Since the early inception of distance education, the notions of ‘independent’ and ‘autonomous’ learners were central to various attempts to define (and defend) distance education as a valid and effective form of quality higher education. The assumption was that learners opting to study through distance education are by nature independent and autonomous. The early forms of distance education (known as correspondence education) were therefore of the ‘drop-off-and-go’ variety with the delivering institution sending self-contained study packages to students. Students were then assumed to be willing and able to study independently with very little assistance and extra support needed.
As correspondence education morphed into distance education and with the availability of technologies such as audio, video and radio broadcasts becoming more relevant to distance education, these self-contained study materials became supplemented with and often replaced by other forms of mediated instruction. ‘Independent’ and ‘autonomous’ learning were still lauded as hallmarks of distance education but distance teaching was more and more supplemented and supported with synchronous and often face-to-face study schools or examination preparation sessions.
The increase in the possibilities for interactive teaching and learning questions the traditional pedagogical models in distance education as well as national policy and funding regimes. In the South African context, distance education was always funded differently from face-to-face education based on the assumption that the levels of interactivity were low and that students were independent and autonomous studying through well-designed and self-contained study packages. But as interactivity, collaboration and cooperation become hallmarks of quality higher education in the 21st century, our assumptions and resulting funding formulas and definitions seem to become less secure.
Independent and autonomous learning do not necessarily exclude collaboration and interactivity. These terms are not, and should not be seen as mutually exclusive. The Internet and various technologies make it possible for individuals to acquire any skill or increase their understanding of any topic in multiple and customised formats. Never before has learning been so accessible. Never before in the history of humankind has it been so easy to connect and learn (and teach) collaboratively using a range of Web2.0 technologies. Independent and autonomous learning may have excluded the possibility of interactivity in the past but this is no longer the case.
Independence and autonomy are in fact crucial skills for graduates in the 21st century. The challenge for distance education (students and faculty alike) will be to find ways to embed and value cooperation, collaboration and interactivity. And how to balance independence and autonomy with highly structured interactive learning journeys.
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