When I teach in a traditional classroom (as many of us often do, with large student numbers), I decide when we start, when we finish, what homework the students might be required to complete, what tests they have to take and pass, what learning outcomes I expected of them, even whom I would ask to talk or to answer my questions in class. I cannot recall that my authority in such matters was ever really challenged by a class – by an individual, perhaps, but the weight of class opinion or reaction, or their lack of support, made it fairly easy for me to deal with such insurgency authoritatively, and effectively. Being authoritative about what they and I did is fairly simple, because I made almost all of the key decisions. I have chosen the syllabus and the intended learning outcomes and the level of demand to which the students should learn. I have decided the topics they should study and I would teach, and the sequence in which they should be studied, and taught. I made these decisions as an authority in the field, and in the processes of higher education. It was a fairly simple matter to safely arrange the programme so that I was an authority within it.
But what about in learner-directed learning settings like open courses or even MOOCs?
When I facilitate, open learning is much more demanding – and difficult. I interact with a diverse group of individuals to whom I have given, in Rogers’ terms, “Freedom to Learn”. I have encouraged them each to find the most effective way for them to learn (which may well not be my way), to decide what they want and need to know (which may go well beyond my previous expertise), even to judge their learning and development according to their own criteria and values (to which I may not have previously worked). If I am to facilitate their learning and development in these circumstances, then I must myself be ever learning and developing, so that I can do so competently. And if I do not manage to do so, and manage to be seen to do so, then I will lose my authority with them as a teacher in this subject area.
The option of taking a managerial authority is not open to me when I facilitate learner-directed learning. I must not direct; I must not instructor explain; I must not tell them how I would solve the problems which they encounter, or which I point out. For if I succumbed to any of these temptations, and then I would deny the principles on which I have authoritatively opted for learner-directed learning. And irretrievably we would regress to the instructional situation, in which passive learners would know that their teacher will teach and instruct them, if only they ask pleasantly, or demonstrate helpless incompetence.
Facilitating an open learning experience is the most challenging thing for me, yet the most rewarding when I can see students in control of their learning! But again, do we need to facilitate the ‘open’ learning experience?