University of Warwick: Empowering Learners Through Self-Determined Learning

Christina Gómez
22/11/16
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Coventry, United Kingdom.

In today’s globalized world, speaking more than one language has become an important skill for business and in life. More people are learning a different language as a means to travel, effectively communicating with others, and as a way of understanding other cultures, among other things. Most importantly, those who learn a new language often do so because of a personal gain, and not because it’s forced upon them. It’s about wanting to learn in order to expand one’s own horizon.

This is certainly the best way to learn, “because people want to, and not because it’s a demand they have to meet”, says Teresa MacKinnon, a language educator for more than 30 years and principal teaching fellow at the Language Center for the University of Warwick. From the thousands of students enrolled at the University of Warwick, about 4,500 study languages each year, most of which don’t have language as their main study focus, but that appreciate the benefits of learning a language for multiple reasons.

The practice of self-determined learning is called Heutagogy. It’s a practice that focuses on empowering learners and which reduces the very strict rules people often associate with traditional pedagogy. E-learning is almost completely based on Heutagogical principles: A learning setting where students have their own devices and can move at their own pace, encouraging them to explore, create, collaborate, and co-create. This approach also allows students to share and reflect on their experiences, think back on what they have learned, and understand the ways in which they learn best. Understanding one’s own thought process is referred to as Metacognition, a true turnkey for successful learning – not merely memorizing or understanding concepts but truly learning, grasping, and taking ownership of the information at hand.

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

Each course can also have a Blackboard Collaborate room available throughout the year to facilitate interaction with and among course participants, many of whom are connecting to the virtual classroom from around the world. The video conferencing solution can be used for multiple purposes and is a great tool for students to practice their speaking skills with their instructor and peers.

Additionally, with Blackboard Collaborate, instructors can use Voice Thread thanks to the LTI integration. Voice Thread is a purely voice-based platform that facilitates oral exam preparation. Video can sometimes distract learners, making it difficult for them to concentrate on pronunciation, for instance, which is a fundamental part of language learning. Moreover, there is a psychological barrier when studying for oral practice exams because many students will know the content perfectly on paper, but will inhibit when asked to speak. Voice Thread enables assessment and assignment distribution through the platform and students can ask questions that are 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 recalls it hasn’t always been easy to implement it for learning purposes. Thirty years ago, technology was seen as a content generator and not a process tool. However, as technology evolves, and communicating with others around the world becomes a constant in our daily lives, it’s important to transform what we know about technology. According to Teresa, both technology and the “e” in e-learning don’t matter if teachers can’t transform the way they teach to mold to the best technological practices of today, while letting go of antiquated practices established decades back. Technology alone can’t teach anyone.

University of Warwick. Photo: AFP Lindsey Parnaby.
University of Warwick. Photo: AFP Lindsey Parnaby.

An example of this would be the pressure teachers have in terms of curriculums, timetables, and class hours they have in a given semester. And on the other hand, students also have certain expectations: they may wish to be taught in a particular way or expect personalized learning methods. In the end, the student 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 possible way. Teresa finds that the best way for teachers and students to agree on a middle ground is by inspiring them both, by applying Heutagogical principles for teachers as well as students.

Teresa likes to have as many tools available as possible on the platform so that teachers can get creative and take innovative approaches to extend the interaction that happens through the portals at a distance. They can record key grammar points, ask students to record a presentation and then share it with the class, or can have an online meeting with a native speaker and record it. Instead of creating PowerPoint presentations with loads of text, Teresa encourages her teachers to take a community practice approach and allow innovation to flow.

“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,” shares Teresa. When teachers begin a new language course, they are registered to a Moodle course called “Using Moodle for language teaching,” which supplies them with resources and access to tutorials on all the tools available to them. In line with Heutagogical principles, teachers are not obliged to innovate. However, if they want to, they are given the tools and resources to encourage said innovation.

Being able to empower both teachers and students to make their best effort within their respective roles, in a relationship where they are both challenged, where both learn, and where both parties can take matters into their own hands, might be the real future of learning.

 

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

Photos:

* AFP Lindsey Parnaby.

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