On Learner Agency

(adapted from P. Magni’s doctoral dissertation The Design and Development of a Hypertext Environment for Adult Learners of Italian, Teachers College , 1995)

The speaker, and the school master, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels arranged in order ready to have imperial gallons of fact poured into them until they were full to the brim.

C. Dickens, Hard Times.

A common approach to education has been to consider the teacher as the organizer and disseminator of knowledge. Learners are "vessels," passive recipients of "facts" provided by the teacher who is responsible for making all decisions about their learning. He/she determines what the objectives and goals are, makes choices as to what materials to use, how and when to use them, evaluates the learners' progress and decides what the next steps toward the goal of learning will be. In language teaching, this kind of approach often resulted in the development of curricula which focused on the use of particular language forms. Focusing on language form, curriculum designers tended to systematically organize, grade and sequence the subject matter, using linguistic criteria (Nunan, 1988). The teacher made sure that all the items in the curriculum were covered and trained the learners to master the correct language patterns.

During 1970s-80s, the communicative approache to language teaching shifted the attention away from language forms to the way the language functions for the purpose of communication. The focus was on language in use in a particular context of situation as opposed to a series of lexical and grammatical fixed structures. The language items were selected on the basis of the learners' communicative needs, they were sequenced on the basis of content, meaning and purposefulness, and reflected genuine everyday usage (Widdowson, 1978; Savignon, 1983). Rather than having students master contrived, decontextualized, grammatically perfect sentences, one well-known communicative approach, the notional-functional approach, focused on the strategies required to effectively, not necessarily perfectly, perform certain communicative tasks in particular contexts. This approach focused on what the learner needed to know to get things accomplished. It focused on the communicative act, that is, what people do with language, not on language description. For example, students learned how to express approval, disapproval, requests and commands, how to apologize or how to persuade in a variety of situations.

The communicative approach gave rise to issues concerning authenticity of the material. Simulated authentic or semi-authentic language material had to reflect as much as possible the language really used in the culture of the target language. What counted as authentic depended on how the material would be used. Widdowson (1978), referring to printed materials, pointed out that authenticity was not a feature inherent in a particular text, but derived from the particular use that the reader makes of the text. For example, using a newspaper article to drill a particular grammatical form distorts the authenticity of the article. Concurrently, educators were attending more to the learners' needs, and faced the problem of how much control teachers should have over the learners' autonomy.

In addition to authenticity, curricula based on the communicative approach reflected a concern for viewing learners as active participants. As Savignon (1983) put it, "only the learner can do the learning" (p. 110). Thus, the needs of the learner became the focus of attention and learner-centered activities were proposed as the best stimuli for learning to take place. Essentially, the teacher became a classroom manager, a guide, a resource and a facilitator of the learning process whose task was to encourage learners to work independently for all or part of the lesson, and also to work cooperatively, helping each other complete a variety of tasks involving authentic materials.

Attention to the learners' needs and autonomy led to more research into the different paces at which people learn and the different cognitive strategies they employ. Recognition of these elements, combined with acceptance of the notion of learner autonomy, led to research into how learners discover their own cognitive strategies to self direct their learning (Rubin and Thompson, 1982; Wenden and Rubin, 1987; Wenden 1991). It also became important to develop resource centers which would encourage students to learn autonomously (Ellis and Sinclair, 1989).

The processes used to design and develop computer systems and software have developed along similar lines. A common assumption had been that information went from the machine, understood as a system of knowledge, to the user, viewed as an inexpert receiver of information. The designer created the knowledge base system and imparted it to the user. He/she defined the problem, created a conceptual model, collected information, then implemented the product to be given to the user: "When we write HCI [Human-Computer Interaction] software we define what the computer will do and what humans will and can do. We also make assumptions about what they want to do" (Fischer, 1990). Common terms such as "idiot proof" and the overused "user friendly" reveal the implications of the resulting perception of the user as inexpert receiver: With this perspective in mind the designer developed software and systems following a theoretical concept which anticipated the users' needs without actually knowing who the users were going to be and what specific tasks they needed to perform. Those who embraced the view of users as inexpert receivers based their assumptions on the fact that information (the subject matter) goes from the machine, understood as a system of knowledge, to the user, intended as a tabula rasa.

According to Winograd and Flores (1986) the development of design theories in which designers and engineers are seen as the experts who plan, design, develop and implement hardware and/or software systems and impart them to the users perceived as the passive recipients of knowledge was influenced by a rationalistic philosophical tradition. The development of Existential phenomenology , a different philosophical construct, was responsible to help to shift the perception of both the user and design. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976 ), a German philosopher who developed existential phenomenology, rejected the dichotomy, typical of a rationalistic metaphysical tradition, between the individual preoccupied with the subjective interpretation of reality and the existence of an objective external reality, and proposes the concept of dasein, being in the world and actually experiencing everyday practice. Those in favor of Martin Heidegger's philosophy moved away from the view of the incompetent, needy user and supported the view of the user as an active participant in the design process and promoted the view of design as a participatory process.

Participatory Design involves the users as agents in the designing process since it recognizes that the users are in the best position to gather and provide information about their own work and their own needs Research into the nature of participatory design began in the early seventies and developed in the late 1970’s in Scandinavian countries where legistlation and trade unions urged industries to involve employees in decisions affecting their working conditions. Users are viewed as active participants in the design process rather than as "vessels" whose interestt is defined by the systems' developers.

In the field of education, particularly in language learning, hypertext/ hypermedia learning environments and the World Wide Web promote different learning styles and encourage learners to be active users. Differently from Computer Assisted Language Learning software (CALL) which uses an instructional model based on the Skinnerian notion of learning as a combination of stimulus and response associations and presents the material in a fashion that clearly indicates the software author's notions of what learning is and how it occurs, hypertext learning systems and the World Wide Web are inherently flexible, allow for multiple learning styles and can be controlled by the learner. Video, text, audio and graphic resources can be digitized, stored and easily retrieved and exchanged among learners indifferent parts of the world.

If we combine the principles of learner-centered pedagogy, the methods of participatory design and the flexibility offered by the WWW and by hypertext/hypermedia environments, we use technology not as a prescriptive learning tool but as one that enables students and teachers to gather material, manipulate and alter language resources to design environments that are suitable and appropriate for the learners. I believe that observation and participation with the learners in the design process are crucial in designing appropriate language learning environments that will satisfy the learners. Only in this way can the learners take full advantage of the resource material and enjoy the benefits of controlling their own learning.


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