to-student interaction patterns.

3. Ronald Coase and Transaction Costs

Economics provides a number of useful ways to think about interaction among students, both on and offline.

Realize that students only want to work closely with the professor when it's worth the cost. The same goes for working with other students. Sometimes they just want complete autonomy.

4. Self-organization

Autonomy doesn't have to mean acting completely alone. It can also be a group acting without external direction. Or any direction for that matter.

Realize that useful things can happen even when (or because) groups are left alone.

5. Game Theory and the Collaborators' Dilemma

Economics has more to tell us about the way people interact in informal (online learning) groups.

But how are these mechanisms expressed in social software? These are really all the features that are necessary; archives will amplify the effect.

Realize that very little is needed to support autonomous student interaction, not a lot. Huge feature sets will kill groups faster than anything.

6. But does it really support learning?

Can students autonomously get together (without a teacher) to effectively support one another's learning? Absolutely. A few teacher-free examples of informal groups of people learning online: OLS, Slashdot, Perlmonks, Mathforum.

Realize that learning can and does happen without expert faculty members making assignments.

7. Learning objects and student autonomy

Content is the seed crystal on which all these interactions accumulate. People don't discuss nothing (unless they're politicians) - they discuss something. In the cases above, they discuss math, writing software code, and configuraing computers. By all accounts, difficult things to do. And yet these groups of people provide ample support and solutions without extrinsic motivation or compulsion. How did these people find each other? Because they knew these sites were about a specific content area, frequently included new content in the area, and also allowed discussion of the content. As I pursue my own personal interest in open sustainable learning, autonomy is a key issue. We are reaching the point where there is a large body of high quality, free content in the world (wikipedia, MIT/OCW, Connexions, etc.). But free and open content isn't free and open education - else libraries would never have evolved into universities. Content needs social interaction wrapped around it. And since there aren't enough teachers to go around in the world, supporting students' autonomy (alone and in groups) is our only shot at taking all the learning objects in the world and making something like an educational experience from them.

Realize that student autonomy is coming, and begin supporting it now.