Developing learner autonomy in distance learning among primary pupils


Anne Harju-Ontto, undergraduate student

Department for Northern Languages, University of Jyväskylä, Finland


Mika Korpi, project planner, Master of Education

Educational Technology Center, Information Technology Research Institute

University of Jyvaskylä, Finland


Pirjo Mäenpää, undergraduate student

English Department, University of Jyväskylä, Finland

e-mail: pihama@cc.jyu.fiundergraduate

Pertti Siekkinen, project planner, Master of Education

Educational Technology Center, Information Technology Research Institute

University of Jyvaskylä, Finland




1. Introduction

In Finnish primary schools the most popular foreign language is English. Over 90 % of pupils choose English as his or her first foreign language. There have to be at least 12 pupils who want to study for example French before a school has to organize the teaching. Although the limit is so low and in Jyväskylä we have many big primary schools (six schools that each of them has over 300 pupils) we have hardly any other language groups in our primary schools than English. In the same time in Finland language skills are highly respected and we have many projects that try to improve our pupils knowledge of languages.

The only solution to establish a French group is to gather pupils together from more than one school. Taking pupils by car in to one school is difficult to organize. There will be troubles in school timetables, traveling takes time and money. Because of these problems we started to think if distance learning could be used in a city.

Pupils who are able to study foreign languages in primary schools are 10 - 12 of age. We want to have as good interaction as possible. Naturally we need good control of pupils who are working without a teacher. Pupils need a good feedback system because they are in beginning of learning French. There had to be a possibility to use traditional teaching materials because we didn’t have a possibility to create digital materials in the beginning. Videoconfenrence with whiteboard and a file transfer system seems to answer to our needs.

We are using a multipoint video conference system where everybody sees each other all the time (compare to ISDN multipoint with videobridge). The teacher teaches one week in each school so pupils can also have immediate contacts with the teacher. This seems to be very important especially to developing pronunciation.


2. Research design

In French language distance learning project aims and needs are very concrete. Many actions and decision especially concerning about technical solutions and financing have taken place before this pilot became as a part of The Distance Learning in Multimedia-Networks project (ETÄKAMU). With the aid of ETÄKAMU we were able to include the aspect of research in to the pilot. The action research method gives the possibility to enter the process while it's in operation (e.g. Kemmis. 1988, 42 - 48). Mode of action in this pilot has been conformable to action research although there was no aim to make any research before co-operation with ETÄKAMU.


2.1. Aims of the research

We are not seeking evidence for distance learning methods' superiority compared with ordinary teaching methods. It is almost impossible to compare teaching methods as Tella (1994, 40) refers Hannifin’s & Savenyes and Smiths researches. In this pilot we are developing technical solutions, teaching methods and learning materials that support learner autonomy. We have to keep in mind the aims of language teaching and the financial realities. It is not reasonable to use distance learning method if it becomes more expensive than traditional teaching.


2.2. Information gathering and organization of research

In this research, information is collected through using diaries, observation, videotaping and interwieving. We are going to make www-based diary where management group is able to comment on others’ conclusions and point of views. Every one and half month, the management group meets and discusses experiences and decides the guidelines to next cycle.

Guba and Lincoln say that development in qualitative research has changed the approaching method from positivism to constructivism (Heikkinen. 1996, 12 - 13). Constructivism emphasizes subjective point of view to knowledge (Heikkinen. 1996, 14). Only the subjects create their own reality. In action research, groups of subjects share their opinions and develop the project. "Action research is collaborative: ... It establishes self-critical communities of people participating and collaborating in all phases of research process"( Kemmis. 1988, 42 - 48).

Do our conversations lead us to a consensus free of power of any kind as Habermas theorizes? Habermas’ rules of conversation are ideal and there has been criticism toward Habermas’ consensus theory. Is it possible to develop something if you have found consensus? When we make decisions and conclusions we have to be aware of the genuineness and truth of our arguments but it is not reasonable to attempt for a pure consensus. (Compare Heikkinen. 1996, 15 - 17).

The management group is very heterogeneous (headmasters, primary school teacher, students, technical assistant and French language teacher). We have to pay attention, also to pupils, ETÄKAMU and the publisher of teaching material. This co-operation group has wide knowledge of teaching, technics and publishing.


Composition of management group in the pilot was following (Before co-operation with ETÄKAMU):

1. Project manager (one of headmasters)

2. Headmaster of each school

3. Two consultant in technic and educational technology who have also responsibility to build the technical solutions

4. Teacher

Situation now (changes in organization of the project)

5. Three researchers,

- two undergraduate student

+ responsibilities in research: Toward learner autonomy, Pedagogical methods

- primary school teacher, Master of Education

+ responsibility in research: teaching materials, technical solutions, organizing the pilot


2.3. Research cycles

1. Seeking solution to have more groups that will study as foreign language something else than English.

2. Concrete suggestion to city of Jyväskylä to organize the pilot of teaching French language with distance learning methods.

3. Technical tests (also with teacher but without pupils).

4. Research co-operation with ETÄKAMU.

5. Technical tests with pupils and teacher (teaching begins)

6. Technical autonomy

7. Toward learner autonomy

Figure 1. Schedule of the research cycles.

Each of cycles has included and will include many little cycles that have advanced our pilot.



3. The role of the teacher


3.1. The situation now

The video-conferencing system was unfamiliar to the teacher prior to the short training period. However, she adopted the technology fairly rapidly, although several technological problems have been solved along the way. New features in the teacher's role are numerous. To mention few, she has had to learn to control volume levels of different sound sources, to use the shared whiteboard facility and the document camera. The new technology changes the setting for teaching in that the teacher can not move around as much as in a traditional classroom. She also has to take into account her position in relation to the camera. When looking at the computer screen, she looses eye contact with her pupils. However, this is necessary for the teacher to interact with all the pupils. The teacher has become closer to the pupils since they have more and more started to contact the teacher instead of the support personnel present in the classroom.


3.2.Pedagogical goals

Bringing in new technology, which changes teacher's routines and the setting for teaching, does not automatically imply a change in teaching methods. A video-conferencing system enables creating a setting that closely resembles the traditional one. For example, the teacher of the present project uses oral drills, where she acts as a model, and the chapters in the textbook are translated in a traditional way. The lessons in the Whitby video-conferencing project 1995/6 had a fixed format, which included general conversation, revision of the previous lesson, oral introduction of new vocabulary, visual practice and reinforcement, and then more revision. This format remains, to a great extent, teacher-centered.

Educational technology, however, should change the role of the teacher as well: s/he should not be the center of the classroom anymore. Doris Carey (1993, 107) states that "the notion of the teacher as expert is being replaced by the idea that the teacher must facilitate learning; that is, the responsibility of the teacher is to guide student learning". As the teacher gradually moves further back, the learner has to develop autonomous strategies and take more responsibility of his or her own learning. Carey (1993, 109) argues that "the facilitated environment is one that provides a safe, rich, and challenging place for the learner to set goals, assess progress, and plan new learning". An important question is how autonomous fifth-grade pupils can be when learning a foreign language.

Since the technology used in the project has started to function well, now it is time to concentrate on the pedagogical questions. The goal is to find out what are the actual teaching practices that promote learner autonomy.


4. Technical autonomy

In the Kilpisjärvi-Project, a famous distance education-project via two-way video conference between two classes in Kilpisjärvi and Helsinki, the pupils did not take responsibility for the technical arrangements and they were not excpected to do that either. In one report (Research Report 160. 1996, 104), which is based on interviews with the pupils, however, the pupils say they would have wanted to take more responsiblity for the equipment, for example in establishing the connection to the other school. The pupils were often irritated by the disturbances in the connection and problems with voice. It may be possible that if the pupils had had more responsibility for the equipment, they would have had more patient with the technical difficulties even though the frustration would not have disappeared totally.

Pupils in the Telematic French-project had the opportunity to start to become familiar with the equipment from the very beginning. During the first three contact lessons, for example, on which the pupils were in the same classroom, the pupils had the opportunity to sit on the teacher's chair behind the computer and write on the whiteboard that other students saw on the big TV-screen. The idea was to help those children who do not have a computer at home (there is a computer at most of the pupils' homes) and who are not so used to handle computers to become more relaxed with computers. The idea is not to make technique something which has self value but something which helps the pupils in their learning.

During the first lessons, there were big problems with the voice echoing too much and pupils seem to become frustrated when there were problems with the technique. This was one of the problems also in Kilpisjärvi-Project and in many other projects, too. Pupils become irritated when they have to speak louder to the microphones. After some difficulties, pupils were given more responsibility with technique. In Pupuhuhta, one of the pupils was named to be the person in charge of the computer and this person changes every week. Basically this means that this person will write on the whiteboard when needed and sit behind the computer. It seems to be quite important for the pupils because they can feel that they really have responsibility over the learning situation.

Pupils were taught to save their homework with the document camera and already by the 5th lesson, pupils had saved their homework in the files which the teacher could then check them and give some feedback. Skipping the homework is thus not so easy without teacher knowing it, because the pupils normally save the homework that are not gone through on the lesson. In Kilpisjärvi-Project, some of the pupils felt that the distance lessons were easier because the homework were checked more infrequently (Research Report 160. 1996, 106).

During the first lessons, there was always an adult present in the classroom, because of the problems with the connection and voice. On the 7th lesson, the pupils were expected to switch on the computer, open the program and establish the connection to the other schools by themselves. Total independency has not been achieved in pupils beginning the lesson by themselves and there is always one teacher in every school who is at hand when help is needed. The pupils are, however, alone in the class most of the time.

On the 5th lesson, two pupils in one of the schools adviced the two new pupils who had just joined the French class to save their homework in files with the document camera. The pupils functioned in this way as mentors for the other pupils. The two new girls had come to replace the three boys who dropped the French classes after few lessons. The boys could not follow the basic rules of quietness and since negotiations between the teacher and the boys did not get them to adjust to the rules the only option was to leave the boys out of the group.

Now there has been a total of 11 lessons (45 minutes each) and the biggest problems in voice have been overcome.The voice and the audio system will not get any better than they are today, so the pupils will have to get used to speaking louder and to possible small disturbances in the voice. The next phase will contain goals such as achieving better technical autonomy in the same time when some different experiments in teaching methods will be made.


5. Toward learner autonomy

Before we go on any further in discussing learner autonomy, it is best to define what the term actually means. David Little defines the term in relation to a particular task. A person is autonomous when s/he can perform that task 1) without assistance, 2) beyond the immediate context in which s/he acquired the necessary knowledge and skill to perform the task, and 3) flexibly, taking also account of the special requirements of particular circumstances. (Little 1996.)

Autonomy has always been the goal of schooling and education. The children, for example, are taught to know how to read even outside the classroom where the texts are not the same than in the classroom. In this way, autonomy has always existed in schools. But it is not until recently that learner autonomy has been emphasized and become one of the explicit goals of schooling and education. In designing new teaching and learning methods for teachers and pupils, two focuses of concern exist: how to learn to apply the knowledge and skills learnt in the classrooms to appropriate functioning in the real world and how to update that knowledge and the skills to the demands of changing circumstances?

In this Telematic French-project via desktop videoconference, which is a part of ETÄKAMU-project, there are two areas in which learner autonomy is and will be encouraged: the technical area and the area of learning a foreign language.


6. Material

The pupils have used for ordinary class teaching meant material which has been indeed suitable for the video conference well. But next we would need more material which supports autonomy learning and interaction in the groups. This kind of material would be for example tasks of different levels (something for everyone) in which there are clear instructions and which would give a pupil feedback. Technically we have possibility to product and use material also in digital format (cd-rom, www, etc). This solutions are depended on the aims which we have to clarify with our publishing company of teaching materials.





Carey, Doris M. 1993. Teacher roles and technology integration: moving from teacher as director to teacher as facilitator, Computers in the Schools Vol. 9(2/3), 105-118

Heikkinen, H. 1996. Perinteisellä tyylillä vai vapaalla? Kohti reflektiivistä dialogia opetusharjoittelussa toimintatutkimuksen avulla. Lisensiaattityö. Teacher training college of Jyväskylä University.

Kemmis, S. 1988. Action research. In J. Keeves (ed.) Educational research, methodology, and measurement. Oxford Pergamon, 42 - 48.

Little. 1996.Third International Conference of the Association for Language Awareness, Dublin.

Tella, S. 1994. Uusi tieto- ja viestintäteknikka avoimen oppimisympäristön kehittäjänä. Tutkimuksia 124. Teacher training college of Helsinki University.



Other literature

Anttila, P. 1996. Tutkimisen taito ja tiedon hankinta. Artefakta 2. Akatiimi Oy, Helsinki.

Habermas, J. 1987. The theory of communicative action. Volume 2. Lifeworld and system: a critique of functionalist reason. Boston: Beacon.

Hannifin, R. D. & Saveney, W. C. 1993. Technology in the classroom: The Teacher’s New Role and Resistance to It. Educational Technology. June, 26 - 31.


Kuitunen, H. 1996. Finiste-tietoverkko innovaation välineenä luonnontieteiden opetuksen työpajoja monipuolistettaessa. Tutkimuksia 159. Teacher training college of Helsinki University.

Smith, W. F. (ed.) 1987. Modern Media in Foreign Language Education: Theory and Implementation. Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Company.