5 Heutagogical Tips to Empower Lifelong Learners Online

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Nick Santaniello ·

Jul 26, 2017

Prior to joining the marketing team at Northpass, I worked as an educational program manager for an experiential learning company. As the company grew, I was forced to take on new, intimidating marketing tasks. I realized I had quite a bit to learn. Instead of going back to school for a marketing degree, however, I found HubSpot’s blog, which led to their Academy. Here, I found a place to continuously learn from and contribute to a huge digital marketing community.

During my transition to marketing, I became a heutagogic learner in just under 3 months, meaning I was markedly more self-determined, motivated and highly autonomous, without ever setting foot in a classroom.

In a world where information is instantly available to us, the educator is no longer the sole proprietor of subject matter expertise. The educator’s role has shifted and will not look as it did before the emergence of Web 2.0. Our instructional design must emphasize that learners can become experts in a fraction of the time by utilizing available resources and learning communities on the web.

This post is for training managers and instructional designers who want to learn more about heutagogy and implement strategies that empower lifelong learners online. We’ll cover it all and leave you with five actionable tips to guide your instructional design process.

What is Heutagogy?

Heutagogy arose from the work of Stewart Hase and Chris Kenyon. In From Andragogy to Heutagogy (2000), Hase and Kenyon suggest that learning is a learner-centric experience rather than an educator-centric one, where learners who encounter subject matter, in addition to tips on how to learn, increase their overall learning capabilities by becoming highly autonomous and self-determined.

To better understand this, let’s look at heutagogy in the context of two other famous “-gogies:”

Pedagogy, a teacher-centric approach, involves combining the skills and knowledge necessary for delivering high-quality, effective teaching, usually to young learners in a school setting. The goal is to improve the intellectual and social development of learners.

Some of the most popular pedagogical frameworks include Layered Curriculum, Brain Based Learning, Constructivism, Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, and Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Andragogy is an adult learning theory term widely used by an American educator named Malcolm Shepherd Knowles. Knowles used the term synonymously with adult education. This methodology moves away from the teacher-centric approach and into a more learner-centric or collaborative learning relationship between learner, teacher and peers, usually in an informal adult learning environment.

Knowles began his adult learning theory with four assumptions (the fifth was added years after) about the characteristics of adult learners, in contrast to child learners.

  • Self-Concept
  • Adult Learner Experience
  • Readiness to learn
  • Orientation to learning
  • Motivation to learn

Knowles went on to suggest four principles of his adult learning theory.

  • It’s important to explain the reasons behind why something is being taught.
  • Instruction should focus on the context of common tasks rather than memorization.
  • Instruction should be cognizant of diverse learner backgrounds and experiences.
  • Per the self-directedness of adults, instruction should motivate adult learners to explore and discover knowledge without having to depend on others.

An adaptation of Figure 2 in Heutagogy and Lifelong Learning: A Review of Heutagogical Practice and Self-Determined Learning by Lisa Marie Blaschke (based on Canning, 2010, p.63)

As the graphic illustrates, learners aren’t always highly autonomous and self-directed at first. However, as learners progress and mature in skill and in life, so does their approach to learning – which is why you see heutagogy at the topmost level of autonomy.

With its roots in andragogy, heutagogy puts mature learners in the driver’s seat, as the final stop in the learning continuum. In Heutagogy and Lifelong Learning: A Review of Heutagogical Practice and Self Determined Learning, Lisa Marie Blaschke writes, “in a heutagogical approach to teaching and learning… Emphasis is placed on development of learner capacity and capability with the goal of producing learners who are well-prepared for the complexities of today’s workforce.”

Check out this interview with Fred Garnett, an industry thought-leader and Research Associate at the Institute of Education in London. His thoughts on heutagogy are enlightening and will inspire you to implement the five tips provided below.

Tip 1: Don’t Just Teach Content, Explain the Learning Process

HubSpot Academy does an excellent job of fostering heutagogy. Every HubSpot Academy video and webinar begins by asking learners to view a visual representation of their inbound methodology. 

The HubSpot trainers know that constant exposure helps learners retain information. They’re also very vocal about these intentions, making for a level of disclosure that keeps learners engaged and conscious of the learning process as a whole – this consciousness is a critical part of Knowles’ adult learning theory and a foundational component of heutagogy.

Many adult learners, especially “digital immigrants” that didn’t grow up alongside computers, may not be comfortable working on devices, let alone using the Internet to carve their own learning path. With heutagogy, it is not enough to ask adult learners to simply hit “play,” on a pre-recorded lecture.

Deliverers of online instruction must also include learning strategies and empowerment tips to get students excited about how far they can take their learning online. It will help keep them motivated and enrich their entire experience.

Don’t hesitate to shine a light on the learning process, and while you’re at it check out the MOOC, Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help You Master Tough Subjects and the book, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.

Tip 2: Conduct a Needs Assessment

In Learning to Teach Online, a MOOC I recently took by the University of New South Wales, I was prompted to choose my motivations for taking the course from a drop down menu. I was also asked to thoughtfully detail what I was hoping to learn and how I planned to apply the learning to my life.

This is an example of a needs assessment. You’re simply asking learners to explain what they’re expecting to learn, so that you can take that information and provide meaningful opportunities in return. From a heutagogy lens, a needs assessment offers a great outlet for learners to communicate their wants and needs for the learners, while giving you the chance to deliver on those expectations.

Don’t skip this step! The feedback will even help you develop learner personas which will help inform future learning experiences. Learner personas may include how and where learners want to engage with your learning content, what they enjoy, etc. From there, you can create narratives around your subject matter that will resonate with them. A simple survey via Google Forms or Survey Monkey will make it easy to collect this information.

Tip 3: Offer Courses Asynchronously

Adult learners have a lot on their plates. From full-time jobs to familial obligations, carving out time to learn can be difficult for the heutagogic learner, which is why being able to engage with course materials asynchronously is important.

With asynchronous learning, adult learners are free to engage with the content how and when they want. This is great for when busy learners have a few minutes of free time, or when your course can help an employee learn a specific skill needed at the workplace.

This level of flexibility gives learners greater control over when they learn and empowers them to learn when they have the most mental capacity and best mindframe to do so. As a result, you create autonomous adult learners and a learning environment where heutagogy can thrive.

At Northpass, building asynchronous courses is easy. Our syllabus builder and learner experience make coming back and engaging with content later a seamless process.

Tip 4: Offer Bite-sized Learning

At DevLearn 2014, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a session titled, Bite-Size-Learning: Blend, Chop, Serve! Delivered by Hilti training managers Rachel Hutchinson and Terry Copley. The talk broke down how they improved the skills of their global sales team by implementing bite-size learning into their training regime. They compared eLearning design to planning a meal, where you would absolutely never serve all 3-5 courses at once.

To offer bite-sized learning, you’ll need to take your larger program goals into account and figure out how to break it down into small, digestible bites. This process is referred to as ‘chunking’ by instructional designers.

With effective chunking, adult learners will be happy to watch video after video, so long as they are short, direct, and provide value. In Hilti’s case, they were able to study how their sales people interacted with training videos. Salespeople reported videos being most effective if they were under 90 seconds, or even better - under a minute.

No matter how busy adult learners are, they’ll come back for a quick “bite” when they have the time. 

Tip 5: Employ Storytelling

The word ‘stimulation’ may be a buzzword in education, but it also implies a scientific truth. In 2006, the journal NeuroImage published a study by researchers in Spain who asked participants to read words with strong olfactory associations, together with neutral words.

Participants were scanned by an fMRI machine as they observed the Spanish words for “perfume” and “coffee,” for which their primary olfactory cortex lit up. However, the region remained dark when they saw words like “chair” or “key.” A similar study conducted by Emory University researchers successfully roused the sensory cortex with metaphors like “the singer had a velvet voice,” and the motor cortex with others, like “Pablo kicked the ball.”

In processing the meaning of these phrases, subjects engaged both their primary sensory areas and Broca’s (motor speech) and Wernicke’s (sensory speech) areas. This confirms that storytelling activates our language processing areas concurrently, thus triggering more parts of your brain.

Proponents of Reflective Practice have advanced the notion that significant learning is possible when information is used in thoughtful, reflective and formalized ways.

According to Maxine Alterio, who researches formalized storytelling at Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand, storytelling can do more than inform and entertain. Among other things, listening to stories helps learners stimulate critical thinking skills, capture non-linguistic complexities of situations and construct new knowledge – which can be quite powerful in sparking heutagogy in adult learners.

Tip 6: Enable Collaboration, Encourage Discussion

Learning is a collaborative process of knowledge exchange and creation. For heutagogy to be cultivated in adult learners, the learners need to build and manage successful personal learning networks and find a supportive personal learning environment (PLE), or systems that help them take control of and manage their own learning.

Luckily, the Internet is full of personal learning environments with varying degrees of depth and information exchange.

To build collaboration, active discussion and knowledge exchange into your course consider these options:

  • Add a school or course forum
  • Add discussion boards to course activities
  • Provide opportunities for group work
  • Offer socratic style Google Hangouts or webinars
  • Encourage learners to join in conversation on Twitter via a course or subject-related hashtag
  • Show learners where they can find active and supportive learning environments online 

Tip 7: Provide additional resources

In order for adult learners to be heutagogic, they must be proactive. Make it easier for them to take the initiative by providing additional, optional resources for them to explore on their own. Not all topics in your online course will be highly interesting to everyone.

However, various points, statistics, quotes and subjects matters will intrigue and compel some individuals to learn more. Instead of having them perform their own Google search on the content matter, why not include links and resources directly in your courses to streamline this process for them?

You can embed links directly within the content by turning keywords into hyperlinks using relevant URLs. Or, upload videos, podcasts, PDFs and presentations containing more in-depth information on these topics. Self-directed adult learners will take this opportunity to go above and beyond what is required in the course and expand their horizons in areas that truly fascinate them.

There you have it. A brief overview of pedagogy (child learning theory), andragogy (adult learning theory and heutagogy. We hope these tips will inspire you to give your courses some heutagogic flavor and keep lifelong learners coming back for more. For an in-depth look at heutagogy, visit the Heutagogy Community of Practice website and check out #heutagogy on Twitter.


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About the Author
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Nick Santaniello

Nick Santaniello heads up content at Northpass. He would like you to know that he feels most at home while reading or wandering through the woods. He's passionate about learning and Villanova Basketball, and thinks you should be, too.

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