Fostering Autonomous Learning in Universities and Workplaces

Authors: Tanja Vesala-Varttala & Anna Hankimaa.

Autonomous learning is a professional necessity in today’s fast-changing and internationalizing workplace environments, in companies and universities alike. Keeping on top of change requires that learners have the ability and opportunity to self-regulate their continuous learning process.

In the Erasmus+ co-funded project CORALL – Coaching-oriented Online Resources for the Autonomous Learning of LSP, Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences and five European partner universities have collected qualitative data about autonomous learning experiences from companies, educators, and higher education students across Europe. This article will outline how universities and employers can work together to provide support for autonomous learning and foster key workplace competences.

Autonomous Learning as a Critical Competence

According to Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture by Council of Europe (2018), autonomous learning is a “critical competence” that encompasses a set of “skills, knowledge, understanding, values, and attitudes” learners need to “to pursue, organize and evaluate their own learning, in accordance with their own needs, in a self-directed and self-regulated manner.” This includes identifying learning needs and goals, critically using multiple sources of information, making efficient use of peer support, applying appropriate learning strategies and techniques, and reflecting on both the results of learning and the learning process. Overall, learner autonomy enables one to “act upon new challenges and possibilities” in work-related contexts and “public and private spheres of society.” It is also emphasized that language competence is an integral part of learning and knowledge sharing. (Vol. 1, pp. 14, 17, 33, 46).

Autonomous learning is an established research tradition in the field of language for specific purposes (LSP). One way to approach the phenomenon there has been to divide it into four spheres that illustrate the multidimensional nature of autonomous learning: technical, psychological, socio-cultural, and political-critical (Oxford 2003). We need technical, psychological, and socio-cultural competences to manage our learning in terms of tools and techniques, cognitive processes, reflection, emotions, motivation, and collaboration. Critical-political competences are needed to bring about change in learning environments and social situations (e.g. Holec 1981; Boud, Keogh & Walker 1985; Wenden 1995; Littlewood 1996; Benson 1996, 1997, 2001, 2011; Kumaravadivelu 2001; Little, Ridley & Ushioda 2002, Tassinari 2012).

Figure 1. Examples of competences under autonomous learning spheres .

Qualitative Insight into Autonomous Learning Challenges

The CORALL project develops autonomous learning in international study and workplace settings. The project partners of Haaga-Helia are Budapest Business School (Hungary), Beuth University (Germany), Polytechnic Institute of Guarda (Portugal), University of Economics in Bratislava (Slovakia), and University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague (the Czech Republic). The project brings together educators, companies, and students to test, develop, and co-create autonomous learning solutions.

In spring 2020, the CORALL team collected qualitative insights into autonomous learning through one-to-one interviews, group interviews, and written reflections from 18 corporate representatives, 24 educators, and 48 higher education students in six countries. The data was categorized according to the main research themes of autonomous learning conceptions, challenges, and solutions. After that, the data was interpreted from individual, team, and organizational perspectives. Finally, the findings were compared with the national career monitoring survey data collected in 2019 from Finnish UAS graduates of 2014 in response to the question “How important are the following knowledge and skills in your current job?” (Table 1).

Table 1. The most important world-of-work knowledge and skills according to national career monitoring survey (Vipunen – Education Statistics Finland 2019).

Six most important skills in respondents' current jobavg.n
1Initiative and self-direction5.418,518
2Stress tolerance and adaptation to new situations5.368,527
3Independent working and time management5.348,517
4Ability to learn and adopt new things5.348,505
5Communication and negotiation skills5.328,504
6Problem solving skills5.278,526

The autonomous learning experiences described by the CORALL informants have clear connections with the six most important workplace competences brought up in the national career monitoring survey. The qualitative data illuminates the demands and challenges that autonomous learners face in their learning efforts (Table 2). This insight gives direction to planning support for autonomous learning to develop key workplace competences for current and future needs.

Table 2: Comparison between selected national career monitoring survey (Vipunen – Education Statistics Finland 2019) and CORALL qualitative research (2020) results.

Finnish Career Monitoring Survey 2019: Key workplace knowledge and skillsCORALL 2020: Individual level autonomous learning challengesCORALL 2020: Team level autonomous learning challenges
1. Initiative and self-directionGoal-setting; internal motivation; self-leadershipDefining shared purpose, goals and vision; differences between team members in their ability to learn autonomously
2. Stress tolerance and adaptation to new situationsSkills and resilience to deal with uncertaintyTolerating mistakes; making use of peer support; keeping up team motivation
3. Independent working and time managementTime management and multitaskingTeam and project management
4. Ability to learn and adopt new thingsFinding courage and self-confidence to take responsibility for learning new professional and cultural skills; self-assessment and self-reflection skillsOvercoming technical, psychological, and socio-cultural barriers to collaborative learning, peer-assessment skills
5. Communication and negotiation skillsPaying heed to cultural, social, and economic realities different from one's ownSoft skills to share knowledge and cultivate trust in cross-functional and cross-cultural teams
6. Problem-solving skillsFinding relevant information sources, learning solutions, and digital tools to facilitate problem-solvingProactive engagement with peer networks and learning communities to facilitate problem-solving

Developing Pedagogical Support for Autonomous Learning

The CORALL project aims at fostering learner autonomy through developing pedagogical tools, models, and support systems. As autonomous learning is a complex and multidimensional phenomenon, it is important that the tools and models are practical and easy to use by individuals, teams, and organizations for various types of international business and workplace challenges.

Individuals need tools with which to structure complex knowledge and become aware of their learning progress and development needs. For teams, we develop support for project management, collaborative learning, and uncertainty tolerance. For universities and employers, there is a need to create long-term learning paths and tools that help align individual and team goals with organizational goals. The qualitative findings also underline the importance of creating an encouraging atmosphere supportive of autonomous learning through interaction and dialogue. The data obtained from students show that working on authentic challenges and company projects can boost motivation to learn autonomously.

At Haaga-Helia, the project continues by testing and co-creating autonomous learning solutions together with students, educators, and company partners. The test environments are Haaga-Helia marketing and communication students’ Creative Agency Krea and the specialization study path Global Markets and Trade. Both offer project-based study modules where students and their coaches work together with company clients to solve authentic international business challenges.

In these project-based learning environments, we experiment, on a weekly basis, with autonomous learning tools and models facilitating students’ learning at different stages of their project work. Our company partners experiment with some of the same tools, along with models and support structures of their own. At regular intervals, an advisory board of company representatives, educators, and students come together to discuss the results of the experiments and to make plans for further development.

We also collect guided reflections from students through learner diaries and forms of self and peer assessment. In this way, learners develop their reflective skills and their experiences can be subjected to international comparison and scrutiny between the CORALL partners. Finally, we publish best practices, models, and tools as open-access online resources to foster autonomous learning in the international workplace.

Autonomous Learning to Facilitate Change

Educational institutions have an important role to play in helping individuals, teams and organizations to navigate global business and workplace challenges. Both work-related research and close collaboration between students, educators, and companies are needed to foster autonomous learning and develop key workplace skills and knowledge.

In addition to technical, psychological, and socio-cultural competences, it is important to develop learners’ critical competences to help them become active citizens and drive social transformation. With pedagogical solutions suitable for both higher education and workplace learning, educational institutions can support life-long learners and employers to facilitate sustainable change.

Authors

Tanja Vesala-Varttala, PhD, Principal Lecturer in Marketing and Communication, Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences, tanja.vesala-varttala(at)haaga-helia.fi
Anna Hankimaa, MSc (Econ), doctoral candidate, Senior Lecturer in International Business, Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences, anna.hankimaa(at)haaga-helia.fi

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