Self-Directed Learning – 2020 and beyond
In our current climate, unpacking the concept of self-directed learning seems appropriate. In a South African context, before the national-declared lockdown, most training and development organisations found themselves in client engagements which resulted from traditional training activities being halted. The uncertainty of what the long-term effects of both the lockdown and social distancing will have on our traditional learning delivery mechanism, such as face-to-face learning, is still unclear in addition to when traditional delivery may resume.
Personally, I do not believe that the traditional approach to training and development will support long-term future sustainability for either the Skills Development Partner, the Learner or Workplace. COVID-19 has placed a magnifying glass on our traditional and sometimes re-active strategies linked to Skills Development. It has highlighted some key flaws.
According to the World Economic Forum: “Access to skilled workers is already a key factor that sets successful organisations apart from failing ones. In an increasingly data-driven and complex future, this difference will become even more acute. Skills gaps across all industries are poised to grow in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and other emerging technologies are happening in ever shorter cycles, changing the very nature of the jobs that need to be done - and the skills needed to do them - faster than ever before.”
A short-term solution to the skills gap challenge that we are facing, which is growing at an alarming rate, is acquisition. You can pay a premium for talent, but this strategy inflates scarcity and price of the skill and does not serve the long-term sustainability of the skill nor the workplace. We should also not forget that the skills required today will be obsolete within a much shorter timeframe, as we are in a continuous change cycle that is further compounded by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA).
What is an equitable approach?
Organisations’ have to realise that investing in their workforce (learners) to re-skill is non-negotiable. We cannot continue a skills acquisition pathway – we need to develop the skills we need. We need to participate in the value chain for Skills Development to enable industry sustainability, not only ensuring organisational sustainability. Tapping into collaboration across the value chain is important. We need to work with each other. Organisations and skills development partners and policymakers need to engage to ensure Skills Development Strategies align to the increasing demand of future skills. One could say we need to all work toward a culture of lifelong learning!
I maintain that we are in a Skills Development era that requires two unique skills development pathways; One focused on the skills required for the current context and the other totally future-focused. The Skills Development Strategy is therefore no longer a one-dimensional or reactive one, it requires a broad contextual understanding of global challenges, local implication, and individual application. We need to be visionary, aspirational and contextual and then align this thinking to the individuals’ (employee/learner) unique circumstances.
Self-Directed Learning as a Model
Learners (employees) are responsible owners and managers of their own learning process and integrate self-management with self-monitoring. A co-dependent relationship between the workplace and learner emerges.
The workplace needs to have a Lifelong Learning Culture – one that proactively advocates learning and upskilling with employees that take personal responsibility for their skills development. This is a symbiotic relationship that has far-reaching mutual benefits.
Taking Malcolm Knowles’ (1975) influential definition of Self-Directed Learning into consideration and we unpack the model within the current global challenges it is obvious that Self-Directed Learning is going to play an instrumental role in the months and years to come within Skills Development.
In its broadest meaning, self-directed learning describes 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.
- Knowles, 1975, p. 18-
Believe it or not, his views were seen as a threat to education and the educational construct when first published. I do not want to debate academic rigour. In fact, the debate I believe is beyond the academic sphere and is best framed within the context of unprecedented change and uncertainty. Yes, these are the buzz words for the season we are in, but we cannot deny the impact the current global pandemic has on Skills Development.
We are in unprecedented times and within a few weeks, we have seen our traditional educational systems adapting to virtual and electronic mediums. We no longer have the luxury of years for planning, testing and project-implementation; not to mention the impact the flux has on the Employer, the Skills Development Partner and Learner.
We currently find ourselves in a continuous change paradigm! Psychologists Don Kelley and Daryl Conner developed the Emotional Cycle of Change. They identified five distinct phases people go through as they experience major changes in their life. In context: take a learner who is enrolled in a programme like the Further Education and Training Certificate (FETC): Generic Management in January 2020. The learner would have considered the impact of enrollment based on work demands, study demands and personal life. I do not believe thought was given to the impact of a potential global pandemic within the year of upskilling and development; do you? But the learner nevertheless finds this to be the reality.
We start with Stage 1 of the Emotional Cycle of Change: Uninformed Optimism; we can conclude that the learner potentially contemplated: “I do not know what to expect. It cannot be that bad let us give it a try. Working from home how bad can it be? Self-study, webchats throughout my qualification – this should be manageable.”
Then Stage 2, Informed Pessimism kicked in: “No way, this is chaos! What do I do with my kids? The curriculum is not clear – this was better in class; how will this work? How will I submit my assignments? My internet sucks! I have no resources to do this. “ And this is where I believe we are now.
Stage 3 to 5 (Stage 3: Hopeful realism; Stage 4: Informed Optimism; Stage 5: Completion): we are getting to. Furthermore, we are not only asking our learners to adapt but workplaces as well. Not to mention the adaption the Skills Development Partners have to make to ensure that skills solutions are still relevant, contextual and filled with rigour to enable the continuation of learning and development. The time is now for all of us to contribute collaboratively towards the sustainability of our next generation and future workforce, but this is easier said than done.
Self-Directed Learning key characteristics, (a) Continuous exercise of authentic control and (b) Ability to gain access and choose from reliable and available resources gives us insight into the challenges we face.
Continuous exercise is driven by the learner, nearly like the concept of continuous professional development. It is the authentic control the learner has over the learning process. This decision-making process that is required from the learner relies heavily on the individual’s ability to set goals for the learning effort, estimate the resources that will be required and the methods that will work best for the learner.
Ability to gain access and choose from reliable and available resources implies that the learner has access to data, internet, computer, electricity (to name a few). Secondly, that resources are reliable and available, such as facilitator/tutor, reference guides, study notes, mentors, coaches, workplace support, and a conducive environment.
Herein lies the challenge – we are requiring learners to be self-directed, a demand in the change of consciousness (the known paradigm) – with little to no time to adapt to the change or consciousness. On reflection: what were the levels of self-direction pre-lockdown and pre-Covid-19 of the learner cohort? Do we understand that the level of self-direction we now need from our learners is integrated into their level of emotional maturity and self-awareness? How do we provide an equitable solution for the challenge?
A collaborative and inclusive approach to establishing a self-directed learning culture is needed. We need to take a closer look at what might be required to cultivate this, taking six key considerations into account:
1. Take the initiative
Self-Directed Learning usually takes place in association with various kinds of helpers (teachers, tutors, mentors, peers). There is a lot of mutuality among a group of self-directed learners. (Knowles, 1975, p.18)
It must be our first consideration to establish what support systems need to be in place to provide our learners with guidance and support. Moving traditional-based learning (classroom, face-to-face learning) to virtual and/or e-Learning will require organisational learning culture changes. Working closely with learners and Skills Development Partners will ensure a shift towards self-direction (ownership) of the learning experience and the support mechanisms will unlock the mutuality between the cohort of learners.
The Harvard Business Review cites: The role of the chief learning officer isn’t just about training anymore “The need for organisations to become more adaptable means changing the goals of corporate learning. Instead of narrowly focusing on job or compliance-related training for all but their high-potential leaders, organisations should cultivate every employees’ ability to explore, learn, and grow (in other words encourage self-direction). The objective is not only to train people but also position the company for success.” Do you see how this links to an organizational Learning Culture and how the collaborative model of engagement between the Employer, Learners and Skills Development Partner can help achieve this? Furthermore, it will contribute to the diminishing of skills scarcity.
2. Diagnosing their learning needs
McKinsey on Adapting workplace learning in the time of coronavirus states: “…businesses can’t afford to put capability building on hold. Whether the effort is reskilling at the business-unit level or a company-wide aspirational transformation, companies can’t simply push the pause button on critical workplace learning, even as they move rapidly to put employee safety first.
To continue enabling and delivering value-creating efforts, learning leaders have a number of tactical steps they can consider to protect employees, adapt programmes and delivery, and establish and expand virtual learning. Digital and virtual learning programmes were already on the rise before COVID-19 struck, and we already see a marked increase in such learning programmes, which many younger employees embrace.”
Referencing back to my previous comments around Skills Development pathways and Lifelong Learning.; it is our collective responsibility to understand the unique learning needs of not only the organisation, department, team – but also the individual. If COVID-19 has taught us anything; to enable continuous development, we need to understand the individual learning challenges, like access to data, with the level of self-direction the individual has. This needs to be built into a clear Development Stack that supports the individual learner from a career progression and skills development perspective, but also aligns to the unique needs of the organisations current and future skills requirements.
We need to diagnose the learning needs in such a way that currency is top of mind – for immediate application and future contextual application. Consider the concept of data and how it influences decision-making. One of our key future contextual skill requirements for most individuals and organisations would be the development of data-driven decision-making. This skill is key for nearly everyone in the world of work, but for different reasons and application. We need to work on developing our people and teams in such a way that they can use data to activate decision-making – digital-data competency. In other words, how do we interpret data and integrate it into our decision-making? … A very different cognitive skill.
3. Formulating learning goals
I find myself referring to collaboration across the value-chain when considering formulation of learning goals related to self-directed learning. It strikes me that to be able to craft effective skills development pathways we need all the stakeholders. The learner needs to consider the context in which they want to develop. They need to recognize the need for development and more so for continuous development within the current global talent market. Adults are motivated to learn as they experience needs and interests that learning will satisfy. Their orientation to learning is life-centred – career progression, growth, personal interest and they tend to find experience as a rich source of learning. In my opinion the sooner and more often learning gets applied in real-life scenarios, the more likely it is to STICK! Therefore, the contextual framework of skills development within the organisation becomes critical. Is the learner able to see the intent of the development? Has the skills development partner created a development stack that supports not only the workplace but also the learners need for self-direction?
The preceding questions need to be integrated within the organizational context; reference (for example) the need for digital-data competency, as noted in point 2 above. Formulating learning goals need to be shaped by skills development pathways. As mentioned previously; pathways which are focused on the skills required for the current context and one that is totally future-focused. The current context will be more competency-focused and the future-focused skills development pathway would be more capability- focused.
4. Identifying human and material resources for learning
The experience of locating resources and discovering new information and opportunities is contagious. The more learners feel the pride of figuring it out on their own, the more they will feel empowered to keep learning and will repeat the pattern of discovery. In today’s open online environment learners can pursue knowledge through massive open online courses (MOOCs). Let’s be honest, most of us search the web if we need to learn something quickly and want to have a rudimentary understanding. YouTube, TedTalks and so many more options are available for the enquiring mind. But most Skills Development Partners will attest to the fact that creating a framework for learners to engage in learning through self-discovery is hugely beneficial. The framework allows for equal access and opportunity to engage so that the skills transfer (learning) is considered and crafted to meet not only the learners need for self-direction, but also the organisations one for consistency, competency, capability and a learning culture.
Organisations would need to consider how they engage in creating a learning environment that is able to ensure effective skills transfer that is beneficial for all. I believe the power lies in the value-chain. Collaboration is key and working with nimble, agile, and strategic thinkers that engage the leaders of the organization to help craft solutions that are learner-centric and meet the organisations’ demand is critical. This is a symbiotic relationship between the Employer, Learner and Skills Development Partner.
5. Choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies
In this instance, this is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Traditional based skills development that is not highly adaptable to the environment and/or the unique needs of the learner is going to have a major negative impact in the future world of work. Digital learning (both virtual and electronic) allows us to expand our reach of learning opportunities.
It is very encouraging to witness the accelerated speed at which learning strategies are being adapted to meet not only the challenges that the (COVID-19) global pandemic has brought about but also the unique needs of the organisation and learner. Skills Development Partners should work closely with stakeholders (employer and learner) to create engaging and effective skills development solutions that meet their unique needs.
It is important to create learning strategies that allow for digital application, blended learning application and face-to-face application. One cannot be seen as better than the other, in fact, the true power lies in a combination of the learning strategies deployed.
6. Evaluating learning outcomes
In my opinion, two of the most critical aspects of evaluating the learning outcomes is currency and relevance. It is important that learning must be framed within the current context of the environment and/or application required. All stakeholders need to work together to ensure the learner has the most current learning content. To ensure that this is a reality we need to engage the value-chain; as “currency’ is continuously under threat due to the speed of change. So, not only must the Skills Development Partner ensure continuous review of content, but employers need to engage the Skills Development Partner and learner for contextual environmental updates. The learner has to get the reality that continuous learning is the way of survival in an extremely competitive and evolving world of work.
The relevance of the outcomes to the world of work micro and macro application must be given equal consideration. This requires Skills Development Partners working with the self-directed learner to ensure personal aspirations, interests, and associated experiences of the learner, i.e. personal relevance, is stacked within the contextual relevance of workplace problems and real-world issues.
Consideration of Instruction (learning), Introspection (reflection) and Immersion (practical application) is important when evaluating learning. We need to encourage the entire value-chain to be active participants in this.
Self-Directed Learning is here to stay. Technology advancement and rapid development of information and communication technology (ICT) are challenging the way in which learning of individuals and teams are framed by Employers and Skills Development Partners. Organisations require employees’ (learners) autonomy and self-directedness alongside agile operations and low hierarchies. Learning is also increasing the responsibility of the individuals as it requires self-management and self-monitoring. The multidimensional concept of self-directed learning is essential in the new world of work and learning. It is a constant cycle within the continuous change paradigm.
As the great philosopher John Dewey stated over one hundred years ago, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”
- EXCERPT -
Contributor: : Lize Moldenhauer
Managing Director at Omni HR Consulting
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