Self-directed learning is much more than just an approach to education. Instead, it’s a new way of life. Increasingly, people are keen to carve out their own paths, rather than following the traditional routes of those who went before them. On top of this, with technology moving at such high speed, there are new jobs coming into existence all the time. Self-directed learning signals a move to an entrepreneurial culture fueled by curiosity and a genuine desire to learn.

According to EdTech Magazine, students want access to more online classes and mobile learning, even if that means exploring learning in their own time at home. What’s more, as employees struggle with work/life balance, they increasingly want learning in small bursts or in-the-moment solutions (Miami Herald). With the explosion of mobile devices and round-the-clock connectivity, we have access to learning resources whenever and wherever we want them. So how does this type of self-directed learning work, and can it really give students and employees limitless potential?

The concept of self-directed learning

Self-directed learning is all about initiative. As a self-directed learner, you take responsibility for identifying your own learning needs, coming up with goals, finding the right resources, and monitoring your progress. The concept is much more flexible than simply cherry-picking one or two courses from a set curriculum, as we are used to doing in school.

Self-directed learning is not necessarily carried out in isolation either – it can be pursued alone or as part of a supportive learning environment. Whatever the context, the key factor is that the direction is determined by the learner, and not an external authority.

There is strong research to support the benefits of self-directed learning. If we are taught to pursue our interests at a young age, it builds our self-confidence, as well as our ability to persevere with projects and use our initiative. We naturally gain satisfaction from improving our knowledge of subjects we genuinely enjoy. The problem with regular schooling is that it has a tendency to fixate around ‘traditional’ subjects, failing to factor in the ever-widening range of interests a person might have, from coding to carpentry.

Emerging self-directed learning methods

To succeed at independent learning, you’ve got to have the right attitude. Not only does it require enormous self-discipline and organizational skills, you must also be able and willing to evaluate your progress. This skillset goes far beyond simply memorizing facts for a test.

Self-directed learning methods might include research and group work, more traditionally. Even in today’s hyper-connected society, there is still a place for getting back to basics and taking the time to actually read a book and talk to other people. But it doesn’t work for everyone, and studies suggest that for those of us growing up with smartphones, our attention spans are getting much shorter. The flipside is that our ability to multitask has improved.

The other obvious method is online self-directed learning – and there is no shortage of ways to go about it. Much of the time it doesn’t even require a financial investment. From dedicated sites like LinkedIn Learning and Coursera to video-sharing platforms like YouTube, you’ll be hard pressed to find a subject that isn’t covered somewhere.

Today’s students are hungry for access to online courses on the topics they don’t get to cover under the standard curriculum, be that digital illustration, e-commerce, or AI. At college level, some choose to build on their skills with a lucrative side hustle, like creating an online store or becoming a virtual freelancer.

What’s certain is that there’s huge untapped potential for online self-directed learning, and this pertains not just to academia, but to the workplace.

The pros and cons of self-directed learning

So what are the benefits of self-directed learning? First off, one of the most satisfying benefits is that you get to choose what (and how) you learn. It helps you get to know your own personal learning style, whether that’s reading, watching, doing, etc. And with pursuing true interests comes genuine enjoyment, allowing you to embrace the pleasure of learning on your own terms.

One of the best things about self-directed learning is the focus on learning for learning’s sake, rather than critical evaluation and assessment. Learning under pressure vs. learning for enjoyment are two very different experiences. Rather than being led by results, you are instead free to follow your curiosity. This in itself is very empowering.

Of course, there are also challenges associated with taking the responsibility of learning upon yourself. Self-directed learning still requires hard work, whichever way you look at it. Many of us put off taking learning upon ourselves, believing we are not smart or self-motivated enough. But this negative mindset only holds us back.

Self-directed learning for a digital age

In a digital age, the perceived drawbacks can be mitigated with new tools, techniques and paradigms for online learning. In a time of reliance on search engines, we are already becoming more and more self-directed in our learning, whether we realize it or not.

One of the great benefits of digital technology is that it takes us beyond linear, text-based learning, encouraging those of us who learn best in other ways – and who perhaps have struggled to motivate themselves up to this point. Since many of these learning technologies are interactive, it’s much easier to create an environment where learning is fun, making the most of everything that e-books, learning apps, YouTube, Wikipedia, gamification, and learning management systems have to offer. Research shows that students in classes using digital learning methods showed higher motivation – often coming to class early.

What’s more, these technologies are highly accessible. If you want to learn how to do something, you can go online and find web-based classes, groups and lessons to help you develop this chosen skill – often for free. For digital natives, this style of learning is ideal.

With the time, tools, and the right environment, we will happily explore subjects out of curiosity, whether we tend more towards the specialist or the generalist. What’s more, we end up with a society where skillsets are inevitably more varied.

It seems we have the world at our fingertips – so why aren’t we all reaching our limitless potential?

How to become a successful self-directed learner

Each of us has something we’d like to learn or be better at, whether it’s music, languages, cooking, sport, or crafts. Yet for many of us, these things we’d love to try somehow never make it onto our to-do lists. Because without the right system in place to make self-directed learning a habit, life somehow carries on unchanged. So, it’s time for budding entrepreneurs to embrace the concept of lifelong learning.

Here are some tips to help you incorporate self-directed learning into your life:

1. Choose one topic at a time and give it your full focus
2. Choose topics that genuinely interest you
3. Be specific with your goals. Instead of ‘learn to play the guitar’, try ‘learn to play Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay on guitar’
4. Give each lesson or task a deadline for completion
5. Break your tasks down into smaller, more manageable chunks
6. Tackle the most difficult tasks first, rather than avoiding them
7. Be ready to evaluate and alter your goals as required

There’s no shortage of learning resources available to us, that much is clear. Thus you also need to learn to identify when something is a useful or valuable learning resource, and when it isn’t. Rigorous online course websites  usually have high standards, but with YouTube for example, anyone can upload a video. You will eventually become adept at separating the educational wheat from the chaff.

Carol Dweck said that “if parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning”. For organizations who want to create an environment that fosters learning sustainment, we have to be willing to help employees develop their full potential – not through imposed education, but by providing the right environment and resources for self-directed learning. Many people believe that as society undergoes rapid social, economic, and technological change, self-directed learning will eventually become the standard model for future education. What do you think? Share your own thoughts and experiences below.

Victoria Greene: Marketing Consultant & Freelance Writer.
A self-confessed entrepreneur and self-directed learner, I work with ecommerce businesses and entrepreneurs to produce creative content and marketing strategies. Now it’s my turn to share what I’ve learned through personal development.

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Also, be sure to check out our other posts that talk about what it means to be an Omnipreneur, how to ensure a Learning Culture, Team-Based Organizations, Training Sustainment Plans and designing Sustainable Learning environments.