Case Study Proposal: The Affordances of Digital Tools for the Self-Directed Learner


The Western Academy of Beijing (WAB) defines self-directed learning as ‘teaching students how to learn for themselves . . . [where] learners take responsibility to set goals, access resources and choose strategies for learning’ (2016, para. 2). To support the shift towards a culture of self-directed learning (SDL), high school students are provided with many opportunities for SDL experiences such as three 70-minute blocks of non-contract time in school each week. McLoughlin & Lee (2010) suggest learning technologies in conjunction with appropriate strategies afford greater agency to the student by allowing autonomy, a key characteristic of SDL (Du Toit-Brits & Van Zyl, 2017) through, for example, the promotion of social and participatory learning experiences and the use of rich digital media. WAB is technology-rich school where students and faculty have access to a wide range of digital tools and systems, many of which could or have already been purposely configured to support self-directed learning experiences.

Research Question

How, and to what extent, can digital tools support self-directed learning experiences in a high school?

Expected Outcomes

  1. Insight into the characteristics and attitudes of a self-directed learner (Du Toit-Brits & Van Zyl, 2017).
  2. An understanding of the types of digital tools, in conjunction with appropriate strategies, that support self directed learning experiences (McLoughlin & Lee, 2010; Robertson, 2011; Song & Hill, 2007) leading to the creation of a SDL Digital Tools & Strategies Map.
  3. Exploration of what and how digital tools currently support students involved in SDL at WAB.
  4. Insight into the challenges and barriers faced by students in using digital tools to support SDL in general and specifically at WAB (Lee, Tsai, Chai, & Koh, 2014).
  5. Recommendations to promote the use of digital tools at WAB, and potentially for high schools in general, to support self-directed learning that may include new tools, coaching and training for teachers and students, repurposing existing tools, training guides.

Proposed Research Plan

Dates Tasks Resources
Aug 11 Submit case study proposal submission

Continue literature review/scan to define self-directed learning and the general features, skills and/or characteristics.

Journals, blogs
Aug 20 Continue literature review/scan

Formulate draft of SDL definition and skills for SDL

Discuss with WAB curriculum leaders (f2f) and with PLN (online)

Refine SDL definition and skills.

Participatory research may include: use of Twitter for discussion, posting of blog post for feedback from PLN, face-to-face interviews.
Aug 27 Create SDL Digital Tool & Strategies Map: Use secondary research and consult with PLN to create map of types of digital tools and strategies to support skills for SDL

Compile list of digital tools at WAB that support SDL Digital Tool & Strategies Map.

Consult literature and PLN for SDL Digital Tool & Strategies Map.

At WAB: Interview(s) with eLearning team, IT support and other experts

Sep 3 Conduct interviews with 3-4 students to confirm/test WAB digital tool kit and to add further suggestions from students.

Analyse data to create a survey

Students TBD
Sep 10 – 17 Disseminate survey to student group and collect data Student group TBD

O365 forms

Sep 24 CHINA STUDIES WEEK – No students on campus
Oct 1 – 11 Analyse data, write up findings and after discussions with experts, determine the recommendations

Final edit and proofing of report

Oct 11 Submit Case Study Report


Du Toit-Brits, C., & Van Zyl, C.-M. (2017). Self-directed learning characteristics: making learning personal, empowering and successful. Africa Education Review, 1–20.

Lee, K., Tsai, P.-S., Chai, C. S., & Koh, J. H. L. (2014). Students’ perceptions of self-directed learning and collaborative learning with and without technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 30(5), 425–437.

McLoughlin, C., & Lee, M. J. W. (2010). Personalised and self-regulated learning in the Web2.0 era: International exemplars of innovative pedagogy using social software. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 26(1), 28–43.

Robertson, J. (2011). The educational affordances of blogs for self-directed learning. Computers and Education, 57(2), 1628–1644.

Song, L., & Hill, J. R. (2007). A Conceptual Model for Understanding Self-Directed Learning in Online Environments. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 6(1), 27–42.

Western Academy of Beijing (Ed.). (2016). Targets. Retrieved August 10, 2017, from

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Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age

I explored connectivism in the context of blogging for my culminating assignment in #inf530 Concepts and Practices in a Digital Age in my Master of Education (Knowledge Networks and Digital Innovation).  Over the past few years, schools have introduced blogs for their students although it would appear that these are not used extensively. Certainly, the students in my school in the higher grades are not fans of blogging.


I started to explore connectivism,  a new emerging learning theory widely attributed to Siemens (2005) and Downes (2005), and the connected tools that are essential to promote a connectivist learning environment. Certainly, the extensive features of a blog hits all the buttons.  My goal was to examine the relationship between connectivism and the use of blogs in a K-12 environment and try to understand the conditions required to promote a connectivist learning environment.

The comments from my inspirational lecturer (@junewall) led me to sharing this work through this post and at the recent Learning2 Asia conference at SSIS. Clearly I was not going to read out my paper over the three-hour extended session at Learning2 and therefore, with the help of @jenasimon, a colleague at WAB, found a way to present my findings through an interactive, hands-on, learning-by-doing workshop. I also reached out on twitter to those posting under #connectivism and  was fortunate to be given feedback on my workshop outline from Katie O  (Thank you Katie and Jen).  What I discovered was the power of being brave and putting your stuff out there!

The slides are here and resources here.


So what next? @jenasimon has written a wonderful blog post entitled The Blogging Dead: Infuse New Life into ‘Zombie’ Blogs and we are now presenting a shortened version of the workshop for colleagues.

Drive by Dan Pink: Scholarly Book Review

The following is an assignment submitted as part of the Master of Education (Knowledge Networks and Digital Innovation) through Charles Sturt University in NSW, Australia. 

Pink, D. H. (2011). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Penguin.

In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink (2011) draws upon almost 50 years of scientific research to suggest that there is a gap between what science shows and the practices of businesses in terms of motivation. He proposes that external ‘carrots-and-sticks’ motivation no longer work as individuals seek intrinsic rewards that are not easily quantifiable. The book is divided into three parts with part one setting up the premise for the book and part two unpacking the what Pink believes to be the three key elements of motivation autonomy, mastery and purpose, a remix of Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 1988). The crux of the book is over at this point and part three, almost half of the book, is filled with to-do lists, exercises, a large index and condensed versions and recaps of parts one and two.

Nevertheless, with 159 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us has been an extremely popular book and has been praised by  numerous educators (“About Daniel Pink”, n.d.). For example, both Lent (2010) and Parker (2012) present anecdotal evidence as examples and suggestions of how the ideas offered by Pink could be applied in an educational setting; however, what lacks is a deep pedagogical analysis to support these ideas. Furthermore, in part three, Pink offers a section for parents and teachers which also lacks pedagogical foundations. This critical review will therefore examine Pink’s proposition and model of motivation through the lens of pedagogical theories and emerging educational practices to determine the relevance of the book for educators.

Pink (2011) contends that business models are now incompatible with the traditional Motivation 2.0 model of “extrinsically motivated profit maximizers” (p. 31) and need to upgrade to Motivation 3.0 “intrinsically motivated purpose maximizers” (p. 31). He argues that as markets are being disrupted by technology, tasks are becoming autonomous or outsourced resulting in traditional, hierarchical organizations changing into flatter and leaner businesses. He notes that in 2005, only 30 percent of job growth came from routine, algorithmic work while 70 percent came from more enjoyable non-routine heuristic work performed by creative, self-directed, critical thinkers (Pink, 2011, p. 28). If what Pink suggests is a reality, we have a responsibility to ensure that our students develop skills to perform heuristic tasks in order to compete in the job market.

Our students already have access to tools such as mobile phones and devices through which they interact with and make sense of the world thereby developing essential twenty-first century skills. Furthermore, many of our learners are already disengaged as traditional learning cannot keep pace with the rapidly changing world (Thomas & Brown, 2011). Prensky (2001) suggested if educators really want to reach students, which he calls digital natives,  then they will have to change and teach current and future content in a language that students understand. However, despite students being highly skilled, creative and active in online social interactions, educators are unsure how to capitalize on this and the adoption and transformation of learning is slow (Haste, 2009). As with industry, the impact of technology on school systems is inevitable and if students are to be prepared for the future, the educational systems must change. Perhaps Pink’s model may be a solution worth considering.

While Pink does not explicitly make the link between industry and education, his Motivation 3.0 is based on Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a model that received, and continues to receive, a good deal of attention in education since its inception in 1988 . According to SDT the three basic psychological needs for motivation are competence, where one feels effective and efficacious; relatedness, where one feels close and connected to others; and autonomy, where one feels causation and ownership of one’s behavior (Deci & Ryan, 1988). Pink’s model is based on two of these three key elements, autonomy which he defines as “our desire to be self-directed” (2011, p. 10) and competence, which he renames as mastery and defines as “our urge to get better and better at what we do” (2011, p. 10). Yet, with no justification, he replaces the relatedness from SDT with purpose which he defines as “our yearning to be part of something larger than ourselves” (2011, p.10). Interestingly, relatedness is considered an important motivational factor in the emerging trend of digital games based learning (DGBL) (Lieberoth, 2015). With that said, to what extent is Pink’s remix model applicable in what Thomas and Brown (2011) describe as the “new culture of learning” that centers on socially engaged, collaborative, adaptive, demand-driven forms of learning?

In essence, autonomy is about giving students choices in order to direct their own learning and there are many systems available that differ from traditional classroom practices, for example Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), such as Khan Academy and Udacity, and the flipped classroom, through online resources such as YouTube (Ito et al., 2013). In schools where many students are non-native speakers, the worldwide web provides access to of knowledge environments in the students’ native language including online newspapers, Wikipedia and country specific search engines like Rather than use the traditional text books and handouts, students can construct their own knowledge environments using tools such as blogs, wikis and online forums to reflect and share their learning and, most importantly solicit feedback. Motivating students through choice can be as simple as allowing students to customize their blogs, such as the use of font (Yang & Chang, 2012). With that said, students need to have critical evaluation skills to assess the value of information they access and the networks they explore, particularly those in languages other than the language of instruction (Starkey, 2011). Giving autonomy to students requires a big shift in the role of the teacher from knowledge giver to facilitator guide; nevertheless, providing opportunities for choice is certainly achievable.

Throughout his book, Pink discusses the Csíkszentmihályi’s optimal human experience and flow, which describes how a person can be rewarded by the work itself (1990). “Flow activities” have clear goals and challenges that are just within reach that allow learning to occur (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990). While flow is essential for mastery, it happens in the moment, whereas mastery can take decades of practice and effort (Pink, 2011). Pink cites businesses that create flow-friendly environments to support workers to gain mastery and hence satisfaction and higher productivity and offers strategies to promote flow experiences, for example turning work into play which he describes as the “Sawyer Effect” (2011, p. 37). The idea that play can promote flow is supported by several studies that advocate for digital games based learning (DGBL) due to the intensive experiences and extended time spent in the game by students . Nam & Fry (2012) tell us that flow is a characteristic of engaging social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and with their potential for infinite connection, opportunities for self-expression, these tools could be leveraged to support learning. Furthermore, by facilitating the zone of proximal development, flow states can be extended for longer periods and more frequently when a teacher helps a student solve a problem through scaffolding (Hung et al., 2015; Vygotskiĭ & Cole, 1978). Overall, promoting mastery through flow-friendly classrooms is certainly a reality and adds weight to the Motivation 3.0 model.

Pink describes mastery as asymptote, in that learners get close to but never actually attain mastery, suggesting that this is a source of allure that people reach for. So what does this look like in education? Starkey (2011) suggests that creativity is the penultimate learning experience and that sharing the knowledge is the ultimate goal (p. 25), a concept supported by Siemen’s (2004) connectivism learning theory, where learning and knowledge rests on a number of opinions that when connected allows us to know more (2004). The knowledge that students create and share, for example, through blog posts and most importantly the comments, can be challenged, debated and critiqued allowing the learner to revisit their ideas, revise and create new knowledge in a move towards mastery (Yang & Chang, 2012). The  concept of knowledge as a continuous state of evolvement suggests that there is always more to learn where perhaps “the joy is in the pursuit more than the realization” (Pink, 2011, p. 125). The application of connectivism as a learning theory to motivate students could well be compatible with Pink’s assertion that “mastery attracts precisely because mastery eludes” .

And, finally, what of purpose? Pink argues that purpose not profit goals bring success in both individuals and organizations for example the TOMS Shoes company that describes itself as “not-only-for-profit” (2011, p. 143). So how does this relate to schools? Similar to Pink’s examples, engaging students in service learning was suggested by Lent (2010).  Service learning is a strategy that integrates community service in the learning process in a way that enriches experiences, teaches civic responsibility, and strengthens communities. So one idea that may resonate is the marriage of service learning with entrepreneurial spirit (Apel, 2016). A number of emerging trends in the digital age to promote creativity include the design thinking approach, makerspaces and coding (Adams Becker, Cummins, Davis, Estrada, and Hall, 2016). By providing the opportunities to create products, students can then leverage online publishing and sales platforms to share and perhaps sell their wares and use the financial gains to support the needs of others, for example, to provide loans on microfinance sites such as (Apel, 2016). So as Lent (2010) suggests, providing opportunities for students to be part of something larger than themselves is clearly a viable proposition where students pursue “purpose” goals that serve others as opposed to “profit” goals, such as good grades, that only serve themselves (Pink, 2011, p. 142).

Throughout the book Pink makes a number of claims that are somewhat unsupported. In Chapter Three, he claims that there are two types of people: Type I, who seek intrinsic rewards and Type X, who seek extrinsic rewards such as pay rises. In a latter section, he makes a sweeping statement that all children start out as Type X personalities but offers no evidence to support this idea (p. 185). Furthermore, Pink makes several references to Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006) and one can’t help consider Ikheloa’s contention that this association with the Stanford Psychology Professor is a deliberate marketing strategy (2012). His personal interviews with popular academics Csíkszentmihályi, Deci and Ryan may also be a promotional ploy. Indeed, throughout the book he recalls conversations with his interviewees, and while this gives the impression of authority through his depth of primary research, the transcripts are not included to verify his claims.

Although Motivation 3.0 model appears to remain an unproven theory, as it is largely based on SDT, it could certainly serve as partial framework for developing twenty-first century skills and promoting intrinsic motivation in school. While it is clear that each of the three elements, autonomy, mastery and purpose, are interrelated, the model may be better served by restoring SDT’s relatedness to foster socially engaged learning. We should consider if students want to connect and collaborate with others in meaningful ways rather that work in isolation (McLeod, 2013).

Overall Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us is an easy and engaging read; after all, as a former speechwriter to Al Gore, Pink is certainly experienced with persuasive discourse (“About Daniel Pink”, n.d.). However, despite the immense popularity of the book with educational thought leaders, schools should be cautioned not to just jump on the Motivation 3.0 bandwagon and stop to consider if what Pink suggests is a good fit. With that said, if read together in professional reading groups, it will certainly provide an additional perspective on education reform in the digital age. 


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