Adult Ed/Lifelong Learning & MOOCs

Back to the theoretical grind, I was alerted to a research article on heutagogy as an alternative to andragogy.  If that sentence is full of ambiguous words, it was for me too — both are theories of learning relating to adult education, a field in edu which supposes that adults learn in a manner different from children (which is a lot to suppose, but makes sense at first glance).  While MOOC marketing departments have heralded the xMOOC’s ability to let an intrepid 12 year old take a Stanford course in computer programming (and, as a field, we need to see how Code Academy fits into the MOOC archetype), the history behind MOOCs comes either from traditional higher education (xMOOC) or distance education designed for higher education (cMOOC).  Because traditional higher ed is seeing an upward shift in median age of student (and distance ed has always seen an older student population than in traditional ed), the theory the MOOC movement built on (or will build upon) needs to account for an adult population.  Not surprisingly, little of the little MOOC research flows down this path.  That leaves it to us to research, code and crunch.  Getting into the work by Lisa Marie Blaschke…

  • The first thing that pops out for me is actually a definition of andragogy, from Knowles (1975):  a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.  This sounds a lot like constructivism to me.  Formal education environments do not allow for younger students to diagnose their learning needs or take the initiative for their learning, substituting extrinsic motivational methods such as grades.  A lot of the issue contemporary educational researchers have with the modern edu system is its reliance on these extrinsic methods that hold no weight once outside of academe’s walls; this is  likely the reason for Blaschke’s notion that graduates are not prepared for the workforce (because the extrinsic buy-in stops once the degree is passed out).  Constructivism puts the learning into projects and artifacts designed around intrinsic motivation, giving students buy-in into their learning opportunity.  To be fair, I come to this article skeptical of adult learning being at all different from youth learning; this first definition fits my pre-conceived notions.
  • The further definition of andragogy only solidifies in my mind that what is called andragogy is no different from student-centered teaching pedagogies built from constructivism (whether it be problem-based, research, experimentation, etc.).  The instructor works as a guide rather than a lecturer.  It can be difficult to trust youth to put learning first, but any constructivist worth their salt will note that when a student is bored, it’s usually because the assignment is boring, not because youth are inherently bored.  A student will find resources, be critical of information, and seek out new information if the topic is of interest…and a constructivist would tell you that kids find all disciplines interesting, as long as they are applicable to some sort of reality (programming a video game has an element of real-knowledge use; worksheets do not)
  • On heutagogy (from Hase & Kenyon 2000):  …in heutagogy the instructor also facilitates the learning process by providing guidance and resources, but fully relinquishes ownership of the learning path and process to the learner, who negotiates learning and determines what will be learned and how it will be learned.  Anecdotally, this has been my experience in the various cMOOCs I have enrolled in.  Comparing this to youth learning models, it fully fits notions of informal learning, but could not happen in formal education because of the reliance on assessment.  Again, however, I don’t see a difference in how heutagogy looks at the learning process (self-determined learning leading to not only competency but also capability, or the ability to apply to known and unknown variables and environments) differs from something like Bloom’s Taxonomy, which starts with content and takes the student through a mastery of that content, with the end result not only an ability to replicate results but to create a model for a unique environment.  The difference is in self-determined learning, I guess…which perhaps can happen formally with adults but would be a political nightmare if tried with youth…but I don’t see how that one difference is the basis for completely separate learning models (much less theories).
  • According to the paper, heutagogy, through technological steps such as Web 2.0 allows learners to self-direct and personalize their learning.  This idea of personalized learning has similarities to K-12 personalized learning as advocated for in American systems:  both focus on the individual as in need of a system designed for their unique learning tastes and styles.  The heutagogical model focuses on the notion of Personalized Learning Networks built by the user, however, while the K-12 model has much more traction around software manufacturers incorporating different learning methods and modules into a package for a student…the difference between personalization as “draw a picture” and “choose from these five eyes, four noses, and three chins and put together a face.”
  • I’m flying through the practical accounts and potential aspect of the paper not because it’s not viable, but because to me (and my background in education is K-12 with a dash of traditional higher ed) there is not a structural or theoretical difference between heutagogy (or even andragogy) and theories like constructivism or social learning theory.  The paper notes the practical difficulty of credentialing students who shape their own learning curriculum, but gets into designs and methods that incorporate a heutagogical approach while keeping structure in place.  These methods are not unique to adults:  action research, journaling/blogging, student-defined syllabi, reflective assessment…all of this currently exists in classrooms regardless of age…I’ve seen authentic syllabi developed on a first-grade level.

I don’t mean to discount the work done in distance education, work that is very important and which has been ignored by the mainstream media in looking at the evolution of MOOCs, which were not dropped onto Earth by God in the Fall of 2011, but are a step in a direction that began hundreds of years ago when the industrial era allowed learning materials to be processed and shipped to people outside of a classroom environment.  That being said, to me, heutagogy is no different from existing pedagogical practices in traditional education age cohorts and delivery systems (face-to-face, online, blended), nor from theories like constructivism and social learning theory.  Perhaps the part to take from this article is that social technologies and the continuing ability for individuals to communicate thoughts and meaning in real-time using digital artifacts allows us to not need to change the approach for kids and for adults (something that would seem more necessary a generation ago).  Perhaps the technology is leveling the playing field on the basis of age.  If that is the case, the implications on learning would be tremendous, and the thinkers behind andragogy/heutagogy should sit with the constructivists, the cognitivists and the social learning folks (with maybe a behaviorist bringing the coffee) to develop learning models for the future.

2 thoughts on “Adult Ed/Lifelong Learning & MOOCs

  1. Susan Chen

    I read the article by Lisa Blaschke and my response was similar to yours. I am not convinced that the needs of adult learners are all that different from that of youth learning. All learners need content, structure, and instructor guidance. How much of each would depend upon the subject. Yes, adult learners may be counted on being more self-directed. However, if you are a learner, the material is not one that you have previously mastered. I am an adult learner enrolled in an online course of study that I find very challenging. I have a lot of questions. If it wasn’t for my classmates and professor being on hand to help throughout the course, I would not have survived.

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      Heutagogy is an interesting theory, and it is a great lens for the successful pursuits of distance learning. But as distance learning becomes more of an option and less of a necessity (meaning people who have access to other forms of education feel the quality is on par with these other forms), the issues of motivation will arise. And we cannot ignore motivation if we are going to sell the MOOC as a global initiative to democratize learning.


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