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July 6, 2021

The case for self-directed learning

Self-directed learning (SDL) can offer a wealth of workplace benefits if it’s done right. This article talks about what Self-directed learning is, what it can offer your workplace, and what you should consider when implementing and encouraging SDL.

What is self-directed learning? 

As its name suggests, self-directed learning is a process of learning that the learner directs for themselves rather than having it partially or entirely directed by someone else, such as a teacher. 

A self-directed learner decides what and how they will learn. They also decide when they have “finished” learning something and when to move on to learning something else.

People around the world have been engaging in SDL for millennia. For example, self-study was an essential practice for ancient Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates. 


However, today SDL as a solution is often overlooked in favour of externally directed education processes that we recognise from school and through formalised workplace training. 

Perhaps the best way to understand what self-directed learning, or heutagogy, offers is to contrast it with its opposite: teacher-directed learning, or pedagogy.

Pedagogy is what most of us have encountered in formal schooling environments. Under pedagogy, our learning is guided and directed by teachers, who in turn are directed by various others—from individual leaders at schools to national governing bodies.

In most formal education settings, a school or institution decides:

  • who will teach us
  • what they will teach us
  • how they will teach us
  • where they teach us
  • when they teach us
  • how long teaching sessions last
  • how frequently teaching sessions take place

The student has little say in this process, except for whether or not they will physically show up and how they will engage with the lesson. Even so, students can face penalties for not coming to class, or for not engaging with the lesson in the right ways. 



With self-directed learning, the student decides:

  • what they will learn
  • how they will learn it (for example,  reading an article vs watching a video)
  • who they will learn from (by deciding whose educational content they will use)
  • where they will learn
  • when they will learn
  • how long their learning sessions last
  • how frequently their learning sessions will take place

By contrast, the only restrictions self-directed learners face are what educational content exists and whether it is accessible to them.

Thanks to advances in information and communication technologies, self-directed learners today have easier access to a larger pool of resources than ever before. 

In the workplace, SDL often happens through online courses and learning resources that people can access according to their individual learning needs. Learnerbly’s platform, for example, functions as an online marketplace of pre-vetted providers who supply online courses and learning resources that people can browse and complete at their convenience.

What can SDL do for workplace learning?

Workplace SDL offers many benefits, especially compared to its more traditional counterpart of formal professional training. 

Flexibility

Whereas more traditional workplace training sessions happen at a specific time and place, a marketplace of multiple options lets people learn at any time, in any way. 

This is more convenient for people and their companies, too. People can schedule their learning at the best time for them so it doesn’t interfere with their other responsibilities. Companies no longer have to block out chunks of time when groups of people will be unavailable due to training. 

This increased flexibility leads to more learning opportunities on the whole. When learning isn’t constrained to a few convenient time slots, people can learn more often.


Enthusiasm

In traditional workplace learning setups, a topic, level of expertise, and teaching method are chosen based on a “one size fits all” approach. The result might be best suited to the group, but not ideal for any one person. 

With this approach, everyone can have a reason to feel disengaged from the learning process, be it because the topic or level is irrelevant to them, or because the teaching style doesn’t suit how they learn. 

Self-directed learning solutions let people choose what is ideal for them personally, and so they are much more likely to find their education engaging and enjoyable.

This increased enthusiasm to learn can contribute to job satisfaction, which has its own host of business benefits: people who are happy at work tend to stay with their companies longer, attract other talent, and be more invested in their work. 

More effective learning

Self-directed learning is more effective than “one size fits all” training because it lets everyone fill their own specific knowledge gaps and upskill based on their unique roles and goals.

It also lets people learn at a level and pace that suits them. This makes their learning more effective because no one is taught at a level too low for them to learn much, or too high for them to understand. 

Self-directed learning also lets people assess their progress and act on this based on their own needs. Traditional workplace learning often doesn’t assess its own effectiveness at all, or uses tests or exams instead of assessing whether a person can practically apply new skills to their work.



The bite-sized nature of some content also allows people to work on micro-skills—for example, making sure a one-off presentation is truly excellent. 

Self-directed learning also lets people tailor their skills development to the specific problems they need to solve, rather than trying to find problems to which they can apply their general training. 

Finally, because SDL allows everyone to learn different content, a workplace with a strong SDL function will develop a more diverse collective skillset over time.

Tips for implementing SDL in the workplace

While SDL can work wonders for upskilling your workforce, every learning solution has its hurdles. Here are some tips to help you clear them smoothly.

Set up training

Offering traditional training on using an SDL solution might seem contradictory, but not everyone takes to SDL intuitively. It can be a daunting idea, especially in a culture so accustomed to the rigid structures of formal education. 

It helps to make sure everyone knows how to use the relevant SDL technologies and is familiar with the range of content a marketplace offers.

Offer guidance


Some people will know exactly what they want to learn and be happy to pursue it independently. Others might be more unsure, and might benefit from guidance. 

We recommend setting up optional meetings with people to help them draw up professional development goals and map out the skills they need to achieve them. They also might want help finding and choosing courses, and guidance once they’ve completed them.

It’s also a good idea to make sure everyone has a regular time slot set aside for learning, and that they are encouraged to use this time for this purpose.

With Learnerbly, each user is given a personal learning budget every year, which gives them an idea of the trust a company has in them and the priority they place on development at work. With that trust and freedom of choice comes the opportunity for oversight and guidance. 

Users can request access to courses and other resources for their manager to approve, which can be helpful for those unsure of their direction. Users, including managers can make recommendations of resources they come across which might fit within an area of skill development that was discussed in a prior one-to-one.

Make space for feedback

Set up structures that allow people to regularly give feedback about how to improve their SDL experience. 

It can also be very helpful to set up channels for people to share feedback with each other about resources they would recommend. For example, Learnerbly’s platform lets people review or recommend and share resources for others to see. 

It’s also a good idea to set up a resource library or a directory of courses people in your organisation have found useful as well as availing playlist creation within the Learnerbly platform.

Develop an SDL-friendly learning culture

A learning culture is one in which lifelong learning is highly valued and people feel encouraged to learn. 

Where SDL is concerned, it’s important that people feel comfortable encountering dead ends in their research and taking longer than expected to learn a particular skill. Feeling scared of making mistakes can impede people’s enthusiasm to learn, and pressure to meet a deadline can result in ineffective, rushed learning.

Summary

Self-directed learning gives people the freedom to choose what they want to learn, when, where, how, and from whom—instead of having these choices made for them by others. 

Although SDL can feel counterintuitive to people attached to more traditional education styles, it offers a range of benefits, especially in professional environments. 

The flexibility and convenience of SDL allows people to get more learning done at work—and with less hassle and admin—than via more traditional professional training structures. 

The personalised nature of SDL also offers more effective learning, as each person can tailor their SDL to their own unique array of learning needs. 

Over time, consistent SDL usage can result in a more diverse skill pool in a company than people would gain from all attending the same training sessions, or learning new skills from the same people. 

When implementing an SDL function, make sure everyone knows how to use it and offer regular guidance for people who want it. Make space for regular feedback, and try to develop an SDL-friendly learning culture. 

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