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The role of educational technology in supporting learner managed learning in continuing professional education

Mary Ayre
Cooperative Research Centre for
Sensor Signal and Information Processing

The working environment of professionals and others is subject to continual change, whether caused by world events, government policies, technological progress or the personal development of the individual. It can be argued that it is the responsibility of' professionals in particular, as leaders in their fields, to manage change which is imposed externally and to initiate and implement change where it may lead to improvement in products and processes. Continuing Education, it is increasingly recognised, should extend beyond professional updating, beyond "the maintenance of competence to do a job" (IEAust, 1990) to "the type of learning that can bring change, renewal, restructuring and problem reformulating" (Botkin, 1979). After an overview of the theory and practice of Learner Managed Learning (LML) in general, this paper focuses from a practitioner's viewpoint on the use of LML in Continuing Professional Education (CPE). It indicates how developments in educational technology can enhance the availability and improve the quality of LML. The practical difficulties of implementation of LML are also discussed. Improved opportunities for LML could lead to increased participation in CPE, to the benefit of individuals, employers and the economy.

Learner Managed Learning

LML is depicted as the convergence of four major pathways of current educational development (Cairns, 1993, p.99). These are: the Alternative Education movement; Distance and Open Education; Educational Technology; the increasing emphasis on the importance of personal experience in life and work training and the recognition of this experience as part of the learning process (known as experiential learning).

LML can be said to occur when the majority if not all of the following features are available for students' selection and management of their own learning: area of study; program of study (from available menus or individually designed); mode(s) of study; academic level; period or duration of study; whether the learning is assessed and how this is done; and whether a formal qualification is sought. In circumstances offering so much choice it is important to emphasise the 'managed' element of LML. Learners plan and execute their own learning experiences, designed to achieve their own specified objectives.

In its most complete form LML leaves to the learner the decision whether to seek an award or not and therefore allows more choice than is normally available at present in institutionally based programs over the content, level and duration of studies.

Why Learner Managed Learning?

There is a considerable body of theory and research advocating the effectiveness of learning (especially for adults) which is controlled or managed to some extent by the learner (Knowles, 1990, Chapters 1-2, Jacobs, 1992).

Students at all educational levels who have selected (or negotiated) what they learn and how they learn have been observed to be more motivated not only to continue learning but also to apply their learning in unrehearsed and unfamiliar contexts (Candy, 1991, pp.49-58, Cook, 1992, Hull, 1993).

Success in this type of learning, it is believed, not only improves competence but generates confidence to tackle something more demanding. This mix of confidence, competence and courage which is sometimes described as 'enterprise' represents a combination of attributes and attitudes which is desirable to employers.

LML and Continuing Professional Education

Traditionally CPE has been available in the form of part time institution based award bearing courses or a selection of stand alone short courses available in house or elsewhere. To what extent do the requirements for LML exist in current CPE provision?

Almost invariably adults can select their subject matter, but this choice of curriculum is usually restricted by the options available within the educational or professional institution (or consortium of institutions) offering the CPE course.

The emerging emphasis on demonstration of competencies rather than completion of a prescribed course of study to indicate a learning experience should lead to greater freedom for the individual in designing a learning program. It is early as yet to comment on the impact of the competency model at professional level. At vocational level there is some indication that competency based training is still delivered by teacher prepared programs in the UK (Smithers, 1993, p.32) and also in Australia, albeit with increased emphasis on self paced learning (Watson, 1993, pp.104-109).

Noting that learning is affected by previous experiences (Dymock, 1994) and so increasingly diverges between individuals with age, choice in learning styles must be recognised as particularly important for the adult student. Developments in educational technology (to be discussed briefly in a subsequent section) are facilitating students' access to different learning styles as well as increasing learning environment options, in terms of time, place and interaction with teachers and other students.

Most adult learners will seek some recognition of their achievements and an employer who supports the learner with time or financial resources will also usually require some evidence of the value of the learning. Recognition for CPE may take the form of a formal qualification, or the acquisition or maintenance of professional registration, promotion to another grade of membership of a professional body or enhanced career prospects.

Several of the features of LML therefore do occur in CPE. It is however, unusual to find CPE learners designing their own programs using material and courses available from a range of institutions or other sources. It is also difficult to obtain employer support for a structured but individually designed program of learning activities.

These more radical features of LML tend to meet resistance by employers, professional organisations and to some extent by the learners themselves. It has been suggested that the latter, (Dymock, 1994) and possibly some in the other categories as well, may be suspicious of educational innovations which diverge from their own experience of formal schooling (Candy, 1991, p.224, Rogers, 1993, pp.23-24, Knowles, 1990, p.58).

Two additional factors are currently tending to perpetuate a restricted learning environment for most CPE. The first is the movement within the professions to require CPE as a condition of maintenance of professional registration or membership of a professional body (Brennan, 1990). Some professions will only recognise certain approved activities as fulfilling a CPE requirement.

The second is related to the first. There is a growing demand by students and professional bodies for CPE activities to be credit bearing towards formal qualifications. (Hull, 1993, Vaughan, 1991). Some universities appear to find difficulties in approving unusual teaching and assessment modes, and in making administrative adjustments to details like processing continuous enrolments; and these impediments tend to limit the inclusion of LML features in credit bearing programs.

While professional registration and the opportunity to collect credit towards an award may encourage and motivate more professionals to pursue CPE, there are still many who do not willingly pursue it. LML can accommodate more unsatisfied potential customers by providing a greater variety of learning environments and choice of learning programs as well as providing for those who choose to learn in a structured environment.

The professional at work is in a unique position to analyse and assess the learning required to achieve organisational and personal aims, provided he or she has the necessary diagnostic and analytical skills, self knowledge and maturity. The process might be compared with that used by professional academic, journalistic or industrial researchers, who determine and acquire new skills and knowledge to undertake a particular project. It could be argued that at some stage(s) this self assessment of learning needs should be required of all professionals as part of their career development.

While debate continues to rage about LML techniques at high school and undergraduate level, it does seem appropriate to argue that responsibility for one's own continuing education should at least increase in line with other personal and professional responsibilities. Perhaps professional bodies should therefore review their continuing education policies to encourage increasing LML for professionals as they progress in seniority.

Educational Technology to support LML in CPE

This section indicates how features of LML can be supported by developments in educational technology.

LML requires an infrastructure to facilitate accessible and effective learning. The components of this infrastructure can be said to include: "...a planning period, time for private study, effective tutorial arrangements, access to specialist tuition, schemes of validation and accreditation, and a convincing theoretical base" (Burgess, 1993, p. 1 14). Perhaps the component 'time for private study' should be replaced by 'resources for private study', since the term 'resources' would include 'time' as well as an appropriate physical environment, access to data for individual research, and the means of producing reports, projects and other evidence of learning. 'Administrative support' should also be added to the above list of components.

In the context of CPE in the nineties, the technologies currently available to support education can improve several of the components of an LML infrastructure. These technologies have so far produced cheap personal computers, CD-ROMs, the means of tele-, video- and computer conferencing, a range of teaching and learning software, and access to data highways. Specialist information on these technologies will be readily available at this conference, as well as indications of future developments.

Some knowledge and skill is required to derive the maximum benefits from these developments. Information Technology (IT) literacy is therefore perceived by some continuing education developers as so desirable for all professionals that it should be an essential part of any CPE program. There has been at least one LML experiment incorporating IT literacy as a core skill (Ayre et al, 1994).

The support provided by educational technologies to an LML infrastructure is now considered.

Access to specialist tuition and resources for private study

Distance education media of all types provide a student with flexible access to teacher prepared learning, in terms of the time and place that it is available. Improving availability of computer conferencing and video conferencing are helping to enhance an individual's learning environment by providing the means of interaction with teachers and other students when required. Locally based students acquire the same freedoms if 'self paced learning' packages are available.

Self teaching software is becoming available in increasingly more sophisticated interactive modes. Currently there is considerable interest in hypermedia - systems which permit non-linear pursuit of ideas and knowledge, encouraging "the free association characteristics of human thought" (Jacobs, 1992). Hypertext is the software which supports such systems, and allows the user to select paths through a network or web of associated concepts or ideas. The validity of this learning device and "the consequences of browsing a path, which results in only partial and inadequate knowledge" has been questioned (Harrington and Winter, 1994). Nevertheless, it certainly does seem to offer the independent and mature learner an additional powerful facility.

Increasingly IT is providing the means for students to manage their own educational environment, including direct access either to teacher prepared materials or to source materials from a home or workplace computer.

Effective tutorial arrangements

The importance of effective tutorial arrangements in LML "to create confidence, to give access to what is available in the institution and to maintain quality" is emphasised (Burgess, 1993, p.116). In this role as adviser or tutor, teachers can give guidance about access to knowledge and current debate as well as learning facilities and resources, preferably not confining this advice only to "what is available in the institution" (see above). The professional learner of the nineties should have access to learning from all appropriate sources wherever they are located, geographically or organisationally.

If a program is to be recognised in any way, whether by a qualification or by an employer or professional body, a tutor or adviser will also need to provide feedback to the student on progress and standards.

To support these roles the databases and means of communication provided by IT facilities are essential for both the adviser and professional learner, preferably with learner-adviser communication provided by the same medium.

Administrative support

In such a learning environment, IT can assist with all types of administration, for example, student records, preparation of documents, communication with remote students, and some aspects of assessment. It is noted, (Watson, 1993) that teachers involved in new competency based programs (which share some of the characteristics of LML) who are supported by computer managed record keeping and assessment tend to complain less than other teachers about the additional workload imposed by student centred and resource based learning.

Challenges to the implementation of LML in CPE

Effective LML in CPE requires appropriate support from the organisations concerned with continuing education - employers, universities and professional bodies. Some of the implications of introducing LML in CPE are indicated below, under the headings Attitudes, Core Skills, Validation and Accreditation, Facilities, Financial Resources, all of which are interdependent.


Experiential learning should be properly valued and fostered by employers, employees and professional bodies. The workplace provides a variety of learning experiences from which individuals derive different degrees of learning. In a supportive atmosphere this learning can be enhanced (Hull, 1993). It is worth reiterating here, that, from some stage onwards in all careers, in parallel with increased professional responsibility, the responsibility for identifying the learning required in CPE should progressively fall on the individual.

Similarly, LML needs the support of teachers and educators, in all their roles: as providers of specialist knowledge and skills, as advisers or 'learning facilitators' (Knowles, 1990, pp.77-82), for individual students, or as administrators and record keepers. Though none of the concepts or processes of LML are new to the educational community they still meet some resistance in implementation, often expressed as concern about additional 'workload'.

The importance of gaining commitment to change from all who will be involved in the implementation is emphasised (Watson, 1993, p.120, Boud and Higgs, 1993, p.167). This can be done by taking account of

the individual concerns and anxieties and addressing these at the developmental stage. As has been indicated, appropriate use of educational technology can greatly facilitate all LML 'teaching' roles.

Core skills

Educators and adult learners have long recognised the importance of core learning skills, often termed 'study skills'. Learner managing learners need core skills, despite the apparent anomaly of regarding any part of the LML experience as compulsory. Independent learners need to understand their own behaviour, learning styles and motivations. It has been suggested that those in a professional position also need to understand the behaviours of others and the behaviour of organisational systems (Ayre et al, 1994, p.86).

Attention has already been drawn to the importance of IT skills in the modern world, and particularly in order to gain maximum advantage from the various forms of learning support now available from computer systems.

Validation and accreditation

It is important to the learner and employer that LML should be validated. Validation "is a device for assuring the learners that the programs they have agreed are worthwhile, that it would be 'valid' to devote a significant part of their lives to following the programs to a successful conclusion" (Burgess, 1993, p.118). Employer support (financial or time allowance) for CPE is in a sense 'validation' since the employer is recognising the value of the learning to the company or the individual, but in practice this support may be granted routinely. Recognition that the learning could lead to an academic award or (maintenance of) professional registration is a more formal validation.

Learners and their advisers should agree how the program is to be validated. If none of the above validations are applicable or satisfactory to all the participants, other processes of validation can be devised (see Burgess, 1993, p.118).

Once it has been completed, a learning program needs to be accredited - that is, its achievements recognised. This may be done formally by awarding academic or professional qualifications; but if these are not the outcomes sought by the individual, alternative recognition can be agreed between the learner and the employer or professional body.


The importance of employing technology to enhance and support LML has been indicated. Teachers, advisers and the learners themselves will not only need access to the necessary hardware but will also need to develop their skills, to devise and use technology based learning and learning management materials.

For teachers and advisers involved with LML, additional training should be available where it is necessary or advisable. The new skills will also be applicable in other areas of those teachers' responsibilities and be of benefit generally to the educational institution. Where it is the learner requiring IT skills, these should form part of the learning program.

Financial resources

Cost always features as an impediment to the implementation of independent learning schemes at all levels of education. The particularly expensive elements are seen to be the support of individual students, the investment required to provide the physical access to technology and the skills to use it, and the preparation of self paced learning materials.

CPE tends to be especially cost sensitive, since it usually has to be self supporting on the fees charged to learners, and which in turn are often, at least partially, borne by the employer. Innovative teaching and learning schemes are therefore difficult to sell.

Few organisations are currently in a position to contribute additional teaching resources and facilities, but improved learning environments can be developed by reconsidering some resource allocations and making better use of existing facilities.

Some learners have opportunities to develop IT and other technology based skills within their own workplaces and most professionals by now have access to a computer at home or at work. It is suggested that, as a minimum contribution to the support of CPE, employers could ensure access to IT for learners. There should be some pay off to the employer in that the learning acquired may serve as an incentive to make better professional use of the facilities available.

Employers might also consider substituting training in the core skills described above, for other more specific training (which today often has a short life cycle) in view of the longer term benefits to the organisation.

On the side of the CPE provider, a relatively small investment in fostering change of attitudes of teachers, training managers, budget holders and administrators could not only improve the efficiency of the provision of CPE but also attract more (fee paying) learners and generate increased income.


With its focus on the learning needs of the individual, LML is particularly appropriate for the mature professional. These individuals, accustomed to responsibility, should be encouraged to identify the aims of their own continuing education and to structure their own programs, with the assistance, if required of professional advisers.

Educational technologies and the techniques which support them are adding to the variety of learning environments available to suit individual learning styles, and improving access to specialist tuition and tutorial support.

Despite the theoretical support for LML in adult education, and the ever improving means of access to learning, LML is not normally the practice in CPE except in the most superficial ways. The reasons for this may range from negative attitudes towards LML of some of the parties concerned, based on limited experience, to administrative inconvenience.

Many of the topics introduced deserve more attention - how to influence attitudes, the question of core skills, how to award formal credit for LML, how to develop a program that satisfies the objectives of all interested parties, and how to recognise academically a program which includes learning experiences selected from a number of organisations.

The encouragement of structured continuing education for professionals, devised by the individual, should not only improve immediate competencies but also enhance enterprising qualities and skills amongst those in a position to introduce and implement positive change for the benefit of individuals, organisations and society as a whole.


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Author: Mary Ayre, Cooperative Research Centre for Sensor Signal and Information Processing, Technology Park, Adelaide.

Please cite as: Ayre, M. (1994). The role of educational technology in supporting learner managed learning in continuing professional education. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 9-14. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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