Reflections about Collective and Independent Study by M. G. Moore

May 18, 2016 by Antonio Moreira Teixeira   Comments (0)

The upcoming EDEN16 in Budapest will be a very special conference and a milestone in our Association's long history. The European Distance and E-learning Network is celebrating its 25th anniversary and several significant related initiatives are being prepared. The underlying idea for this programme of activities is to celebrate our European legacy of know-how and expertise in open, distance and digital education by projecting it into the future. In accordance, we've invited the different generations of researchers and practitioners in our field to engage in a joint reflection on the digital learning futures based on an analysis of the experience and know-how accumulated by our community in the past 25 years.

One major example of this is the panel discussion on the topic of the personalisation of learning, which we've designed in a most engaging way. In fact, imagine a confrontation between two perspectives and theoretical approaches on this theme as different as the ones of Michael G. Moore and of Cristóbal Cobo. It sounds quite exciting, don't you agree? But, just think that we have also invited Steve Wheeler to instigate and moderate the discussion and try to find a synthesis of both sides. Well, I'm sure that you'll be expecting a memorable debate. We are too! So please make sure to mark the date on your agendas: 17th June, at the closing session of EDEN16 in Budapest.

To introduce you to this exciting event, what better way than to give the floor to the keynote speakers themselves? That's why I've invited my dear friend and EDEN Senior Fellow, Michael G. Moore, to contribute to today's guest blog post. It is an honour and a privilege for me to be able to share with you a wonderful and thought-provoking reflection on the topic of the personalisation of learning by one the greatest scholars in our field and one of its pioneers.

I do hope you'll enjoy reading Michael's excellent contribution and feel encouraged to come to Budapest and attend his live debate with Cristóbal Cobo and Steve Wheeler.




Michael G. Moore receiving his EDEN Senior Fellowship in 2010 with past President Alan Tait

Most histories of our field begin with an account of the evolution of the communication technologies used to link learners and teachers, beginning with a century of correspondence teaching, followed by educational radio, then television, the 1980’s teleconferencing technologies, leading us to today’s mobile world online. With the arrival of each of these technologies and their many variants, distance educators have responded with changes in their pedagogy, i.e. the ways they structured their content and managed the dialogue with their distant students.

Today is no different. Every day, instructional designers, teachers and students and their institutions are experimenting to take advantage of the latest technologies. These are the network technologies and online applications that make it possible to link students into virtual classes. Indeed, the growing acceptance of distance learning in academia is surely because in the online form it makes possible most of the attributes of the conventional classroom. This reassures academics, most of whom still believe that the face-to-face class is the ideal learning environment, but now, online – as contrasted with all previous technologies -- it is possible for them to approximate “the real thing”. This aspiration, to imitate the conventional class, has influenced researchers too, who take a particular interest in studying the “social presence” of teachers and co-learners in the virtual class. Further, this idea that distance learning online should mirror the conventional class is reinforced by popular trends in educational theory, most notably the theories of constructivism and connectivism, -- what I think of as “collectivist” theories because they assume an inherent value in learning in groups, inter-student interaction, collaborative learning, and the formation of learning communities.

I need not draw too slavishly on metaphors about pendulums swinging, before suggesting that the success of the movement to conceptualizing distance education as an emulation of the traditional classroom has not been without cost, or proposing that some correction is needed. Without giving up any of the progress made in the application of collectivist pedagogical theory and the development of virtual classrooms, I want to suggest the time has come to balance this with a fresh attention to an older (and complementary) view.

This, older view about the optimum environment for distance learning is what was described during the middle of the last century as “independent study, sometimes “independent learning”.

This is a model with roots, not in the class but in the tutorial. The ideal tutorial was (many would say still is) the one-on-one relationship of the student with a tutor as exemplified in the practice in the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. From the earliest years of distance education, this one-on-one relationship was held up as a model that might be emulated by means of correspondence through the mail.

Charles Wedemeyer, considered by many, (including me) as the founding father of modern distance education, defined independent study as follows: “Independent study consists of various forms of teaching-learning arrangements in which teachers and learners carry out their essential tasks and responsibilities apart from one another, communicating in a variety of ways for the purpose of freeing internal learners from inappropriate class pacings or patterns, of providing external learners with opportunities to continue learning in their own environments, and of developing in all learners the capacity to carry on self directed learning”. (Wedemeyer, 1971)

In the USA there developed a common practice of allowing college students to complement class attendance with courses of independent study, but for our purposes what is more significant is that independent study was developed as a method of providing learning experiences for students who were not able to be in a class or group or did not want to be even if they could. In contrast to current collectivist theories, the pedagogy employed in “independent study” was focused on understanding and treating the student as an individual person. As Wedemeyer explained, the term “independent study” incorporated both the characteristics of separation of learner from teacher that defines distance education, but also a recognition that under such conditions students are empowered – or required - to undertake a larger degree of self-direction and responsibility for their learning than is usual in face-to-face class-rooms.

In the early 1970’s when I first tackled the challenge of distance education theory, or rather the absence of it, I was attracted by this idea that physical distance could actually benefit the learner. In researching this, I was influenced by the (then) revolutionary writings of Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and other so called "Humanistic" psychologists. What emerged from my research -- what in 1980 I called a theory of transactional distance -- included the Humanists’ perspective of what Rogers called “Freedom to Learn”, and led me to focus on the different degrees in which learners might exercise autonomy in a dialogic relationship with a distant tutor. As I wrote in 1972, a differentiating characteristic of distance education programs is the extent to which they allow the learner to exercise autonomy, meaning how far it is the learner rather than the teacher who determines the objectives, the study resources and experiences, and the evaluation decisions of the learning program.

There is much more that could be said about the philosophy, psychology and methodology of independent study, but for now, I can only draw attention to what appears to be a new interest, perhaps for many, a new discovery, and it is being referred to as ‘personalized learning”. Indeed it is the same new technologies that have facilitated the growth of the collectivist pedagogy and virtual classrooms, that is now also offering opportunities for educators to develop new methods and tools to facilitate personalized learning, that is, more individualized, more independent, learning. Notable among these current developments are the development of tools for competency-based education, assessment of prior learning, learner analytics, and adaptive learning.

In Europe, the last decade has seen a growing number of high level policy documents and increasing research interest in personalized learning, beginning with the OECD’s 2006 document about Personalization in the School System and then the Grundtvig Project, LEADLAB – Leading Elderly and Adult Development Laboratory, which defined personalised learning as “learning that may be self-directed or may be facilitated by a tutor on a one-to-one basis and/or within a group setting.” Elsewhere, also in 2006, the G100 conference held at the National Academy of Education Administration in Beijing, China, with educators from 14 countries, singled out the value of personalization “ as a means of enabling every student to reach their potentials, to learn how to learn and to share the responsibility for their own education”. In the United States, the National Educational Technology Plan describes personalized learning as adjusting the pace (individualization), adjusting the approach (differentiation), and connecting to the learner's interests and experiences. (Examples cited from the Horizon Report, 2015).

In light of these and related developments I ask, might this be an opportune time for a review and perhaps a revival of study of the earlier foundation theory of Learner Autonomy in distance education? Is it conceivable that emerging technologies and teaching methods might fruitfully link independent, personalized learning with the currently more established collectivist tradition?

For that is the key point. There is no conflict of interest between pedagogical practice based on independent study and that of group learning, but on the contrary a good environment for learning must be one that provides optimum opportunity for both individual learning and social learning. The question is whether we have perhaps gone too far in promoting the latter and might do better with more attention to the former.

References: Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., and Freeman, A. (2015). NMC Horizon Report: 2015 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium. Maslow, Abraham (1968) "Some Educational Implications of the Humanistic Psychologies," Harvard Educational Review 38 no. 4. Moore, Michael G. (1973) Towards a theory of independent learning and teaching. Journal of Higher Education 44: 661-679 Rogers, Carl (1969) Freedom to Learn. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Charles A. Wedemeyer, (1971) “Independent Study,” in The Encyclopedia of Education, Vol. 4, Lee C. Deightons Editor-in-Chief. New York: The MacMillan Co. p. 550.



Professor Michael Grahame Moore is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Education at The Pennsylvania State University and editor of the American Journal of Distance Education. In an article published in 1972 he first defined distance education, and introduced his theory of transactional distance. Since then, Professor Moore’s career has been dedicated to the development of distance education as a field of scholarly endeavor. Milestones include founding The American Journal of Distance Education in 1987, and establishing an early type of professional network, a Listserv known as The Distance Education Online Symposium in 1988. A first textbook, Distance Education, a Systems View was published in 1996, translated into four languages and three editions. The Handbook of Distance Education, a compendium of research, was published in a third edition in 2012.

As a practitioner, his achievements include what were probably the world’s first international e-learning courses, using audio, video and computer conferencing technologies, taught at Penn State University from 1987 to 1995. Many consulting assignments include work for Ministries of Education in several countries around the world. His success has been recognized by Penn State University with a Distinguished Professorship and a Lifetime Achievement Award, by a Fellowship at University of Cambridge, UK, Visiting Professorship at UK Open University, Honorary professorships in China and Argentina, an Honorary Doctorate at the University of Guadalajara, Mexico, and Senior Fellowship of the European Distance and E-Learning Network, among others. Read more here.