E-Learning and Self-Directedness

Adult Learning: Background | ​<span style="display: block; font-style: normal; text-align: center;">What is Adult Learning? | Adult Learner Characteristics: | Principles of Andragogy: | | | | What is Self-Directed Learning? | Benefits of Self-Directedness in the E-learning Environment | Measuring the Effectiveness of Self-Directed Learning | Critiques of Self-Directed Learning Theory | Summary | References


Helping adult e-learners to take increasing responsibility for their own learning

Currently, there are a number of learning theories and strategies utilized in education that promote knowledge acquisition and learning aptitude for diverse adult learners. The fundamental premise of these theories intends to accentuate and concentrate on the explicit characteristics and lifelong learning elements of the adult learner. One such theory, which materialized over three decades ago, is known as, Self-Directed Learning Theory (SDL from here forward). The emphasis of this article will focus attention on the advent of adult learning from the theoretical perspective of SDL. The longevity of SDL, speaks to its mature effectiveness, in relation to its principles, which are devoted to augmented lifelong learning experiences for adult learners.

Adult Learning: Background

The origins of adult learning are difficult to pinpoint; however, it has been of significant value to the world since the enlightening oratories of Aristotle and Jesus (Hiemstra, 1995). Adult learning was millennials ahead of the principles formulated for formal childhood learning. For centuries, children learned by way of verbal transfer from the adults in their sphere of influence (i.e., family, clergy, and village/community leaders), instead of formal learning settings. In the context of early America, it was adult learning that took precedence because adult learners were the wage-earners of the household and community. From the American Colonial Era, America has been concerned with educating the adult populace. Adult learning was offered through community meetings during the Eighteenth Century, including the advent of traveling lecturers. Some of these meetings were concerned with the skill levels of their workforce and presented new ideas and technologies to rural communities. Therefore, the majority of learning opportunities were of a vocational nature, affording adults, particularly men, a means for financial support. Adults became vocational apprentices, working for skilled artisan or trade masters for a number of years, educated in particular vocations, such as Sunday school teaching, woodcarving, stone-masonry, lumber-milling, clock making, as well as, metal workers and machinists. Often the master-teacher would also teach the apprentice to read and write, as part of the training. In these voluntary, informal settings, the master-teacher mentored the adult learner, allowing the student to observe, experiment, and utilize trial-and-error to shape learning experiences for mastery comprehension and expertise. This adult learning arrangement was an archaic structure of SDL (Hiemstra, 1982).

In 1926, the American Association of Adult Education (Currently, American Association for Adult and Continuing Education, AAACE) was organized, and was "...the first organization to give structure and visibility to adult education as a national movement" (AAACE, 2011; Hiemstra, 1995). Additionally, in 1926, the American Library Association (ALA, founded in 1876) purposed a commitment toward learning and literacy via the Mission Statement, in which the basic objective was to provide leadership and information services, in an effort augment the capacity of learning and information acquisition for everyone (Monroe, 1963).

Moreover, another significant event transpired in the adult learning movement of 1926. Eduard C. Lindeman (1885-1953) released his pragmatic social philosophy surrounding the potential principles and benefits of adult learning in The Meaning of Adult Education (1926) (Smith, 2004). For the previous forty years, America had been experiencing profound changes: "...industrialization, technological advance, the move to the cities and immigration alongside the ideological and religious shifts associated with Darwinism..." (Ibid, p. 2). Moreover, Lindeman was a friend and colleague of John Dewey, the progressive-social philosopher/theorist. The social events of his time and his relationship with Dewey influenced his philosophical perspective (Nixon-Ponder, 2012).

What is Adult Learning?

Merriam & Brockett (1997) describe adult learning in education as “… activities intentionally designed for the purpose of bringing about learning among those whose age, social roles, or self-perception define them as adults.” (p. 7).

Much of adult learning within the formal educational system of the last two centuries has been similar in fashion and approach: Teacher-centered. Within the teacher-centered approach, the teacher is the information source influence, the learning progress monitor, the instructional advisor and motivator, and the assessment facilitator. It was clearly a dissatisfying experience for most adults, due to the nature of their characteristics, related to prior substantial life and learning experiences. Adult learners tend to support new knowledge acquisition with existing knowledge and experiences (Columbia Encyclopedia, 2012; Smith, 2002).

Adult learners pursue new learning through an assortment of adult characteristics that have been observed and articulated by various experts in a number of fields related to adult learning since the 1920's, such psychology, sociology, gerontology, human resources, and education (Merriam, 2011).

Adult learning is typically categorized for educational study within the assumptions and principles of Adult Learning Theory, which embodies two major theoretical supports: Andragogy and Self-Directed Learning Theory (Smith, 2002; Knowles, 1973; ). Andragogy was already popular in Europe for over one-hundred years, prior to Knowles' conceptualization of it, for adult learners in the U. S. (Adult Learning, 2013). Malcolm Knowles coined the term Andragogy in 1968, in an effort to differentiate between adults and children, in relation to the learning process. He defined adult learning as Andragogy, "...the art and science of teaching adults" (Ismail, 201l, p. 8). Knowles defined the learning processes of children as Pedagogy, "the art and science of teaching children" (Ismail, 2011, p. 10). Although proponents of Andragogy continue to utilize these definitions in their respective literature, contemporary research defines Pedagogy, as "the science and art of education."

Knowles theorized a list of adult learner characteristics, which he used to develop a theoretical framework for Andragogy.

Adult Learner Characteristics:

Has an independent self-concept and who can direct his or her own learning
Has accumulated a reservoir of life experiences that is a rich resource for learning
Has learning needs closely related to changing social roles
Is problem-centered and interested in immediate application of knowledge
Is motivated to learn by internal rather than external factors
(Conlan, Grabowski, & Smith, 2012, para 1).

Furthermore, Knowles constructed principles from his theorized characteristics surrounding adult learners:

Principles of Andragogy:

Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction
Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning activities
Adults are most interested in learning about subjects that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life
Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented
(Conlan, Grabowski, & Smith, 2012, para 2).
Motivation (Later added in 1980): As a person matures, he or she receives their motivation to learn from internal factors (Harper & Ross, 2011).

A final assumption that Knowles applied to the Andragogy conjecture was a distinction between children and adults, as learners (McDonough, 2013; Rees, 2010; Knowles, 1980; Knowles, 1973; Knowles, 1970).

McDonough, D. (2013). Similarities and differences between adult and child learners as participants in the natural learning process. Psychology, 4(3a), p. 10. doi:10.4236/psych.2013.43A050

The importance of this discussion regarding adult learning is realized in the magnitude of adults seeking e-learning higher education in the 21st Century (Heath, 2012). In 2012, the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) released its research surrounding adult learners between 2000 and 2010. The findings reveal that 1.3% of all adults between the ages of 25 and 64 in the United States were enrolled in higher learning institutions, pursuing at least a third-year postsecondary educational degree (OCED, 2012).


Heath, S. B. (2012). Informal learning, p. 1197. doi: 10.4135/9781452218533.n378

What is Self-Directed Learning?

The second major pillar of the Adult Learning Theory is the focus of this discussion. It provides adult learners and mentors with an effective approach for learning in a variety of settings and situations. This pillar is known as, Self-Directed Learning Theory (SDL). The principles of SDL have progressed swiftly since its conception forty years ago. SDL is now researched and practiced globally: The International Society of Self-Directed Learning (2013).

By and large, SDL takes its cues from the Self-Directed Learning definition of Knowles (1972), In its broadest meaning, ’self-directed learning’ describes a process by which individuals take the initiative, with or without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identify human and material resources for learning, choosing and implement appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes (Skiff, 2009).

The theoretical framework and rationale of SDL is learner-centered, flexible, autonomous learning model, frequently employed within an informal mode of learning, such as higher education e-learning. First, the context of SDL was "... developed in response to personal or workplace interests or needs and conducted independently or collaboratively" (Guglielmino, 2008, p. 1). Second, SDL is activated in a learning situation, when "...The self-directed learner takes responsibility for his or her own learning..." (Ibid, p.2). Finally, SDL's universality subsists in a perpetual forward motion to produce lifelong learning opportunities. For this reason, Guglielmino surmises that self-directedness is "...present in each person to some degree" (Ibid, p. 2).

Guglielmino (2008) points to two basic reasons that SDL's proactive learning approach is beneficial to any learner: Human nature and academic environment. Therefore, she proposes that self-directed learning is a nature response to natural response to newness, problems, or challenges in our environment.
Guglielmino suggests that human nature dictates the possibilities of exploration and discovery, which is initiated when a learner takes control of his or her learning environment. "Self-directed learning is our most basic, natural response to newness, problems, or challenges in our environment" (Guglielmino, 2008, p. 2). Therefore, adults learn more effectively when they have the prospect of taking control of the learning process, as well as, taking accountability for learning events. Second, she proposed that the government mandate of the "manufacturing of education" (Ibid, p. 2) in 1969, which deactivated the possibilities of individualized exploration and discovery to enhance the human nature aspects of personalized learning. It is this representation of education, including classrooms filled with overwhelming numbers of students with individual needs and preferences, which lead to the cloning superlative of America's education system.

"The advent of state-organized and state-supported schools with their increasing structure and emphasis on teacher-directed instruction did much to weaken the idea of learner responsibility" (Guglielmino, 2008, p. 3).
Consequently, Guglielmino (2008) points toward two features of SDL that are modeled after Socrates' dialogic process of learning. The first feature is: The teacher, as mentor, instead of information authority. The second feature is: The learner, as a creator of knowledge, by way of critical thinking and exploring. Both of these features underpin the SDL model of contemporary learning.

Alvin Toffler (1928) is an American futurist and prolific writer, who published Future Shock (1984), The Third Wave (1984), and Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century (1991). Toffler's key concerns were how a globalized, post-industrialized world would educate its residents and socially prepare its citizens for the worldwide evolution ahead. In 1974, Toffler cautioned, "... if our educational approaches did not reflect an accurate vision of the future, our schools would fail our citizens" (Guglielmino, 2008, p. 3). Toffler is a proponent of open-access resources, as a contributor to the evolving knowledge society. More importantly to this discussion, Toffler understood the ramifications of an educational system that manipulated a learner's education through its systems governmental control. "Tomorrow's illiterate will not be the man who can't read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn" (Toffler, 2013).

Benefits of Self-Directedness in the E-learning Environment

SDIL contributes to the adult learners' capacity to achieve knowledge acquisition and learning at any age or stage of adult development, by means of aligning its assumptions with the preferences and characteristics of adult learners. Second, SDL is not limited to use in large-scale academic settings and may be exploited in a number of learning settings, from formal academic to informal workplace training, synchronously or asynchronously. SDL is designed specifically for addressing the needs of the respective learner (learner-centered), instead of the institutional setting. Therefore, it is conducive to a myriad of diverse learners and learning situations. Third, SDL is flexible, in terms of designing individual learning formats and choices. Mentors can utilize SDL to differentiate learning opportunities for diverse individual learns, prior to and following learning occasions. Fourth, SDL is supple, in terms of the current diverse learner populace, identified by age group and developmental phase (Guglielmino, Long & Hiemstra, 2004). Academic adult learners', particularly those, who encounter instruction and learning in a postsecondary e-learning situation, posses characteristics, composed of a broad-range of individual learning preferences and backgrounds, in addition to, dissimilar personal- and professional-life experiences (Reio, 2004).
Furthermore, adult learners function from correspondingly different, and sometimes, opposing, adult developmental phases. Three major generational cohorts involved in present-day higher educational e-learning environments, include, Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, Millennials, and every one in-between. Each of these cohorts learns and acquires knowledge differently, due to respective backgrounds and experiences. For this reason, SDL effectually employs prior knowledge and experiences as the driving force for adult e-learners, not only for personal learning, but for social collaboration, as well (Boyer & Maher, 2004).
Moreover, SDL has been formulated for informal and autonomous learning environments and learners. Therefore, e-learners, not only have control over their respective learning, but the process, as well (Guglielmino, 2008). In other words, the e-learner decides the level of responsibility he or she will take in determining what and how a particular learning module will progress. This determination by the e-learner is based on the prior knowledge assessment taken before the decision-making is in motion. Based on the results of the prior knowledge assessment, referred to as, the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale, the mentor and e-learner scaffold the learning as a progressive unit. In most cases, the e-learner will experience the autonomy of locating appropriate resources for the learning experience, in conjunction with their personal interests or curiosities. In this way, the learning does not encounter busy-work, but instead, promotes responsibility for his or her authentic learning experience. This type of learning has been found to be effective with active older e-learners, as well as, the younger generations of learners (Hiemstra, 2011; Grow, 1991).

Measuring the Effectiveness of Self-Directed Learning

In order to measure the effectiveness of SDL in the learning episodes of nontraditional learners, Guglielmino developed the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale (SDLRS) in 1977. The measurement instrument was administered to adult learners across the United States and Canada repeatedly. Following each SDLRS survey, the mechanisms of the measurement instrument were overhauled to facilitate results that are more authentic. Unfortunately, its principal critics protest that the survey questions give inadequate opportunities for learners to reply fully and instinctively regarding their experiences with self-directed learning episodes. Accordingly, learners were limited in their responses by restrictive-type multiple-choice questions. Moreover, following thirty-plus years since its development, SDLRS is the only depth-of-learning instrument created thus far, with the intention of measuring a self-directed learner's progress and satisfaction subsequent to a SDL learning event. Therefore, contemporary effective assessment instruments are needed to refine SDL promotion (Field, 1989).

In 1994, SDLRS underwent further innovative restructuring and is currently known as, Learning Preference Assessment (LAP) (Delahaye & Smith, 1995). Delahaye & Smith, provided evidence through their study of adult learners twenty years and older, that the newly formulated LAP instrument was more effective in reporting accurately the processes, experiences, autonomy, and knowledge acquisition of learners, than the former format of assessment.

Critiques of Self-Directed Learning Theory

Strong critiques against the format and principles of SDL predominately come from the management or corporate learning arenas. They offer that the learner's amount of autonomy and decision-making power is not conducive to the learning formats currently available within the respective organizations. Further, these organizations complain that changing the current formats to accommodate the principles outlined for SDL would not be cost effective (Stiff, 2009). Stiff concurs that if the informal, autonomous SDL format is forced into a formal, controlled learning environment, the results and effects will be much less advantageous (Ibid, 2009).


Adult Learning Theory and its pillars of support, Andragogy and Self-Directed Learning, have espoused extensive use in the past four decades, and have demonstrated immense promise and potential for current and future adult e-learners. Although the management of such learning environments may challenge institutions and mentors, when the SDL model is followed comprehensively, the learning opportunities and autonomy for adult e-learners are significant. As the demand for all-inclusive higher education e-learning continues to move forward, Self-Directedness in e-learning arena will provide untapped strategies for e-learners to control, manage, and take full responsibility for their own learning, which is conducive to authentic knowledge acquisition in a digital knowledge society.


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