Returning learner autonomy back to students: reflection of my French learning experience on Duolingo and what it means for course design

The term “learner autonomy” was first coined in 1981 by Henri Holec, the “father” of learner autonomy. Learner autonomy implies learners take charge of their learning. They have control of their learning and they are responsible for the decisions they make regarding their learning.

The most recent experience of me as a learner happens on a language learning platform Duolingo. I signed up to learn Korean and French in September 2020, hoping to learn both foreign languages during my spare time (I know I know. I was being extremely optimistic at that point. It turns out that I really don’t have much spare time working in higher education sector like all my other colleagues.) I’m solely responsible for my learning. There is no quiz/test/exam, just a daily reminder that I should practice for the day, and a lot of achievement badges if I do a good job of keeping up my work. Even though Duolingo keeps pushing the message about how research shows adding friends helps people learn better, so far the number of people on my friend list is 0. So how did it go after 18 months? I have mixed results to report. I dropped out from Korean lessons a long time ago because I simply don’t have the time to keep up with both if I want to make daily progress so I had to decide on which one to continue. This goes back to my motivation of why I want to learn both languages: for Korean it’s because I had some experience with it and I studied Intro to Korean when I was an undergraduate so the first few lessons on Duolingo were very easy but it became too difficult too soon. For French it’s because I want to be able to keep up with my kid who’s now in a French immersion school and I’d like to be able to read her daily one-sentence report (which is often written in French) everyday. It’s an easy call for me to drop Korean. My longest streak is 290 days, with a slightly shorter one disrupted by our summer camping trip last year. I earned 115227 XP so far and have learned almost 1000 words. I’m able to read simple words and sentences from my kid’s school reports and even able to have (very) short conversations with her teachers. I’m happy with my progress and have no plan of stopping. There is discouragement happening from time to time: my kid would mock my accent when I practice speaking, and I am still totally lost when I watch a French movie without English caption. But all in all, I’d say as a learner, I have learner autonomy in my French learning journey and it works well.

So what? As an educator, of course the next question I ask myself is how can I give my students learner autonomy? Could it even be given? When you examine how students are taught today, you’ll quickly notice there is not much room for them to exercise autonomy, sometimes not at all. They can’t decide when to attend classes because there is a timetable for each course they take; they can’t decide on what they learn because the course syllabus often lists out the topics covered for the course; they can’t decide on how to demonstrate their learning because tests and exams are usually planned and they have to take those to earn a grade. So we really can’t blame students too much if there isn’t enough internal motivation shown. Is it possible to give them some learner autonomy back? Yes! And I happily report that students attending my current MATH2150 class have some freedom regarding when/what/how they learn. They can also decide on how much they want to learn based on what goal they have in mind. The whole course has 22 learning objectives (LO) in total. To earn a specific letter grade by the end of the semester, they need to master a certain number of LOs. There is some flexibility in what they want to work on, and when they want to demonstrate their learning. All my lectures are recorded so if a student needs to be away due to any reasons, he/she can still catch up. Though they would miss in-class discussions and presentations from their peers which I think are the most valuable component of the course. If you want to know more details of how this course is run, take a look at my course syllabus. Each LO is tested multiple times throughout the semester in multiple formats(both written and oral tests are available). Students can opt to submit exercise solutions or compile a solution manual based on other’s submitted work using LaTeX. They can also use GreenCard to get extensions for their work when they deem necessary. No questions asked.

Do you believe your students should have more autonomy? What are your thoughts?

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