Self-Directed Learning: One of My Educational Moonshots

In the United States we celebrate Independence Day, the 4th of July. We commemorate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, which includes these famous words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

As I read it, this is a declaration, but it is also an aspiration and invitation to let these words shape our thoughts, actions and institutions. They point us toward some paths and away from others. I remember being inspired by this quote in my childhood, and it continues to conjure excitement and possibility when I read it today. It is a statement that influences my thoughts and philosophy of education, and it certainly informs much of my work and writing related to futures in education, educational innovation, and self-directed learning. Among other things, it points me toward the idea that each person matters, that there are indeed inalienable rights among people, and that freedom and independence are (both individually and collectively) important values. As such, I thought I’d use this time of year to share a bit more about how I see my work connecting with such a statement, how it is tied to the value of individual rights and empowering people to enjoy the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  In doing so, I will be sharing one of my educational moonshots with you.

Education is unbundling and we might be surprised to see where this takes us over the next 10-15 years (perhaps much sooner). As there continue to be discussions about the importance of education reform, reimagining how we “do” education in primary, secondary and tertiary schools; maybe the key to education reform is not about creating better schools as much as it is about empowering and inspiring self-directed learners, people with a deep sense of agency. Before I get to that, I ask for your patience as we back up and quickly trace how unbundling developed over millennia.

Textual and Oral Communication

It could be said the unbundling of learning started with the emergence of the written word. Once people started recording messages in writing, it opened new doors to communicating with others across both time and space. It unbundled substantive human interaction from a shared physical space. Religions used this affordance to engage in one of the earliest forms of distance (or blended education), namely communicating the core narratives of the faith to people across generations and locations. As such, text is a core part of teaching in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and many other religions. The New Testament Christian Scriptures, for example, largely consist of letters that were written from someone like the apostle Paul to a community of Christians in a city like Galatia, with the intent that they would pass the letter to other cities as well. Making copies was a valued and tedious task, so people were still drawn together to hear and learn from a text that was passed from one place to another.

With the printing press and mass-produced books, we saw yet another unbundling. Now text didn’t just allow communication across time and space. It also made it possible to unbundle text-based learning from the gathering of people in a shared space. One could read in isolation. There are even some records noting that earliest readers would usually read out loud and/or move their mouths with the words, because text was still tied to community and oral communication with others. It appears that the innovation of silent reading was born out of the mass-produced book…a further unbundling.

The telegraph, telephone, and radio allowed one to have yet another unbundling. Prior to these technologies, you could communicate across time and space, but the time/space attributes were still tied together. If you communicated with someone a thousand miles away, they could read it at a later time, but not at the same time (or nearly same time) as when you constructed the message. The telegraph and telephone both changed that. Now you could communicate back and forth across space while largely making it a real-time (synchronous) message, getting it to another person or group of people at the same or nearly same time. Or, with radio, it was mostly one-way communication, but it would be mass communication, one speaker reaching tens of thousands (even millions) of people with a real-time message. These technologies unbundled real-time communication from a shared physical space.

Imagery and Multimedia

We have parallels in the communication of imagery, starting with early drawings, paintings and sculptures. Books allowed sharing visual messages across space and time. By the 17th century, we see innovations like Comenius’s Orbis Pictus (World of Pictures), a text to teach Latin largely through images. Then we go on to moving pictures, television (with that real-time or nearly now communication across space), interactive imagery and video conferencing. Each provides a new affordance, unbundling the way we understood the use of communication through visuals (everything from art to body language / nonverbals). Within modern education, we’ve seen the connections of classes across space in real-time, one-to-one real-time interactions between student and instructor, group real-time interaction through various web conferencing technologies, and multiple point interactions, like a dozen people each in their homes engaging in real-time communication with each other. All this unbundling from time and space naturally led to the development of distance education, starting in the 17th century leading up to the many forms today.

The Internet

Then, of course, we have this little development called the Internet, a collection of technologies that allows the mixing and connecting of the many developments before it. We have real-time (synchronous) text-based, audio and/or video. We have asynchronous (at different times) text-based audio and/or video. We have interactive text, video, and images. We have human-computer communications in the form of adaptive learning software, tutorials, and educational apps. There are hundreds of different designs that mix and match the various technologies to create learning experiences, environments, and communities.

A Critical Literacy

All these developments allowed for an unbundling of the learning experience from shared times and space (one, the other, or a combination), but each of these previous developments also allowed for sociocultural unbundling and restructuring. Early books still called for people to gather in shared spaces like a University or religious community to participate in shared learning around that text. This power of community remains a valued part of learning today, with entire learning theories built around it. Libraries became available, allowing some access to this wealth of knowledge independently. Yet, with the mass-produced book, we created new access to independent learning about some of the most cutting-edge and complex topics. However, access was not enough. The person who benefitted the most was the one who was literate and capable of directing his/her own learning. In the United States, we continue to celebrate this trait in historical figures like Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Edison. We extend that today by celebrating some of the great entrepreneurs of the digital age who dropped out of school to start their businesses. We would be wise to continue to celebrate these figures, as they point us to the most powerful literacy of the modern age.

A Legacy of Makers

Of course, throughout history, we also have a legacy of tinkerers, makers, inventors, and innovators. These are people who discover the power of learning by doing; much of it outside the confines of a formal learning organization. What these other technological advancements did for the doers and makers is that it connected them in new ways, turning the sometimes solitary work of one into a worldwide community around the same or a similar goal. Even with all this connecting, we also see moments where people in these innovator networks partly unplug, hide out, and put their skunkworks into action for some shared goal.

Connectedness and Democratizing Learning Resources

I’ve shared here and elsewhere when I had my first aha moment about the nature of life and learning in a connected world. I was reading a book in the early 1990s, had a question about it, found the author online, emailed him, and had a wonderful albeit brief written exchange. The book turned into a two-day conversation with a leading expert, all apart from any formal learning environment and in a matter of minutes or hours. For the first time, I was experiencing the democratization of access to leading scholars, innovators and experts…outside of the walls of a college. This is further amplified by social media. Today we find ourselves in a connected landscape that allows for seemingly limitless blends of the various technologies already mentioned and the many types of interactions, contexts, communities and connections made possible by them. Knowledge networks are available outside of formal schooling along with robust communities learners, leading minds and influencers in a given area. Higher education learning communities remain nicely packaged and organized opportunities for those who can afford it. However, the unbundling that occurred with all the pre-mentioned technologies also creates new opportunity to unbundle educational organizations themselves.

Who Benefits from This?

Who most benefits from this? Traditional higher educational institutions seem to be at a disadvantage because of regional accreditors and federal regulations (tied to participating in the federal financial aid program or taking federal grant money). These institutions are typically not agile. They have the sole ability to offer diplomas with the stamp of accreditation, but a verified piece of paper may not be enough in this new unbundled educational world. As such, I see two groups that have the most to gain: education companies and self-directed learners. I do work and research on both fronts, so I’ll mention both below. However, my primary interest at the moment is that self-directed learner.

Education Companies and Startups

Consider the rapid growth of education startups. Some are B2B companies, still focusing upon services to the highly regulated schools and Universities. Others are providing unbundled services directly to learners. Either way, these companies have more freedom to innovate and provide various educational services. I expect to see many more educational companies and corporations bypassing the college degree in the future, offering equally valued training, perhaps at a fraction of the cost. What may hold the University together is the social experience more than “license” to issue diplomas. In the end, we need competency more than credentials. The exclusive right to issue a certain piece of paper will probably be tolerated much longer in the most regulated industries like healthcare, but we already see hints that people in society are beginning to realize that the emperor has no clothes. The diploma is still a respected academic currency today. It is just that more people area also realizing and respecting alternatives to the diploma. This is most evident in some parts of the tech sector and business. This is a huge opportunity for education startups.

Self-directed Learners

The other party who can greatly benefit from this unbundling is the self-directed learner, the person with the competence and confidence to self-blend his/her own learning. This is the person who is positioned to best take advantage of the affordances available in the connected world. It is the person who can pull from the many options, connections and services available; using them to accomplish personal goals. In fact, even as people talk about education (and they seem to mean formal school) as a human rights issue of the 21st and 22nd century, I argue that becoming a self-directed learner is the critical literacy needed to take full advantage of life and learning in a 21st and 22nd century.

The Moonshot

This is an educational moonshot for me; figuring out how we can support, empower, and encourage a world of curious, generous self-directed learners. Schools, especially primary and secondary ones, may be helpful when/if they are willing to focus their efforts on it, but it calls for schools to engage in truly self-sacrificial work. Their goal can’t be self-preservation as much as to wean learners from always needing the pre-packaged and served educational meal, empowering them to be truly competent, confident, creative, curious learners. By self-directed, I don’t mean isolated. We all need and benefit from teachers, mentors, models and coaches for various goals in our lives. What I’m talking about is being focused upon nurturing a deep sense of agency in people. People can have rights without exercising them, they can have gifts that they never open and use. I believe that nurturing self-directed learning and agency helps people more fully express their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Anywhere I’ve seen glimpses of this, I’ve been amazed and delighted by the outcomes. A critical issue is that there is a growing divide today between truly gifted self-directed learners and the deeply dependent people who are not. This is an “achievement gap” that could have grave social consequences if we are not committed to doing something significant about it.

A Confession

I do not consider myself an expert learner nor am I truly an expert in nurturing self-directed learners. I am, however, a lifelong student of it. This is a persistent pursuit, but I realize that there are complex social, psychological, political, economic, even spiritual dynamics at work that make this a difficult path; and I don’t yet deeply understand all of these complexities. That is partly why I call it a moonshot, but one that I am taking. This is not just about finding and celebrating the occasional self-directed learning rock star. For me it is about making self-directed learning a literacy as broadly valued and nurtured as learning how to read a book. Each week I find myself developing a stronger sense of urgency around this goal, and I intend to use that as fuel for the mission. I’m also realizing that I probably need to make some changes in the near future if I really want to achieve this goal. I’m still gaining clarity about those changes, but the goal remains clear and worth the cost.

3 Replies to “Self-Directed Learning: One of My Educational Moonshots”

  1. Michael Boll

    I really enjoyed reading this article and wondered if you had a hidden, or unintended premise, as part of it.

    When you say this “We would be wise to continue to celebrate these figures, as they point us to the most powerful literacy of the modern age” do you, in a sense, say we are coming full circle when it comes to self-directed learning. Like Lincoln, who had limited access to education through the formal system, our current systems and their allegiance to AP exams and other formal testing regiments, are simply unable to offer the kind of learning we need today. Thus, we must self-direct our learning to make up for the deficit?

    Looking forward to our talk next week!

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