User Generated Education

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Learner Agency, Technology, and Emotional Intelligence

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Early in my training as an educator, I was exposed to William Glasser’s conceptualization of basic human needs and their importance in creating a healthy educational setting.  They are:

  • Belonging – Fulfilled by loving, sharing, and cooperating with others
  • Power – Fulfilled by achieving, accomplishing, and being recognized and respected
  • Freedom – Fulfilled by making choices
  • Fun – Fulfilled by laughing and playing

They resonated deeply and made sense to me.  Instructional strategies and learning activities should build in ways for learners to get these needs met.

The needs of freedom and power are of special note to this essay/topic:

  • Freedom – This is the need to choose how we live our lives, to express ourselves freely, and to be free from the control of others. Helping students, especially younger ones, satisfy this need does not mean giving them the freedom to do whatever they want to do. It is giving them the freedom to choose.
  • Power – The need for power is the need to feel that we are in control of our own lives. When educators give their students the message that they need to learn in ways that the teachers ultimately demand, their need for power becomes frustrated.  When students are given choices, their need for power is satisfied and they gain feelings that they are responsible enough to have control over their own learning and behavior.(

What is learner agency?

Learner agency is “the capability of individual human beings to make choices and act on these choices in a way that makes a difference in their lives” (   As related to the needs as identified by Glasser, elements of freedom, choosing how we want to live our lives, and power, choosing what and how to learn, address learner agency.

The notion of agency as contributing to cognitive processes involved in learning comes primarily from the Piagetian notion of constructivism where knowledge is seen as “constructed” through a process of taking actions in one’s environment and making adjustments to existing knowledge structures based on the outcome of those actions. The implication is that the most transformative learning experiences will be those that are directed by the learner’s own endeavors and curiosities. (Lindgren & McDaniel, 2012)

Schwartz and Okita developed the following table to compare and contrast high versus low agency learning environments.


Learner Agency and Emotional Intelligence

A direct connection can be found between self-directed learning, learner agency, and emotional intelligence. Learner agency leads to increased feelings of competence, self-control, and self-determinism; and higher emotional intelligence. Bandura (2001) highlights the role of agency in the self-regulation of learning: “The core features of agency enable people to play a part in their self-development, adaptation, and self-renewal with changing times” (p. 2) (in Lindgren & McDaniel, 2012).

Boyatzis (2002) connected self-directed learning and emotional intelligence, which he discussed extensively in his article Unleashing the Power of Self-Directed Learning.  He specified some signposts of self-directed learning.

  1. Has the person engaged his/her passion and dreams?
  2. Can the person articulate both his/her strengths (those aspects he/she wants to preserve) and gaps or discrepancies between those aspects he/she wants to adapt or change?
  3. Does the person have his/her own personal learning agenda? Is it really his/her own? Can the elements of the plan fit into the structure of his/her life? Do the actions fit with his/her learning style and flexibility?
  4. Is the person experimenting and practicing new habits and actions? Is the person using their learning plan to learn more from their experiences?
  5. Has the person found settings in which to experiment and practice in which he/she feels psychologically safe?
  6. Is the person developing and utilizing his/her relationships as part of their learning process? Does he/she have coaches, mentors, friends, and others with whom they can discuss progress on their learning agenda?
  7. Is the person helping others engage in a self-directed learning process?

Learner Agency and Technology

Learner agency is feasible in educational settings, both formal and informal, given this Internet age of information abundance and ease of access, and the use of social networks for personal learning.  The final piece of this discussion focuses on leveraging technology to enable, elicit, and encourage learner agency which in turn builds emotional intelligence.

Technology presents new opportunities for drawing out and leveraging student agency. One of the ways that technology accomplishes this is by personalizing the learning experience, allowing students to work at their own pace and being responsive and responsible to their own individual needs. (Corbett, Koedinger, & Anderson, 1997, in Lindgren, R., & McDaniel, R. (2012.). As Magni (1995) noted in her dissertation, if we combine the principles of learner-centered pedagogy, the methods of participatory design and the flexibility offered by the Internet, educators can use technology not as a prescriptive learning tool but as one that enables students and teachers to gather material, manipulate and alter resources to design environments that are suitable and appropriate for the learners. 

Technology also has the potential to directly enhance emotional intelligence.  Chia-Jung Lee (2011) described some ways:

  • Digital tools can connect people’s feeling to enhance emotional learning. Digital tools can support students’ emotional connection to a content or other people. This helps students learn better.
  • Technology can satisfy personal learning pace and style to support emotional learning.  The flexibility of digital tools enables students to learn based on the way that they feel most comfortable [which is directly related to agency.]
  • Digital tools can provide private spaces for students to explore difficult issues.
  • Empathy can be enhanced through emotional learning by means of technology. For example, students may develop empathy by viewing videos of personal stories of others in need; others who are experiencing some form of distress or problems.

What follows are some general ideas for using technology to encourage self-directed learning, learner agency, self-regulation, and self-determinism.

  • Create a database of student passions, interests, hobbies.  Share the list with the students so they can connect with one another.
  • Offer students a variety of different ways to learn content material – video, audio, online readings, games.  Let them choose ways to learn it.  Invite students to add to the resource archive.
  • Ask students to curate a subtopic within the larger topic being covered based on their own interests.  Offer a choice of online curation tools (e.g.,, Pinterest, MentorMob, Diigo) for them to use.
  • Encourage students to set personal goals for themselves for the class.  Provide some online options (e.g. 8 Online Goal Progress Tracking Tools) or apps (15 Fantastic Apps to Track & Manage Your Goals; Goal setting Android Apps; ) to track progress.
  • Ask students to find an expert in their area of interest via a social media and attempt to make contact via Twitter, Facebook, Skype, etc.
  • Assist students in developing their own PLNs using social networking sites of their own choosing (Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr).
  • Allow students to express what they learned in a way that works for them.  A list of ideas can be found at A Technology-Enhanced Celebration of Learning.
  • Ask students to publish and share their work with their own networked public.
  • Implement a peer feedback process; where groups of peers develop their own grading criteria and use this criteria to review one another’s work.
  • Ideas for others – please let me know.


Boyatzis, R.E. (2002). Unleashing the power of self-directed learning. In R. Sims (ed.), Changing the Way We Manage Change: The Consultants Speak. NY: Quorum Books.  Retrieved from

Chia-Jung Lee (2011). Technology Integration and Emotional Learning. Retrieved from

Lindgren, R., & McDaniel, R. (2012). Transforming Online Learning through Narrative and Student Agency. Educational Technology & Society, 15 (4), 344–355.

Magni, P. (1995). The design and development of a hypertext environment for adult learners of Italian. Doctoral Dissertation.

Schwartz, D. L,  & Okita, S.  The Productive Agency in Learning by Teaching.

The Social Skills Place. (2010). 4 Basic Psychological Needs That Motivate Behavior.  Retrieved from

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

January 4, 2013 at 11:11 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Thanks Jackie for sharing your knowledge with us! Learner agency should be a must in any class, at any grade. But what I think is very important is that parents too do apply this learner centered approach in educating their own “kids”, otherwise there will be a big discrepancy between what happens at schools and what happens at home.


    January 5, 2013 at 7:05 am

    • Thanks, Adarte – how would you recommend educating parents about self-directed learning and learner agency?

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      January 7, 2013 at 12:14 am

      • Aha! Good question! In my opinion, parents fall into two categories: the ones who are aware of their role as educators and the ones who are not willing (for many reasons, some good and some not that good) to educate their own children.
        The parents belonging to the first category can be easily involved in a program where they can learn about these two “concepts” (theory) and then are invited to apply the concept in activities to be performed with their children. The “no way I am going to educate my kids” parents would refuse to participate to such programs and need a more “devious” approach, where their own children are the ones who educate them about self-directed learning and learner agency. How? Well, I think that include self-directed learning and learner agency concepts in a book collection or in a cartoon tv series or even better in a egame would be the perfect way to empower these children to become the teacher of their parents to create a sort of educational closed circuit. It sounds like sci-fi, doesn’t it?


        January 11, 2013 at 5:21 pm

  2. Reblogged this on I>K and commented:
    Jackie is always sharing very interesting and smart examples on how to use technology in classrooms. In this article she is illustrating what Learner Agency is – a great post for both educators and parents, these last playing – my opinion – the most important role in educating the citizens of tomorrow.


    January 5, 2013 at 7:17 am

  3. […] Jackie Gerstein’s blog post “Learner Agency, Technology, and Emotional Intelligence,” With loads of links and […]

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