With the rapid development of educational technologies, the concept of self-directed learning (SDL) is gradually becoming an essential component of the major learning methodologies. SDL is fairly regarded as an excellent source of well-balanced learning methodologies and is expected to motivate students on their way to achieving the basic learning objectives and outcomes. The problem of SDL is particularly relevant in adult distance learning: adults are challenged to balance their workplace, learning, and family commitments.
Technology gives them freedom, but may also undermine the principles of learning discipline. As such, do the benefits of SDL in virtual (distance) learning overweigh its drawbacks, and is it worth utilizing SDL as the basic approach to adult learning in virtual environments? Self-directed learning: through the prism of theory The concept of self-directed learning (SDL) dates back to the times, when Malcolm Knowles was creating his famous theory of andragogy, with SDL being one of the essential pillars of adult “independent” education.
According to Knowles (1975), self-directed learning looks like the process of acquiring knowledge, 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”. In the context of adult learning, and bearing in mind that adult learners are inherently self-directed and seek independence in all major domains of their daily performance, the use of SDL methodologies is justified by the three essential reasons.
First, adult learners who take initiative in learning are believed to learn better, to have better motivation, and to be better prepared to use theoretical knowledge in practice; second, SDL is referred to as the process that coincides with the pace of human psychological development; third, recent achievements and developments in education simply do not leave adult learners any other choice but to involve in SDL (Knowles, 1975).
These achievements, the development of virtual and distance education classes, as well as the growing life and workplace pressures push adult learners to choosing the pace of learning, to scheduling their educational and learning activities, and to motivating themselves as they strive to achieve curriculum objectives and learning outcomes. In technological learning environments, the benefits of SDL become even more obvious.
As long as “learning is an individual’s ongoing negotiation with communities of practice which ultimately gives definition to both self and that practice” (Tomei, 2008), it is not surprising that SDL and educational technology create a kind of positive synergic effect on adult learners, giving them sufficient freedom of choice. SDL and virtual learning environments: the benefits for adult learners Apart from giving adult learners sufficient freedom and independence, the benefits of SDL are numerous and many.
Merriam (2001) refers to the three essential aspects of SDL in adult learning: (1) SDL reinforces basically good human nature and confirms the learners’ ability to undertake responsibility for one’s own education; (2) SDL reinforces transformational learning and posits the learner as the central element of the learning process; (3) SDL is viewed as the instrument of promoting emancipatory learning and social action.
When it comes to technologies, learners are more likely to report that SDL gives them independence from their tutors, lets them go at their own rate and return to the most problematic aspects of curriculum, promotes better concentration, and improves the quality of learning material as compared to traditional lectures (Wan, 2008).
As far as “in a large class lecture environment, student experience various problems that range from language difficulties, struggles in picking up difficult concepts and an inability to do ongoing revision throughout the course” (Ambikairajah et al, 2008), and it is natural that SDL and educational technology minimize the incidence and probable negative impact of these issues on the quality of adult learning. SDL in virtual classrooms: possible inconsistencies
Unfortunately, SDL in adult education is not without its issues. It is not rare that given relative freedom in education, students and adult learners’ learning preferences do not coincide with those of tutors. For example, where learners are given sufficient freedom for choosing online sources of knowledge (websites), there is often a significant disparity between what adults choose to do and what their tutors view as an appropriate source of relevant knowledge (Wan, 2008).
Learners naturally tend to choose the simplest the most convenient learning interface, which does not necessarily imply its usefulness in the process of achieving the basic learning objectives. As a result, virtual adult learners do not obtain the knowledge they need to achieve their curriculum objectives. There is a well-researched belief that the effectiveness of SDL directly depends on the extent, to which learners are prepared to utilize its benefits.
Dynan, Cate & Rhee (2008) write that to benefit from SDL, adult learners should possess at least some basic SDL skills and some minimal SDL readiness. Preparing learners to SDL is one of the biggest challenges in adult learning. Very often, the need for developing the basic SDL skills is discussed in the context of Bloom’s taxonomy; in other words, to be prepared to adult learning means to possess the skills of application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (Stewart, 2007). Dynan, Cate and Rhee (2008), however, re-interpret this taxonomy in simpler terms.
They believe that SDL does not benefit many adult learners, because they cannot (a) ask appropriate questions to guide their inquiry; (b) identify appropriate learning resources; (c) use these resources to satisfy their learning needs; and (d) question the assumptions created in the course of inquiry (Dynan, Cate & Rhee 2008). These principles are particularly challenging and are increasingly important in technologically justified learning environments, and bearing in mind possible mismatches between tutors’ and learners’ perceptions with regard to specific aspects of adult learning (e. . , the choice of appropriate sources), SDL may not only deprive an unprepared adult learner of a unique chance to develop learning motivation, but it can also confuse freedom of choice with the lack of discipline and strict learning criteria.
Objectively, SDL should be well-balanced with strict predetermined learning objectives and outcomes, as well as clearly defined standards of lifelong learning. Only in this case SDL will reveal the full learning potential of an adult learner in virtual environments and will promote positive thinking and effective delivery of knowledge.
Conclusion Self-directed learning (SDL) in virtual environments presents adult learners with a variety of benefits. Freedom and self-directed pace of learning are only some out of many positive features SDL has. In case of learning and technology combined, SDL becomes an essential component of successful learning, and the instrument that drives adult learners on their way to achieving the basic curriculum objectives. Unfortunately, SDL sometimes gives learners excessive freedom of choice. Their learning preferences often differ from those of their tutors.
Moreover, many learners are simply unprepared to utilize the benefits of SDL, and cannot balance freedom of learning with the standards and criteria of successful knowledge delivery. For SDL to become a critical component of education in technological learning environments, the former should be well-balanced with a clearly determined learning standards and curriculum objectives, to ensure that SDL promotes better learning motivation instead of giving a sense of non-regulation and irresponsibility in virtual learning communities.