University of Warwick: empowering learners via self determined learning

Christina Gómez
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Coventry, United Kingdom

As globalization becomes more and more imminent, languages become a bigger and more important factor in our world. People are learning languages as a means of travel, as a way of communicating with other people, as a way of understanding other cultures. Lots of people who learn languages do so because of a personal gain, and not because it’s forced upon them. It’s about learning because learning expands your horizon.

This is the best way to learn: because people want to and not because it’s a demand they have to meet. That is what Teresa McKinnon, who has been a language educator for 30 years and today is the Principal Teaching Fellow at the Language Center for the University of Warwick, says. From the hundreds of thousands of students that the University of Warwick has, about four and a half thousand study languages each year, most of which don’t have language as their main study focus, but that appreciate the benefits of learning languages for multiple purposes.

Foto AFP LINDSEY PARNABY - Teresa MacKinnonUniversity of WarwickThe practice of self-determined learning is called Heutagogy. It’s a practice that focuses on empowering learners and that reduces the very strict rules that people have in their minds when thinking about traditional pedagogy. E-Learning is almost completely based on the Heutagogic principles. It’s a learning setting where people have their own devices and move at their own pace which encourages students to explore, create, collaborate, and co-create. This allows students to share and reflect on their experiences, think back on what they have learned, and try to understand what is the best way they learn. Being aware of what and how the personal thought process works is called metacognition, and that is the key to really learning; not memorizing or even understanding but truly learning, grasping, and taking ownership of the information at hand.

For the three decades that Teresa McKinnon has been teaching, she has always taken advantage of all and any technology she could get her hands on. She first started using some CDRoms, or databases, which allowed her to design oral tasks to engage students in language learning. She explains that every day technology becomes more ubiquitous, which makes it easier to become a connected practitioner. Today, she is responsible for designing and implementing Language At Warwick a Moodlerooms hosted platform that has special tools designed for language learning.

Each course can have an open Blackboard Collaborate Ultra room available throughout the year to facilitate interaction with external connections.. All the course participants, who are students from all over the world, can participate as moderators at any time. For example, a Russian language teacher once used it for an oral practice with students who had a very low grasp on the Russian language; the students explained how to use Blackboard Collaborate in Russian, interacted with each other in a digital space, and spoke in a language that was not their own: a visible example of globalization.

Additionally, with Blackboard Collaborate, she uses Voice Thread thanks to the LTI integration. Voice Thread is a purely voice-based platform that facilitates oral exam preparation. Video distracts a lot of people and doesn’t allow them to concentrate on the pronunciation or the accents, which is fundamental for any language. Also, there is a psychological barrier when studying for oral practice, because most students will know everything perfectly on paper, but will freeze when opening their mouths. Voice Thread allows there to be assessments and assignments that can be sent through the platform, the students can ask questions that are then threaded to replies from the whole class. Teresa says students love it because the interface looks a lot like a social media site, so they feel at ease.

When Teresa looks back at the way technology has been used, she remembers it hasn’t always been easy to implement it for learning. Thirty years ago, technology was seen as a content generator, and not a process tool. However, as technology evolves, and communications with people around the world become a constant in our daily lives, it’s important to transform what we know about technology. She explains that the technology and the “E” in E-Learning are the least important parts if teachers can’t transform the way they teach to mold to the best technological practices, and let go of the practices that have been established decades back. The technology alone doesn’t teach anyone.

If we use technology in an innovative manner, we see much greater results. We see learners actually taking ownership of their learning, and understanding that actually by fully engaging in the process, they can make greater development and experience greater learning.”

An example of this is the pressure teachers have in terms of curriculums, timetables, and the hours of class they have in a given semester, etc. But on the other hand, the student also has certain expectations; they want things done in a particular way, not all students learn the same way, and it’s the student that knows how they wish to implement the knowledge they are receiving. Heutagogy is a brave new world with rules to bend, where people can derive the benefits they need in the best way. Teresa finds that the best way for teachers and students to agree on a middle ground is by inspiring them both: applying the Heutagogic principles for teachers as well as students.

She makes as many tools as possible available on her platform so that teachers can get creative and make innovative approaches to extend the interaction that happens through the portals at a distance. They can record key grammar points, or ask the students to record a presentation together and then share it with the class, or they can have a distance meeting with a native speaker and record it. Teachers often apply the minimum of work by creating PowerPoint presentations with loads of text, that isn’t teaching anybody. Teresa encourages her teachers taking a community practice approach and allow innovation to begin.

“My personal experience after spending 30 years in language education, is that if we use technology in an innovative manner, we see much greater results. We see learners actually taking ownership of their learning, and understanding that actually by fully engaging in the process, they can make greater development and experience greater learning”, Teresa explains. All teachers, when they begin a new language course, are registered on a Moodle course called “Using Moodle for language teaching”, which supplies them with the resources and the access to tutorials on all the tools. Using the same Heutagogic principles, if a teacher wants to innovate, the university doesn’t obligate them to, but instead gives them the tools and the resources to find the encouragement to innovate by themselves.

Being able to empower both teachers and students to make the best effort they can in their role of teaching or learning, in a relationship where they both see a challenge, where they both learn, and where they both take matters in their own hands, might be the real future of learning.


*Teresa McKinnon, Principal Teaching Fellow at Language Centre, University of Warwick

*Photos by: AFP Lindsey Parnaby

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