Independent learning: myth or prerequisite? (#OMDE)

Learners as independent and autonomous agents sound a bit like we require them to be like the Lone Ranger (without Tonto), or possibly resemble Don Quixote chasing after windmills in the company of a co-opted Sancho Panza? Are the notions of independent and autonomous learners still applicable in the 21st century when the emphasis seems to be on connected learning, collaboration and cooperation? Are these different terms mutually exclusive?

Since the early inception of distance education, the notions of independent and autonomous learners were central to various attempts to define (and defend) distance education, not only as sui generis, but also as a valid and effective form of quality higher education. The assumption was that learners opting to study through distance education are, by nature, independent and autonomous and also willing to be independent and autonomous.  The early forms of distance education (known as correspondence education) were therefore a type of ‘drop-off-and-go’ type of education with the delivering institution sending self-contained study packages to students. Students were then assumed to be willing and able to study independently with very little assistance and extra support needed. [Although this sounds like a caricature, there are many examples in these early forms of distance education of deeply caring and empathic engagement through text].

As correspondence education morphed into distance education and with the availability of technologies such as audio, video and radio broadcasts becoming more germane to the field of distance education; these self-contained study materials became supplemented with and often replaced by other forms of mediated instruction. Though the notion of independent and autonomous learning were still lauded  as  hallmarks of distance education, distance teaching was more and more supplemented and supported with synchronous and often face-to-face study schools or examination preparation sessions. Strange that despite these extra forms of support and different pedagogical models that the notion of the independent and autonomous learner did not change. Or maybe it did without us noticing the change…

The Internet and web-based instruction increased possibilities of fully interactive (synchronous and asynchronous) teaching and learning (also known as e-learning, mobile learning or ubiquitous learning). These highly interactive forms of distance education are however often questioned by some faculty who bemoans the demise of the notions of independent and autonomous learners as hallmarks of distance education. These faculty members often resist any attempt to embrace interactive web-enabled pedagogical models and long for the era where distance education institutions were proud to ‘drop-off-and-go’… They complain about under-prepared learners and miss the days when learners could study with very little if any support. Many faculty are furthermore just not sufficiently prepared for more interactive forms of distance education, and top-down approaches to enforce interactive forms of teaching through performance management systems are resisted and often sabotaged.

The question also arises regarding the preparedness of our learners for more interactive forms of teaching and learning. Some students may also possibly miss the days of “drop-off-and-go” materials. Very interestingly, while interactivity is clouded in hype and rhetoric; no one contemplates the seeming loss of independence and autonomy that many of these highly interactive pedagogies require. In many of the interactive courses on offer today, students are immersed (willing or not) into highly structured environments with weekly requirements for engaging in discussion forums and having this engagement assessed against criteria which often seem a far cry from having independence and autonomy…

The increase in the possibilities for interactive teaching and learning furthermore questions traditional pedagogical models in distance education as well as national policy and funding regimes. In the South African context, distance education was always funded differently from face-to-face education based on the assumption that the levels of interactivity are low and that students are independent and autonomous studying through well-designed and self-contained study packages. But as interactivity, collaboration and co-operation becomes hallmarks of any quality higher education in the 21st century, our assumptions and resulting funding formulas and definitions seem to become less secure.

In addition to the question whether independence and autonomy are still hallmarks of distance education, a more pertinent question is whether independence and autonomy are still valid characteristics of learners in the 21st century where collaboration and connected knowledges are required and valued.

I don’t think that independent and autonomous learning are necessarily excluding collaboration and interactivity. These terms are not, and should not be seen as mutually exclusive.  The Internet and various technologies heralds an era where individuals can acquire any skill or increase their understanding of any topic in multiple and customised formats. Never before has learning been so accessible. But there is another side to this story.

Never before in the history of humankind has it been so easy to connect and learn (and teach) collaboratively using a range of Web2.0 technologies (for those with access to the Internet…). This is not to say that all individuals (learners and educators) optimally use or want to use these possibilities for collaboration. I suspect that though independent and autonomous learning excluded the possibility of interactivity in the past; it is no longer true that independent and autonomous learning necessarily excludes interactivity.

While independent and autonomous learning are no longer unique to distance education and interactivity is no longer unique to face-to-face education; where does it leave our definitions, pedagogies and funding formulas? What are the implications for faculty (and governments) who still see distance education as ‘drop-off-and-go’? What are the implications for our investment in ICT and staff development of faculty? How does interactivity, collaboration and cooperation as hallmarks of teaching and learning in the 21st century impact on our pedagogies, our performance management systems for faculty, the sustainability of our ICT systems and processes and the skills and value sets required of faculty to teach in the 21st century?

I personally do not think that independence and autonomy as key characteristics of students in distance education have become outdated – on the contrary. Independence and autonomy are crucial skills for graduates in the 21st century. The challenge for distance education (students and faculty alike) will however be to find ways to embed and value cooperation, collaboration and interactivity. And how do we allow independence and autonomy while structuring highly interactive learning journeys?

Though there are many myths and hype surrounding the notions of independent and autonomous learners; the commitment and self-efficacy required from learners studying through non-traditional forms of education may require them to be Lone Rangers, albeit in the company of fellow-students and faculty playing the role of Tonto and a horse with the name of Silver…

Hi-yo, Silver! Away!

[Images retrieved from and]


About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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4 Responses to Independent learning: myth or prerequisite? (#OMDE)

  1. Hentie Wilson says:

    Working with Foundation-supported courses, this is a key question for me too. Many students are in essence lone rangers as they never interact, regardless of all our efforts, and many actually pass the courses that do not require interaction. Some clearly state that they do not want to interact, and/or find it reduces their focus (?) on the course content. I find it also important that you stated that interaction and independence is not exclusive of one another. i suspect also that they are key requirements for success in business. Should we not therefore focus on both?

    • Hi Hentie – thanks for the response. I think you make a good point namely that “the name of the game” in the 21st century most probably is collaboration and cooperation – therefore students should learn this skill. The interesting point, however, is to consider how we get them to learn these skills… Currently I am doing a course requiring very active participation and collaboration (both are graded) in a highly structured and intensive scaffolded learning environment. My experiences in this particular environment made me reflect on the notions of learner independence and autonomy.

      To take this point further – faculty and course teams decide on the outcomes to be achieved. We meticulously design and structure compulsory weekly reading and interactive activities. We run tight schedules and send reminders. So the question arises: “How is learner independence and autonomy affected in such environments?”

      We should either dump the hype around learner independence and autonomy when we design such highly prescriptive environments; or we should allow more space to actually allow for independence and autonomy. Me thinks.

  2. Pamela Ryan says:

    The highlight of this blog for me was the point made about whether students will not miss their independence (read, solitary study) in our highly interactive future? Not all of us like interacting and for some, coerced interaction may be difficult if not painful. Just last week, I saw some statistics on a highly interactive online course where interaction was necessary and compulsory. In fact, those students who did not engage in discussions online failed the course, even when they handed in their final ePortfolio as summative assessment. One such student,who failed the course, went online 260 times during the course of the semester but did not interact once. This case continues to intrigue me. What prevented that student from making a comment? Was it shyness, fear, a lack of understanding on how the course worked? Food for future research maybe?

  3. Pingback: Independent learning: myth or prerequisite? (#OMDE ... | Problem-based learning |

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