Chapter 6

Conceptualising and Designing Self-Mapped Learning Pathways Courses to Encourage Learner Agency and Equity

EquityTechnologyMOOCSelf-Mapped Learning PathwaysCourse Design
One of the more difficult issues related to agency in education is designing for equity for all learners. Learners enter into every course with unique learning goals, pre-existing knowledge, epistemological preferences, sociocultural contexts, and practical life constraints. Designing one course for this diverse array of factors can be overwhelming, especially when trying to distill all of these unique factors into one learning pathway. The concept of Self-Mapped Learning Pathways (SMLP) has recently emerged as a design methodology focused on encouraging learner agency and equity. The basic idea of SMLP design is to create a course that allows learners to create their own learning pathway when presented with the options of an instructor-led modality and a student-centered modality. Learners can follow either modality or mix the two as needed. This chapter will explore the basic theory behind SMLP as well as current research results, but the primary focus will be on how to critically conceptualize and practically design courses for encouraging learner agency and equity through SMLP.


Self-Mapped Learning Pathways (SMLP) were initially conceptualized as a “dual-layer course” design created to encourage learners to move from following the instructor’s pre-determined pathway into a student-centered heutagogical learning pathway. The initial idea of a “dual-layer course” was re-imagined into a design methodology that creates two modalities in any given course. The foundational modality is a complete course pathway designed by the instructor to lead learners completely through the course content from beginning to end. The other modality is a self-determined heutagogical pathway that affords learners the freedom to map their own learning pathway. The key feature of this dual modality design is that learners can switch between modalities at any point in the course based on their needs, goals, or changing circumstances.

Where Did the Idea of Self-Mapping a Learning Pathway Come From?

The first version of SMLPs course came about in 2014 (Crosslin, 2016a) in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). MOOCs were initially conceived as learner-centered networked learning experiences in the form of free courses that were open for registration to anyone in the world with access to a computer and the Internet (Kovanović, Joksimović, Gašević, Siemens, & Hatala, 2015). In 2011, a new form of MOOC came to prominence that focused on following instructor-centered pathways (Kovanović, Joksimović, Gašević, Siemens, & Hatala, 2015).

SMLP started off as an attempt to create a dual-layer combination (Crosslin, 2014a) of the two MOOC forma, a course that had one layer for a standard instructor-focused modality, and another layer for a learner-centered modality. The main idea was that learners could choose either layer they wanted to start with and switch back and forth or mix and match as needed, while they progressed through the course (Crosslin, 2015b). The instructor-centered modality was there for those who were either new to the topic and needed a defined guide or, for various reasons, chose to follow a pre-defined pathway. The learner-centered modality was there for those that wanted to make their own pathway or wanted to explore the same topic from a different sociocultural or intersectional perspective.

While the response was very positive both from dual-layer course learners (Crosslin, 2018; Crosslin & Dellinger, 2015), as well as the instructors who tried or considered the dual-layer format in other contexts (Bali & Caines, 2018; Crosslin, Milikic, Dellinger, Jovic, & Breuer, 2019; Hall, 2017; Kilgore & Al-Freih, 2017), there were many important questions raised in discussion and feedback sessions (Crosslin, Dellinger, Joksimovic, Kovanovic, & Gaševic, 2018; Dawson, Joksimovic, Kovanovic, Gaševic, & Siemens, 2015; Rosé et al., 2015). Many learners wanted to know which modality is better (some felt that using the term “layers” implied one was better than the other). Some of the instructor-centered learning learners wanted to know why the learner-centered options were there, while some of the heutagogical-leaning learners wanted to know why the instructor-centered options were there (many of them even disagreed over whether the course was really instructor- or learner-centered (Crosslin, 2015a)). Several learners felt lost or overwhelmed trying to figure out where to go. Others wanted the course to have formalized avenues of engagement for learners, which were distinctly lacking in dual-layer designs (much of this comes down to personal perspective, as others such as Montero-Colbert, Delia Deckard, Stewart, Richard, and Nanan (2019) would have disagreed with this as they saw the dual-layer as having distinct pathways with formalized peer engagement).

This feedback led to several changes with the design model. The main change was that the concept of “dual-layer” was dropped. The new term “Self-Mapped Learning Pathways” ( was adopted to better reflect what learners were expected to do in these courses. Initially, the goal of the dual-layer course designers had been to push learners towards the learner-centered pathway, but feedback from learners indicated that many of them needed the instructor-centered pathway for a variety of reasons (e.g., time constraints, ease of use, busyness of life) (Crosslin, 2016a). Therefore, the idea that every choice is equally important was adopted (Crosslin, 2015c). To help facilitate that concept, the focus of the course was moved away from complex course maps (Crosslin, 2014c) to neutral zones that described multiple options from which the learner could choose (Crosslin, 2014b).

SMLP Learning Experience Design

Designing SMLP learning experiences can really begin at any stage. One good place to start is by creating a shell for a neutral zone, and then moving quickly to the instructor-centered modality (because that typically already exists in many courses). Additionally, the process of deconstructing and critically examining the instructor-led modality to create a learner-centered modality can be helpful (and enjoyable).

One thing to keep in mind is that courses within formal systems will have limitations or requirements imposed by that formal system. SMLP is one possible design methodology for helping learners take agency over their own learning, but when it occurs within formal structures, adjustments might have to be made. For example, formal education typically requires certain topics to be covered, or assignments to be graded, or certifications to be awarded due to systemic rules. Adjustments to SMLP to meet these requirements are to be expected. The concepts covered in this chapter are ideals that some can fully implement, but many instructors might have to pick and choose which ones apply depending on systemic limitations.

Neutral Zones – The Learning Experience Hub

The temptation for many will be to use an institutional Learning Management System (LMS) to create the main course hub. While this may be the easiest route, LMSs are really designed from an instructor-centered mindset and should be reserved for that modality. Similarly, the course hub really should not reside on a social networking website because the social nature creates a bias for student-centered learning (and not all learners are ready for that).

One recommendation is a self-hosted website running something like WordPress. A Neutral Zone is intended as a place where both modalities are presented, where options for self-mapped learning will be shared, and where learner examples will be featured (with the permission of learners, and heavy examination by the instructor as to why they share the ones they do share). Something like WordPress provides tools to make all of this happen, but there are others that work just as well. Figure 1 shows an example of a Neutral Zone with pathway options visualized as a stream or a garden. On the left side is the description of options, on the right is the list of options for the "Stream" (instructor-centered) pathway.

Figure 1

Example Neutral Zone

Example of pathway options. The left side of image is a description of the options, and the right side is a list of options for the "stream" pathway.

Regardless of what tool is used, the goal for creating a Neutral Zone is twofold: to humanize the course by promoting presence (see, and to help learners constantly examine their mapping choices. Here are some resources to read more about the relationship between learner choices and neutral zones:

The Instructor-Centered Modality Design Phase

Designing the instructor-centered modality probably will be the most familiar aspect for many. Several resources exist to help create a high-quality learning pathway for following what the instructor thinks that learners should do to master the topic. There is no need to repeat these concepts here. However, there are several issues to highlight in order to make this modality as easy to use as possible for the most learners:

Keep in mind that learners are following this pathway by choice when they are on it, not by being controlled by the instructor. Make sure that all design choices reflect choice and not control. Having learners review designs for the instructor-centered modality might be a good way to examine content for bias as well.

The Learner-Centered Modality Design Phase

While some may see the learner-centered modality as the easiest one to design, the truth is that it requires a lot of effort to not codify existing biases into the design - especially for those with more power and privilege that enjoy the freedoms that learner-centered options can afford them. Rather than looking at this modality as one that just sets learners free to do as they like, we should look at it as the modality that ties together many learner pathway options. This part is more of a fuzzy area, but there are a few suggestions for this modality below.

The Learning Pathway Map

The main activity for most learners should be the creation of a learning pathway map. This, at a minimum, would contain a description of what they plan to do to learn the topic, what resources they will need to learn, and how they will prove they have learned what they say they have. It may be a copy of the instructor-centered pathway, a mixture of the two modalities, or something else. The key is for learners to engage with the determination of what they will learn, as this is the core of heutagogy.

However, since learners may find it difficult to plan too much in advance, initial mapping should focus on general goals for the entire learning experience. Weekly (or module-based) focused mapping activities can help work out the specifics and details of learning maps. Be sure to make space for initial mapping at the beginning of class, while also including weekly time to focus, revise, and reflect on specific mapping choices.

Keeping in mind that these maps are not rigid, learners can expect to change their minds as they follow their own map. This level of agency and control can be daunting for some learners that are not used to it, so instructors will need to exercise patience, encouragement, and understanding as learners work through the process. Instructors should probably take notes about what does and doesn’t work in their role as guide and encourager throughout each offering of their learning experience.

There are a wide variety of ways to accomplish the mapping of individual learning pathways. These will generally involve some form of technology. This could be as basic as a pencil or paper, digitally supported through a WordPress blog or Word document, or a combination of technologies like mind maps. If online technologies are utilized, please keep in mind that there are pros and cons to every service. Technology is not neutral; there are contexts of power dynamics, biases, and privacy concerns built into every single tool that need to be examined (see McMillan Cottom, 2019). Many technology companies engage in oppressive surveillance techniques that affect different sociocultural intersections to different levels of severity (Gilliard, 2019; Noble, 2018; Watters, 2019). Learners should be fully informed of every issue that could possibly arise from using data generating and collecting tools online, as well as options for opting out.

For one idea on how to use various tools to map pathways, see “Creating a Self-Mapped Learning Pathway” (Crosslin, 2017). Note that the tool in that example is gone, highlighting the precarious nature of using technology like this. However, the ideas within the post can still be implemented across a wide range of tools.

Instructors can also experiment with different ways to present mapping options and the neutral zone. These new tools will also possibly introduce accessibility issues in addition to privacy and power dynamic concerns, so please make sure to consider these aspects and communicate issues clearly to learners. For an example of one idea that utilizes H5P and Twine micro-lessons, see “Building a Self-Mapped Learning Pathways Micro-Lesson: H5P vs Twine” (Crosslin, 2019).

Reflection and Analysis

In conjunction with the mapping activity, learners should be encouraged to reflect on why they made the choices they made: why they chose the options they did, why they followed their map the way they did and why they made the changes they did. Encourage them to reflect on power dynamics, intersectionality, and sociocultural factors that impact on their learning.

In order to not overwhelm learners, make sure there is time within the class schedule to reflect. There could even be three levels for the final reflection: one level for themselves, one level to prove to others that they learned what they say they did, and a final level that could be shared with other learners (with permission, of course). The first level can be wide, lengthy, and as deep as needed, since it would be primarily for the learner themselves. The next level could be based on competencies, goals, course activities, and other contextual requirements (like institutional grading requirements). The third level of reflection could theoretically be gathered in a repository to help future learners in their learning pathways mapping. If different learners reflect on the various intersections in their life and how that affects their learning pathway, those with similar intersecting aspects could find guidance for mapping their own pathway. Seeing how other learners like themselves navigated the course previously to explore something outside of the average pathway could help encourage others to make these choices as well.

SMLP and Equity

As this chapter is practical in nature, examination of important mindsets critical to implementing SMLP equitably cannot be addressed fully. However, SMLP was conceptualized to address some concerns raised by critical pedagogy (see Freire, 1996 and Hooks, 1994 for more about critical pedagogy). Therefore, some of the core social justice mindsets that are needed to empower heutagogical pathway creation need to be noted. These include:


This chapter set out to examine some of the practical ways to create a course that implements the heutagogical goal of learner agency. Because many people are typically not taught how to be a learner, the SMLP design methodology was presented as one method to facilitate a course that allows learners to map their own pathway as a means of achieving agency. Learners are given the option to choose from a pre-determined instructor-centered pathway, or to create a pathway of their choosing. This includes mixing in parts of the instructor pathway if they so choose. Giving learners these options allows them to center their unique intersectionality while also individualizing the amount of support they need from the instructor based on their personal capabilities. But because the choice is in the learners' hands, they retain agency over exactly what they need.

While there has been some research conducted on SMLP courses, much is still unknown about how learners navigate these spaces. Additionally, technology tools that allow for mapping - while also protecting privacy - are few and far between. Future work in the SMLP realm will include research into what course designs and mindsets encourage more learners to step away from complete reliance on the instructor in the course. Additionally, work continues to find or create tools that will allow learners to create a learning pathway map, follow and adjust that map, and then reflect on the entire process at the end. Hopefully this chapter has served as a springboard to using SMLP to integrate heutagogy into the learning process.


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