Advancing the Theory and Practice of Self-Determined Learning
This is the second in a series of learner profiles exploring how heutagogy is perceived and experienced by learners themselves. We wanted to hear from learners who consider themselves to exhibit the qualities of a heutagogical learner and/or who are learning in a heutagogical environment — in other words, those who are self-determined learners. These profiles are informal collections and reflections of the theory and practice of heutagogy from learners’ perspectives (in other words, it’s not formal research). Nonetheless, we hope the profiles will shed some light on how learners are experiencing self-determined learning.
Learner Profile: Bernard Nkuyubwatsi
1. Tell us about yourself and your learning context. (What are you learning and why? Are you in a formal or informal educational program? What brings you to where you are, as a learner, now?)
I am a PhD research student at University of Leicester, in the UK. Having access to the British educational context was the result of my earlier investment in self-determined learning in Rwanda. I want to focus on my learning experience in Rwanda to bring a different perspective on learning and self-determined learning from my predecessor(s) who posted heutagogical practices in the UK context. I am expecting other contributors to cover self-determined learning practices mainly from well-resourced context perspectives as well. Focusing on my self-determined learning from a least-resourced context will help have a balanced perspective.
To have access to undergraduate education, I had to engage in non-formal learning in 1999 and 2000 and take national exams. I could not see an alternative to have access to higher education, without winning Government sponsorship and student loan via national exams. I had made application for student loan and Government sponsorship twice, but my application had not been successful. That is why I decided to take national exams because this pathway was transparent and I was ensured that if I scored above the cut-off point, I would definitely be awarded the loan and sponsorship for my undergraduate education. Student loan and government sponsorship were only offered to about 3 percent or less of all secondary education graduates. It was a very tough competition and very few among non-formal learners had made it among the winners.
Value that catalysed my self-determined learning
The National Examination Council, which was established around 1998, enabled transparency: A value that catalysed self-determined learning. National exams for secondary education graduation were anonymously graded and the results were established as the only benchmark for the award of secondary education certificates and student loan which was coupled with Government sponsorship. These exams were open to formal student and non-formal learners. Non-formal learners only paid examination and certification processing fees, and those who passed national exams received the same awards as formal students. The results, the cut-off point for Government sponsorship and student loan and winners of the student loan and Government sponsorship, have all been released publicly since 1998. This practice of releasing all the information publicly ensured transparency in the provision of the sponsorship and loan. This transparency had enabled a more distributed access to higher education in 1998, 1999 and 2000. In these three years, the provision of Government sponsorship and student loan for undergraduate education in Rwanda had been provided mostly on merit. That is what motivated me to dedicate my full attention to self-determined learning in preparation for the national exams.
The learning context and the first formal recognition of my accomplishment via self-determined learning
I lived in a remote district: no access to electricity, and transportation services were irregular. I was a full-time teacher with a monthly salary equivalent to about £23.2 or $35.5. With this very low income, I could not afford higher education as a self-sponsored/private student: tuition fee alone was equivalent to about £278 (about $426) or more. That is, tuition fee alone was more than the sum of my annual salary. The only option I had remaining was to learn on my own, take national exams as a non-formal learner and score above the cut-off point for student loan and Government sponsorship. Otherwise, I had to forget the idea of studying at the higher education level. I took national exams as a non-formal learner in late 2000 and got my results early 2001. I had scored above the cut-off point for student loan and Government sponsorship that had been offered to teacher-trainee graduates in the previous two years.
More importantly, English as a Foreign Language (EFL), which was the course I was taught least during my secondary education, but in which I had invested most during my self-determined learning, was the one I scored the highest grade: a solid A. During my secondary education, the language of instruction was French and this is the language of national exams I took as a non-formal learner. Exceptions were Kinyanwanda and EFL national exams which were in Kinyarwanda and English languages respectively. All other exams (French, history, Maths, Educational Psychology and Teaching Methods, Geography, etc.) were all in French. During my secondary education, I was trained to be a primary school teacher and English was not yet introduced at the primary education level in schools that were referred to as Francophone schools. Primary schools that taught French as a foreign language were referred to as Francophone schools (about 90 percent or more) as opposed to schools that taught EFL which were referred to as Anglophone schools (roughly 10 percent of schools or less). This was the same for secondary education schools that had French or English as the language of instruction respectively. I had been trained to teach in Francophone primary schools, and I had attended a Francophone secondary school. There was not pressure on many Francophone school leaders to find scarce EFL teachers and we skipped EFL classes for many semesters because an EFL teacher could not be available.
I engaged in EFL self-determined learning using print materials, and when I was a teacher, I learned EFL courses that were offered by BBC Afrique. It was a virtual self-determined learning which was enabled by a radio as technology. Radio is a one-way information transmission technology, but as a learner, I did not limit my learning on information consumption. I drafted different pieces of writing even though, most of the time, I was writing for myself. I could feel positive changes in my EFL self-determined learning especially as my understanding of different BBC broadcasts in English language improved. This fostered a positive emotional experience although I had no opportunity to have my EFL learning success formally assessed and validation for many years. Scoring an A grade in EFL national exam was my first opportunity to have my accomplishment via self-determined learning formally assessed and validated.
Disappointment and uncertainty
In 2001, however, no teacher-trainee was awarded student loan and Government sponsorship with original justification that they would fail and the sponsorship and loan would be wasted. This claim attracted criticisms because it was arbitrary and was not backed by any single example of a teacher-trainee who had previously been awarded student loan and Government sponsorship and had failed. The decision was simply made for the sake of limiting beneficiaries of highly rivalrous student loan and Government sponsorship and teacher-trainees were among the easy targets. After criticism, the claim was dropped and a new announcement was made: best performers among teacher-trainees and others secondary education graduates who were to be denied student loan and Government sponsorship that year would be eligible after two years in job. I had already been teaching for three years. I sought my employment certificates and presented them to the Ministry of Education where all decisions were made. The Ministry of Education’s official verbally referred me to Kigali Institute of Education (KIE), but he refused to provide any written referral I could present to the institute. Aware of how the system worked, I was certain that the institute would not receive my application without instructions from the Ministry of Education which oversaw the agency that managed student’s loan and Government sponsorship. Without having a look at my application, KIE’s admission officer said the two years I had worked before all the decisions were made were not valid. So, I had to wait for another years.
Around March/April 2002, beneficiaries of student loan and Government sponsorship who had taken national exams in 2001 were released in the most popular newspaper as it had been the case previously. Teacher-trainees who had scored high in the 2000 national exams were expected to be on the lists, but none of them was among those selected and published in the newspaper. Their fate remained uncertain till around July 2002, when the National University of Rwanda (NUR) invited submission of applications by teacher-trainees who had taken national exams in 2000 and had worked for at least 2 years. In August 2002, NUR rose the cut-off point for teacher-trainees and luckily, my overall score was still above the new cut-off point. About 50 teacher-trainees from all over the country were admitted at the university that year.
In 2003, the cut-off point for teacher-trainees was raised further to be about three times higher than the cut-off point for Government sponsorship and student loan offered to graduates in the field of Math-Physique. This prompted ambitious teacher-trainees to borrow notes of courses taught in the field of Math-Physique, engage in self-determined learning and attempt national exams in this field.
This barrier experienced by teacher-trainees since 2001 was the beginning. The challenge of sustaining student loan and government sponsorship continued and its consequences expanded to secondary education graduates in all fields. It culminated in 2013 when an attempt to massively cancel student loan and government sponsorship ended up in a widespread complaint of students before the Government revoked this decision. With financial constraints in Rwanda, there is no guarantee that student loan and government sponsorship will continue to be offered based on students’ performance and proportion of beneficiaries is expected to drop. According to a tweet from Rwanda’s Minister of Education of 13 October 2014, only 20 percent of students in higher education were able to be awarded student loan and Government sponsorship in 2014/2015. Given that the total higher education enrollment in Rwanda is 7.22 percent, according to UNESCO statistics, student loan and Government sponsorship seem to be available to only 1.4 of people in Rwanda (20 percent of 7.22 percent who have access to higher education).
My self-determined learning in uncertain time and the second formal recognition of my accomplishment
Back to 2002, when I was waiting with uncertainty, I continued my EFL self-determined learning. NUR administered, to new students, a language test in a foreign language they had not used as a language of instruction in their secondary education. Francophone students took an English language test and Anglophone students took a French language test. If I was to eventually be awarded student loan and Government Sponsorship, I was expected to take an EFL exam at the very beginning, and passing the exam could lead to exoneration of a whole year that was entirely dedicated to EFL. I had already accomplished a lot in EFL self-determined learning using print materials and listening to BBC Afrique EFL courses and I had scored a solid A in EFL national exam. I continued self-determined learning via the same learning media. In addition, I was able to get tuned to Voice of America (VOA) on Frequency Moderation (FM). I regularly listened to VOA Special English which had EFL courses as well. I had to ensure I am tuned in to the two channels at the same time the EFL courses were broadcast and I took notes as I listened. When I was admitted at the NUR, I passed the EFL test, which enabled me to cut down the time to bachelor’s degree from five years to four years.
An inter-setting self-determined learning
After my undergraduate education, I won a tuition waiver to undertake an MA in Online and Distance Education (MAODE) with the UK Open University. This was an online/distance learning programme, which I had to learn from Rwanda. This time, I had access to the Internet since I was working in a higher education institution. I was privileged because the campus I was appointed in was the only place the Internet could be accessed in Kibuye, a western town where the campus was located. The programme was challenging but I was well prepared for it. I had already made outstanding accomplishment via self-determined learning. I was very good at prioritising learning and professional development over other events. It was recommended to spend 15 hours per week on learning activities but my strategy was to spend between 20-25 hours per week. This was to compensate for the 4 disadvantages I thought I had when compared to my peers: I was learning in a foreign language while most of them were learning in their native language (1), I was a recent immigrant to digital technologies while most of them were experience and highly competent in using technologies (2), The Internet connectivity and electricity were not reliable in my setting while the Internet and electricity rarely or never got interrupted in the settings of my peers (3), the course and learning materials were conceptualised within the cultural frame of my peers while I had to adjust to this cultural perspective (4). My strategy worked very well in the first module and I did not have major Internet Interruptions. In the second and third module, however, the Internet collapsed on the campus. I had to take a three hour bus trip to access the Internet in other cities and I could survive by combining online and offline learning. My performance was getting about 10% lower when compared to what it used to be in the first module. I still obtained good grades on my assignments, but not as good as I wanted them to be to easily get funds for PhD education which I had already started aiming at. I made decision to seek a full-time postgraduate education opportunity in a country where access to the Internet was reliable. I ended up winning a Fulbright award, which enabled me to move to Eastern Michigan University for an MA in TESOL. From then on, I had to plan on completing both the MAODE and MATESOL. I was able to complete both programmes successfully, and since my move to the USA, my performance in the MAODE rose again to reach the highest point in the entire programme.
2. What about your learning context reflects the ideas of heutagogy as you understand them?
By heutagogy, I understand the learning practices that are built around the learners making decisions to become the key agent of their own transformation through learning. A self-determined learner is dedicated, invests time and effort, and perseveres in learning for development. S/he doesn’t quit just because s/he encounters challenging learning sections or learning difficulties linked to the learning context. Heutagogues commit to learning even when they have no access to pedagogical support. They have a vision about their transformation and they keep learning till they reach it. In my former learning context, access to higher education pedagogical support was the result of my effort and investment in heutagogical practices, not the other way around. Had I remained passive waiting for access to pedagogical support to start learning, I would not have made any progress, and I would probably still be waiting to have access to that support. I had an outstanding achievement in a socio-economic and educational migration thanks to self-determined learning. This migration was multidimensional: it was across learning perspectives and learning technologies, and it required being adaptive to new learning environments and learning communities. This multidimensional migration and adaptability are important aspects of self-determined learning in the context I was learning from.
3. What qualities or characteristics as a learner do you need to bring to your learning given this context?
Self-determined learners in my former learning context have to be resilient to various dis-empowering barriers. They need to persevere by not giving up and not consenting to anyone who tells them that they cannot accomplish anything (mainly because of their socio-economic condition). Many of them work extraordinarily hard for their own social inclusion and it takes them several years before having their effort recognised and accomplishment validated. However, they do not give up on learning. Instead, they give up every day family and social routines that conflict with learning, especially when they aim at a long-term reward from their investment on learning. They make decision to learn and stick to learning till they reach their objective. Resilience and perseverance are important qualities that lead to success in this context.
4. What are the challenges of this kind of learning approach?
The lack of support is the first major challenge. Friends, relatives, even the surrounding community are often not supportive because the learners work beyond the learning that is expected in the context. Their learning plan looks ambitious, probably insane to many who think they are unachievable. It is quite difficult to learn in a community that is not committed to learning beyond everyday routines. Learners from this context have to accomplish a lot to be able to migrate, either virtually or physically, into a supportive learning community.
The second challenge is the lack of access to resources that are conducive to effective learning. Self-determined learners in the context I was learning from had to hunt and borrow learning resources (mainly hand-written notes) scattered among formers learners of the courses they wanted to learn. They had no access to a library, no access to standard books, no access to the national curriculum, no access to appropriate light at night, but they did not give up. Some of them had to retake national exams multiple times, but they did not quit since the improvement of their socio-economic condition they aimed at was more rewarding.
Finally, social disempowerment is frequent due to limited financial resources. An example of social disempowerment was the fallacious claim that teacher-trainees would fail undergraduate education and for that reason, they should not be eligible for student loan and Government sponsorship. Such a fallacy was made simply because the funds for student loan and Government sponsorship were very limited and highly rivalrous. The attempt was to restrict all graduates from selected secondary education fields from having access to the limited resources and this exclusion was coupled with an attempt to convince them that they are not good enough to be successful in higher education. While heutagogues refuse to consent to this dis-empowerment, many learners yield and their potential talents are lost.
5. What are the benefits of this kind of learning approach?
There are many benefits associated with self-determined learning. The first benefit links to the concept of non-rivalrous (Weller, 2011, p. 85) educational resources. Access to and use of non-rivalrous resources by a learner does not prevent others from accessing the same resources and using them. I have earlier classified educational resources into five categories: heutagogical, pedagogical, technological, financial and political. While political, financial, technological and most of pedagogical resources are highly rivalrous, heutagogical resources are non-rivalrous. In other words, a learner who is dedicated, invests time and effort on learning and perseveres to be successful does not prevent others from making similar investment. In contrast, financial resources needed to build physical school infrastructure, pay tuition fee, offer student loan etc. are highly rivalrous. When there is a limited budget, allocation of a certain amount of money to one project or one student reduces the amount of remaining resources and consequently the number of remaining beneficiaries. Similarly, the more one learner needs extensive individualised pedagogical support, the less other learners are likely to get it from the same teacher.
The second benefit of self-determined learning is also linked to the nature of heutagogical resources it relies on. Unlike most of educational resources that are quickly depletable, heutagogical resources are quickly replenishable. The more a learner invests in self-determined learning, the more progress s/he makes and the more experienced s/he becomes as a self-determined learner and the easier learning becomes.
Finally, a self-determined learner can learn in a diversity of learning environments: well-resourced and poorly-resourced, with pedagogical support or without pedagogical support, etc.
6. What recommendations do you have for other learners who are entering this kind of learning context or approach?
The first recommendation is to never let anyone tell them that they cannot accomplish anything. As long as the learner has a vision on their transformation, are dedicated and invest effort and time for their learning, anything can be accomplished.
The second piece of advice is having a vision, making decision or choice and giving priority to activities or event that contribute to reaching own vision and objectives
Finally, I would advise the learner to focus on progress and accomplishment they have made and continuing improvement.
7. Other comments or ideas?
On two concepts such as pedagogy and heutagogy, the debate tends to be polarised. It sometimes sounds hypocritical when some discussants take extreme positions. Which educator would not want to work with self-determined learners who persevere on their learning and invest time and effort to achieve beyond expectations? On the other side of the coin, who would claim that pedagogical support is not needed in all circumstances? Heutagogy and pedagogy are not mutually exclusive. They can work together or in isolation and the same learning/educational goals can be achieved with a balance of practices that are linked to both concepts or either of them. A good balance of pedagogical and heutagogical resources informed by the learner’s need can probably enable more effective and faster learning, but where this balance is not practical, practices dominated by aspects of one of these concepts can also contribute to the learners’ development.
It is also worth noting that an exclusive heutagogical investment or pedagogical support may not exist. There is often a certain proportion of heutagogical investment and pedagogical contribution in learning and what may vary is the balance between the two. In my VOA and BBC Afrique EFL learning, for instance, heutagogical investment dominated. However, I benefited a lot from the courses that were remotely delivered by radio teachers. These teachers were fantastic even though I could not speak to them and they are not aware of a transformative impact their pedagogical contribution had on my educational development. Even when I was learning from hand-written notes, those notes had been drafted by teachers, and this implies a certain degree of pedagogical contribution. This is the same for learning from a book that may have been authored by a teacher. To move beyond relying on pedagogical contribution, I produced different pieces of writing for myself or even simulated dialogues, interviews or presentations with/to fictitious partners/audience. A good balance between heutagogical investment and pedagogical support was in my MAODE learning with the OU.