Fostering autonomous learning for students in professional settings

The current trend in rapid technological changes and the disruption to traditional work roles and practices have led to changes in the way we learn, work and relate to each other. Australian universities have responded to these changes by shifting how they prepare students for their future work, including promoting workplace learning (WPL) and online learning.[1]

To better help students prepare for these times, there might be a need for universities to deliver programs that appeal to today’s fast and flexible ways of living, but, more importantly, there is a need to help students develop their capacity to learn and work in unpredictable, complex environments.[2] This requires greater autonomy so that the student, as a future practitioner, can learn from the consequences of their actions in an ever-changing context.

Freepik photo by Joe Zlomek

Student’s autonomy or agency is an important enabler of productive learning in complex, unpredictable workplace environments. Student autonomy refers to a learner’s level of reflexivity (e.g. critical thinking) and capacity for deliberate and thoughtful action. Park defines this as “Learners’ degree of freedom and self-management ability in regard to determination of learning goal, process, and evaluation”.[3] Hitlin and Elder’s [4] definition of agency is also useful to understand learner autonomy as the capacity to act freely more or less spontaneously on and for their own in a range of situations (e.g. to make sense of an immediate situations, adapt to a specific context, respond to feedback, plan actions with long term implications).

Billett [5] shows how the intended curriculum in WPL can be made to support students become active and agentic learners, including by promoting inclusiveness, pedagogical approaches go beyond focusing exclusively on knowledge and skill and teacher control to align socio-cultural, emotional, cognitive with technical perspectives of WPL.

One of the potential benefits of mobile technology is the autonomy it can afford users to self-direct and regulate their learning,[6] Collective learning in WPL is no longer constrained to the workplace. Students’ use of mobile technology in WPL has the potential to develop their digital agency and enhance their learning by connecting with their online networks. It can also help students develop new professional and digital competencies (e.g. understanding of safe and ethical online conduct, appropriate networking and communicating online, filtering and critiquing information).

We are careful not to suggest, however, that the use of mobile technology for WPL is risk-free or always conducive to learning. WPL, as learning in situated practice environments, requires thoughtful moderation of activities and so does the integration of personal mobile technology in this context. For example, at times, being present on site cannot necessarily be replaced by being connected with mobile technology across settings. Sometimes it is crucial to be present to observe or perform a task.

Having said that, we would still argue that embedding students’ use of mobile technology during WPL can develop their understanding of how environmental factors shape professional practices and their capacity to find innovative solutions to future practice problems. This is the case because both mobile technology and WPL provide opportunities to learn across settings and bridge learning and work environments, they are grounded in social, discursive and collaborative learning, they provide opportunities to develop self-directed learning skills, and students’ capacities to respond to unplanned experiences.


[1] Johnson, L., Adams, S., & Cummins, M. (2012) The NMC Horizon Report: 2012 Education Edition Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Orrell, J. (2011) Good Practice Report: Work-integrated learning. Sydney: The Australian Learning and Teaching Council.

[2] Trede, F. & McEwen, C. (2016). Carving out the territory for educating the deliberate professional. In F. Trede & McEwen, C. (Eds.) Educating the deliberate professional: Preparing for future practices, Dodrecht: Springer.

[3] Park, Y. (2011). A pedagogical framework for mobile learning: Categorizing educational applications of mobile technologies into four types. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 12(2), 78-102. p. 85

[4] Hitlin, S., & Elder, G. H. (2007). Time, Self, and the Curiously Abstract Concept of Agency*.  Sociological Theory, 25(2), 170-191. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9558.2007.00303.x

[5] Billett, S. (2011). Integrating experiences in workplace and university settings: A conceptual perspective. In Billett, S. & Henderson, A. (Eds.) Developing learning professionals. Dordrecht, Springer.

[6] Cobcroft, R. S., Towers, S. J., Smith, J. E., & Bruns, A. (2006). Mobile learning in review: Opportunities and challenges for learners, teachers, and institutions. Paper presented at the Online Learning and Teaching (OLT) Conference 2006, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane.

Coulby, C., Hennessey, S., Davies, N., & Fuller, R. (2011). The use of mobile technology for work-based assessment: The student experience. British Journal of Educational Technology, 42(2), 251-265.

Dearnley, C., Taylor, J., Hennessy, S., Parks, M., Coates, C., Haigh, J.,. .. Dransfield, M. (2009). Using Mobile Technologies for Assessment and Learning in Practice Settings: Outcomes of Five Case Studies. International Journal on E-Learning, 8(2), 193-207.

Ellaway, R. H., Fink, P., Graves, L., & Campbell, A. (2013). Left to their own devices: Medical learners’ use of mobile technologies. Medical teacher, 36(2), 130-138.

Liaw, S.-S., Hatala, M., & Huang, H.-M. (2010). Investigating acceptance toward mobile learning to assist individual knowledge management: Based on activity theory approach. Computers & Education, 54(2), 446-454.

Reychav, I., Dunaway, M., & Kobayashi, M. (2015). Understanding mobile technology-fit behaviors outside the classroom. Computers & Education, 87, 142-150. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2015.04.005


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