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Self-directed Learning in the Digital Age

LAKSHMI on April 24, 2015

"We can only have citizens who can live constructively in this kaleidoscopically changing world if we are willing for them to become self-starting, self-initiating learners," said Carl Rogers’ in 1968. It has never been more relevant than now, with self directed learning becoming an integral part of education in the digital age. The concept of self-directed education is not new, considering that as early as the first century AD, Plutarch proposed that "a learner is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted."  

Self-directed learning

In more recent times, Malcolm Shepherd Knowles,  through his concept of “androgogy” (adult learning), proposed the now-accepted formal definition of self-directed learning as a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.

Learner autonomy lacks the structured and planned time and devoted space present in traditional classroom environment. Thus, a self-directed student must manage, monitor, and regulate the time, place, and progress of her learning to a greater degree than her classroom counterparts.  In recent years, self-direction has been recommended as an important life-skill to be fostered through K-12 education. Within cognitive psychology, self-regulated learning has been considered an important milestone in providing independence to students.

Digital self-directed learners are typically those who are tech-savvy and aware of their responsibility in making learning meaningful. They are motivated and persistent, independent, self-disciplined and goal-oriented. However the effectiveness of self-directed learning depends as much on the availability of knowledge as on the attitude of the learner. The advent of the Internet has breathed new life into self-directed learning, given the extensive knowledge and support available online, which transcends geographic barriers. 

Online learning opportunities, pedagogical shifts and easy accessibility of Internet through multiple devices offer attractive opportunities for learners to assume greater responsibility and initiative in their own learning. In fact, it may not be hyperbole to state that self-directed learning is now a mandatory skill rather than optional in order to impart both work readiness and the development of global citizenry (diversified, culturally sensitive and fully contributing social citizens) among the growing generation of digital natives.

While the Internet is a veritable source of all information, if not knowledge, lack of control mechanism and checkpoints makes it tricky to navigate the stormy ocean of information. Thus, individual skills in deciding upon the validity and reliability of information become essential, but this takes practice and time to develop. This is where scaffolding comes into play. Scaffolding involves assisting students initially, with slow withdrawal as their competence increases. While teachers are the primary scaffolds in traditional face-to-face learning environments, online learning environments, by their limits on face-to-face interaction, open up new definitions, opportunities and protocols for scaffolding. 

Research shows that teachers' and peers' encouragement and support significantly influence student adoption of technology for self-directed learning. Thus, the success of self-directed digital learning depends significantly, at least in early stages, on the teachers' expectancies and instructional practices to teachers' encouragement and guidance in the use of technology-enhanced materials for learning.

Teacher scaffolding approaches in the digital era includes providing resources and activities that present questions for critical thinking and providing procedural guidance on how to access information online. These approaches are best mediated through the use of web-based or app-based tools that can creatively combine a range of learning technologies.  Thus, teachers can use modern telecommunication technologies including instant messaging and blogging to provide consistent guidance and obtain timely feedback on student engagement and motivation, and to promote interaction and collaborative learning.

For example, according to a study on students’ opinions on Self-directed Learning, social media should be extensively used to achieve a better knowledge management system whether it is a purpose directed to peer to peer, student and supervisor, or student and mentor. For this, the teacher must assume the supportive role to help students engage in learning as a community of learners, rather than an individual. Research highlights the potential benefits of attending to students' achievement emotions in structuring online learning environments to facilitate their use of adaptive self-regulated learning strategies.

Teacher scaffolding in digital self-directed learning is also not without pitfalls. A delicate balance must be maintained in that too much scaffolding could dampen the drive towards self-directed learning, and too little scaffolding could result in anxiety, frustration, and loss of attrition. Ideally, the teacher moves from being an authority coach to motivator, facilitator and finally a consultant in digitally-empowered self directed learning. Thus, good scaffolding shifts the primary management and control of learning from the instructor to the student. With such methodical shift of responsibility, a digital self learner eventually develops the ability to search for information in multiple texts, employ different strategies to achieve goals, and to represent ideas in different forms.

It is vital that educators be trained to recognize and nurture self-directed learning using technology and be capable of creating learning environments that support it. A teacher who encourages freedom of learning and is open to it can accelerate the transition of learning from being teacher-centric to student centric. According to Roger Hiemstra, a scholar of adult learning and self-directed learning, a teacher plays six roles in self-directed learning – she is “content resource, resource locator, interest stimulator, positive attitude generator, creativity and critical thinking stimulator, and evaluation stimulator.” How the six roles are played eventually depends on the social setup, the attitude of the student and the willingness and enthusiasm of the teacher to engage in promoting self-learning among her students.

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