If you have ever taught yourself a new skill from scratch – particularly something close to your heart – then you may well have experienced learner autonomy firsthand. Learner autonomy happens when a person takes charge of their own learning, pursues their own paths, and chooses how to learn. Jill Ellingson and Raymond Noe’s book on autonomous workplace learning describes it as ‘want to’ learning and contrasts it with ‘have to’ learning.

Autonomous learning is common in passion projects because learners tend to know their goal and are motivated to find ways to achieve it. It’s also common in tertiary education for similar reasons: students often have a sense of where they want to be and how they learn best. However, while it can be a challenge in online workplace learning, it can make a huge impact – both for learners and for your organisation – when it is achieved.

What is learner autonomy?

Ellingson and Noe put together another helpful description of autonomous learning at week in their book. According to their research, it has the following characteristics:

Voluntary – rather than being imposed on learners or part of an organisational development plan.
Unstructured – learners aren’t working towards set learning objectives.
Generates human capital – whereby learners gain something from it that’s relevant to their job or career.
Independent – something learners seek of their own accord, as opposed to learning operated or provided by their employers.

This may sound familiar because it’s a close relative of the dynamic skills approach I explored in a recent blog post. When learners have autonomy, they are empowered and trusted to decide what they need to learn and how.

What does learner autonomy at work look like?

Autonomous learning at work looks and feels very different from traditional learning. There is less content and more discussion between managers and their team members about learning needs, methods, and goals. Time is set aside to achieve these goals and there are opportunities to learn in innovative ways.

You might see people creating communities of practice, searching for and sharing YouTube videos or TED talks, or getting together with colleagues for an informal chat about a new system or process. They might create crib sheets to share as a result or set up a new Teams channel to share ideas and resources.

An online approach to autonomous learning

Online autonomous learning looks different too. Instead of working through assigned modules or content, learners source their own learning materials and connect them to their own learning goals. They might follow experts on Twitter, dip into just-in-time resources in a learning management system or sign up for a MOOC (massive online open course).

The flexibility of online resources means learners can tap into their learning whenever and wherever they need to. After all, we expect to summon information at any moment via our devices and learning is no different. The great thing about this approach is that learners can respond to learning needs in the moment. Learning management systems such as Docebo that enable informal learning opportunities using curated resources and links, can also assist with autonomous learning.

How learner autonomy benefits organisations

Learner autonomy creates great results for organisations by growing human capital. As Ellingson and Noe observe, employees’ learning is tailored to their needs and goals, so skills gaps can be addressed on an individual level. This helps make organisations more efficient and more effective.  Then there’s an element of trust. Team members who are empowered to direct their own learning feel trusted and respected. They will take more initiative and seek out innovative solutions because they know the organisation values their judgement.

How learners benefit

If you have studied learning theory, some learner autonomy features might seem similar to experts’ views on how learning occurs and how it can be designed to maximise the benefit to learners. For example, autonomous learners set their own learning goals based on their own needs, which creates a powerful motivation to learn – a key element of adult learning theory.

Learners also evaluate content as they find it, which in itself is a learning experience. Perhaps they will compare it to something they already knew or question whether the content they find is accurate. Either way, they retrieve existing knowledge and compare it to new information, building their own understanding. As part of this process, they’re monitoring their own progress, comparing where they are to where they want to be. This ability to reflect on progress towards a goal, adjust and replan is always going to be an essential skill in our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world.

How to ensure team members are autonomous learners

You can facilitate the process by supplying the tools, the time, and the opportunities to help your team members plan their learning. You can also ensure that their learning goals align with bigger picture ones and suggest tweaks if they don’t.

It is important to remember that learner autonomy does not mean team members only pursue their learning goals. They still need to be inducted into their roles and the organisation, and they still need to understand the ways of working in your team. Your team members will look to you for guidance on this – and this could be a learning opportunity for you! 

Photo by Heidi Fin on Unsplash