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


ICT competencies for future workplace practices

Written by Lina Markauskaite

In some information and communication technology (ICT)-related units students learn ICT competences (digital literacy) in isolation from their future workplace practices and needs. In contrast, in some other units that prepare students for practicums, students become passive receivers of large amount of information and “scripts” about how to behave in workplace (policies, ethics, etc.).

Evidence shows that learning to use ICT in isolation from specific problems is ineffective. An effective way to enhance students’ ICT-related capacities is to engage them into authentic projects, such as design and development of ICT-related tools or resources for their own learning or for teaching others or for later their practice. A closely related example comes from a teacher education unit, where groups of preservice teachers work with university academics helping them to design and develop new online courses [1]. Students could be asked to co-create such courses for themselves. Such task, of course, is large and could require longer time (6-12 weeks), but depending on available time, students could be given tasks to create smaller and more specific self-learning resources. For example, students could be given a task to create a resource for learning about a specific topic using social media, such as Such task could be a small and specific or large and broad (e.g. a task asking students to choose, annotate and share 3-5 most important resources on a specific topic could be done within 1-2 weeks asking, but students could be also asked to develop a larger collection of tools over a longer period).

Quite different issue is encountered in courses where students encounter large amounts of information. In such cases, students usually are engaged in passive learning (e.g. reading, note taking, doing quizzes). In contrast, evidence from cognitive sciences suggests [2] that active, constructive and interactive activities are much more beneficial and “interactive activities are most likely to be better than constructive activities, which in turn might be better than active activities, which are better than being passive” [3]. Tasks that draw on active students’ co-construction of learning resources and tools for their own learning and for their peers could help to address this challenge. Examples of specific pedagogical approaches are “knowledge-creating inquiry” [4], “knowledge building” [5], “design as inquiry”; “learning-by-design” [6] and other participatory co-creation approaches. Such approaches not only help to address the above two issues, but also could help to foster students’ creativity, innovation and agency [7].

In the context of mobile technology (MT) in workplace learning (WPL), the above issues could be addressed by giving students tasks (including assessments) in which students are asked to design and develop ICT-based resources or tools (projects, applications) that would help them and their peers to enhance their own learning in workplace with mobile technologies.

Such participatory tasks could be designed in various ways.

  1. Organised & guided: Specific topics, tools, etc could be suggested by a teacher. For example, groups of students could be allocated specific topics related to MT in WPL and asked to create a resource that would be useful for them and their peers using a specific media tool (e.g. How to use mobile technologies ethically in workplace; How to use Linkedin/Facebook in for professional learning). Students could be given various applied tasks (e.g. To design a plan for setting up a new (networked) professional learning community in an organization. To set up a professional learning network that you could use during your practicum with your peers).
  2. Open: The task given for students could be open ended, such as “Create (or design) an innovative resource or tool that would help you to enhance professional learning in your future workplace using mobile technologies”. In such cases it is better to do the project in stages. Initially, students could be asked to design an initial 1-2 pages proposal. Then, after receiving feedback on their idea, they could proceed to design and development. If students didn’t have similar participatory design tasks before, such tasks could be scaffolded by helping students to structure design and inquiry process. E.g. giving a model of design thinking process, a template for design proposal, etc.

What do you think? What are others examples of such participatory tasks?


[1] Koehler, M. J., Mishra, P., & Yahya, K. (2007). Tracing the development of teacher knowledge in a design seminar: Integrating content, pedagogy and technology. Computers & Education 49, 740-762.

Mishra, P., Koehler, M. J., & Zhao, Y. (Eds.). (2007). Faculty development by design: Integrating technology in higher education. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

[2] Chi, M. T. H. (2009). Active-Constructive-Interactive: A Conceptual Framework for Differentiating Learning Activities. Topics in Cognitive Science, 1(1), 73-105. doi: 10.1111/j.1756-8765.2008.01005.x

Chi, M. T. H., & Wylie, R. (2014). The ICAP Framework: Linking Cognitive Engagement to Active Learning Outcomes. Educational Psychologist, 49(4), 219-243. doi: 10.1080/00461520.2014.965823

[3] page 73 in Chi, M. T. H. (2009). Active-Constructive-Interactive: A Conceptual Framework for Differentiating Learning Activities. Topics in Cognitive Science, 1(1), 73-105. doi: 10.1111/j.1756-8765.2008.01005.x

[4] Muukkonen, H., & Lakkala, M. (2009). Exploring metaskills of knowledge-creating inquiry in higher education. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 4(2), 187-211. doi: 10.1007/s11412-009-9063-y

Muukkonen, H., Lakkala, M., & Hakkarainen, K. (2005). Technology-Mediation and Tutoring: How Do They Shape Progressive Inquiry Discourse? Journal of the Learning Sciences, 14(4), 527-565. doi: 10.1207/s15327809jls1404_3

[5] Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (2006). Knowledge building: theory, pedagogy and technology. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 97-115). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[6] Kolodner, J. L., Camp, P. J., Crismond, D., Fasse, B., Gray, J., Holbrook, J., . . . Ryan, M. (2003). Problem-Based Learning Meets Case-Based Reasoning in the Middle-School Science Classroom: Putting Learning by Design(tm) Into Practice. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 12(4), 495-547. doi: 10.1207/s15327809jls1204_2

[7] Damsa, C. I., Kirschner, P. A., Andriessen, J. E. B., Erkens, G., & Sins, P. H. M. (2010). Shared Epistemic Agency: An Empirical Study of an Emergent Construct. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 19(2), 143 – 186.

Off to a good start

Since the project’s launch in February this year, Enhancing Workplace Learning through Mobile Technology has progressed steadily. Key achievements and activities to date include:

  • The appointment of experienced evaluator.
  • Ethical and legal approval from all partner universities.
  • Main data collection instruments (surveys and interview questions) have been designed.

Research grant to enhance workplace learning

Associate Professor Franziska Trede from Charles Sturt University’s Education For Practice Institute will lead a team of five researchers from CSU, the
University of Sydney, Deakin University, and the University of Western Sydney for
a two-year project funded by the Commonwealth Office for Learning and Teaching. The project entitled ‘Enhancing Workplace Learning Through Mobile Technology’ will explore how students can make better use of personal digital
devices in workplace learning situations to bridge different learning spaces (classroom, workplace and virtual), connect learning and work, and strengthen networked, collaborative, integrative communication processes between students, academics and workplace educators.

Read more…