What is Learner Autonomy?

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learner autonomy

Autonomous learning takes the teacher out of the picture. But the approach carries benefits for learners

Right back to Plato and Socrates, it’s been the same old thing in learning and development: in a learning path, we have a teacher, and we have a student.

The teacher guides the student or students in their learning journey, and through ongoing communication, the knowledge and potential of the student is improved.

But what happens when we – counterintuitively – set a learner free and allow them to learn on their own? Well, with an autonomous learning approach, we often find learners better prepared for their job function, and life in general.

In many ways, autonomous learning takes the teacher out of the picture and lets a student create and follow their own learning path. It is more about a learner’s ability to take charge of their own learning. As opposed to being reliant on the teacher, the student takes responsibility for their own trajectory.

However, autonomous learners need to be distinguished from those who consider themselves autodidacts or use self-instruction. That’s different. Autonomous learners basically manage their own pathways through setting learning goals and learning progression.

Wait. There’s no Teacher?

Well, that’s not entirely true, and in that regard “autonomous” is a bit of a misnomer. Autonomous learners are autonomous, yes, but the teacher still exists in the background as something of an on-call agent of learning that fosters and maintain learning environments that support the development of learner autonomy.

As a matter of fact, learner autonomy expert and academic, Peter Voller, identified three roles for the teacher’s relationship with the student:

  1. Facilitator: the teacher as an auxiliary coordinator to support the learner’s journey.
  2. Counselor: the teacher as a mentor, available to help the learner on request.
  3. Resource: the teacher as a source of material-oriented direction to help point the learner to the right sources of knowledge.

How do we establish effective autonomous learning conditions?

If you want to experiment with building learner autonomy in your organization, it’s important to lay the groundwork:

  • Cultivate distance: The student and the instructor need to understand that the instructor’s role is facilitator as opposed to tutor.
  • Establish independence: Learners must not rely on the teacher as the source of course knowledge and instead seek it out themselves.
  • Design and plan: The student has to construct their own curriculum, learning strategy, and personalized path.
  • Take ownership: The learners need to make decisions about and take accountability for what they learn.
  • Become self-aware: Learners must develop a sense of their own learning styles, approaches, and preferences, something the instructor usually monitors.
  • Leverage peer communities: if we have a group of autonomous learners, they can – in an ideal situation – evaluate and assess one another.
  • Document progress: As we establish learner autonomy,learners need to continually document their own assessments of how they have been progressing.

Why establish learner autonomy?

Turns out, there are a number of benefits associated with learner autonomy, including:

  • The cultivation of a keen sense of life-long independence, both inside and outside of the classroom and work.
  • The thinking-outside-of-the-box mentality enabled by autonomous learning, which fosters innovation and free-thinking.  
  • An increased sense of intellectual curiosity and a hunger for knowledge that aren’t always found to follow common instructional techniques.

How can it be leveraged through technology?

Autonomous learning intersects with technology in a few obvious ways. When the learner is not constrained by the tutelage of an instructor, they’re free to use the tools and technologies the world offers to their maximum benefit. Most millennial learners today are already adept at using technology effortlessly

They can also build personalized learning paths, track and monitor learning progress, and assess performance within the right learning management system (LMS). Further, the location-agnostic nature of an eLearning platform enables distance learning as well as the capability for the instructor-as-facilitator to “check in” on student progress as requested or necessary.

Many can be fearful of the idea of “letting learners loose” or handing them too much independence. Also, others might question the purpose of an instructor when they are essentially asked to keep their hands off the student (it could be argued that instructors would be freed up to create more effective, engaging content, but that’s another article). But, looking at the many merits of an autonomous learning approach, it’s probably worth trying.

Take a free trial of Docebo today to see how technology could support an autonomous learning approach in your organization.