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Learner Agency in Online Learning

Sally Mangai

Learner agency has been an important idea in education for many years. We’ve seen it grow as a concept through education theory and practice in Aotearoa New Zealand, and learner agency has a role to play in online learning as well.

The OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030 website defines student agency as:

“…the belief that students have the ability and the will to positively influence their own lives and the world around them. Student agency is defined as the capacity to set a goal, reflect and act responsibly to effect change. It is about acting rather than being acted upon; shaping rather than being shaped; and making responsible decisions and choices rather than accepting those determined by others.”

OECD Future Education and Skills 2030

When learners are agents in their learning they:

  • play an active role in deciding what and how they will learn
  • are more likely to define objectives for their learning
  • tend to show greater motivation to learn.

Components of learner agency

The term learner agency is often mistakenly used instead of learner autonomy, student voice or learner choice. However, it’s much more than these concepts. On the NZ Education Hub, Claire Chuter has written a detailed article called The role of agency in learning. She suggests that agency “comprises several core components, all of which can be developed and supported by teachers ”:

  • Self-efficacy: confidence in one’s abilities
  • Self-awareness: thoughtful identification of one’s values and priorities
  • Self-regulation: the ability to direct one’s efforts towards specific goals.

Many New Zealand schools have a goal relating to learner agency in their beliefs about teaching and learning. Agency in online learning can form a natural extension to this goal.

Why is Learner Agency important?

Learner agency helps learners to feel they are in control of their learning outcomes and reach their potential. Learners who have agency are able to drive the direction of their in-class learning towards their goals. They can keep the future in mind to change their focus in the day-to-day.

A path designed for the individual, by the individual

Supporting learners to develop agency requires a shift in the ownership of learning. Teachers are no longer the sole provider of knowledge for the learner. Instead, both learners and teachers are participants in the decision making and design of a plan for learning. Learners gain confidence through participation. They learn to be agentic by receiving feedback and reflecting on their work. Each learner can take a unique path to reach their potential. In this way, learners should have far greater ownership of both their learning journey and outcomes.

Like all learning approaches, working on a plan for learning will take practice as both the teacher and student develop the skills and strategies to be successful. Agency should not be mistaken as a free for all – learners develop agency when they know how to work within a system. The key approach to keep in mind is that not everybody has to all do things the same way at the same time. Learners can reach intended targets and goals in different ways and at a different pace.

Role of the teacher

As with any kind of learning, teachers play a vital role in supporting agentic learning. In particular, teachers need to structure learning and provide scaffolding to support progress. They need to make sure learners understand:

  • what they need to do
  • how they need to do it
  • what resources can support them to do it.

Teachers also need to make sure they are monitoring progress so learners are able to meet their goals.

Just as learners develop skills in becoming agentic over time, teachers may need time and assistance to design learning activities that suit each learner’s plan. In addition, they may need help creating learning environments to support learner agency, so in turn learners will have the framework to further drive their own learning.

Online learning supports agentic learners to achieve their goals. With a well-designed learning management system, learners can control speed that they move through concepts and content. They can set their own goals and desired outcomes, and can repeat activities as many times as needed to feel confident with what they have learnt. LearnWell Digital gives teachers the tools to activate learner agency while effectively monitoring learning.

Activating learner agency in online learning

Here are some key ways teachers can assist learners to develop agency in online learning:

  1. Providing mentoring and guidance, including feedback.
  2. Monitoring learning so learners know when they need to relearn to be successful.
  3. Giving learners the responsibility for their own learning.
  4. Providing choice(s) of what learners learn, and how learners engage in learning.
  5. Working with learner interest to motivate engagement in learning.
  6. Setting goals and expectations that are manageable, yet challenging.
  7. Allowing learners to work at their own pace, giving them opportunity to experience success.
  8. Celebrating and sharing learning with others.

LearnWell Digital supports learner agency in online learning

You can access ready-to-use LearnWell Digtial resources, including New Zealand Curriculum content, anytime and anywhere. This accessibility enables learners to learn outside of the parameters of “in classroom” time. Through the platform, teachers can observe learning and see learners’ needs — both remedial and extension. Similarly, teachers can mentor and guide both online and face to face. We have had feedback from learners that some prefer online guidance from teachers, as they can easily refer to discussion and comments. Learners often feel more confident in their responses online, as time pressure is removed.

Helping learners develop and exercise agency will help them to get the best learning outcomes. Let us help you get there – get in touch today for a demonstration of LearnWell Digital in action.

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