A Self-Directed Learning Reality Check

I’m an advocate for self-directed learning. There is no question about that. I write about it often, and affirm its benefits so much that it has led to valid critiques that I seem to bite the formal education hand that feeds me. This does not mean, however, that I disregard the limitations of self-directed learning, and there are genuine potential limitations. Here are four of the more common ones.

Self-Directed Learning Reality Check 1 – Opportunity

Formal credentials and degrees still open doors for people. This is true in some fields more than others. There are plenty of fields and positions where alternative pathways to demonstrating excellence are adequate for getting an interview and the job. Yet, I’ve witnessed dozens of situations where otherwise qualified people did not get an interview, an invitation to apply, or the job because they lacked the minimum degree qualifications on the job posting. Some people are willing to make exceptions but there are plenty of companies where people are just working at a pace and with such a volume that they rarely take the time to look for alternative evidence. Some companies only accept applicants with degrees from specific institutions. Fair or not, this is a reality. The degree is shorthand to some for being at least potentially qualified. It is an easy way for an initial screening. As such, there are ample situations today where not having the degree decreases your chances or sometimes restricts you from having any chance at a given job or a promotion.

Self-Directed Learning Reality Check 2 – Gaps

Sometimes the self-directed learning pathway leaves gaping holes in one’s education or training in a given area. A well-designed, systematic program is intended to fill most of those gaps. We can debate how well some programs do this, but certain jobs or professions call for more precision, and gaps are highly problematic. A surgeon needs to have a core set of skills and we probably don’t want surgeons who have too many gaps in those core skills. This is true in other less life-or-death jobs and fields of study as well.

Of course, self-directed learners can embrace formal study and carefully constructed learning pathways that reduce gaps in learning, but not always. This is sometimes a limitation of the self-directed learning approach. Some people can learn to play an instrument independent of a teacher, but most benefit from an expert guide.

Self-Directed Learning Reality Check 3 – The Network

What I call “degree drive” is a learning pathway that is often about more than just taking a series of courses, getting adequate grades, meeting graduation requirements and getting a fancy piece of paper at the end of the journey. Some, but not all, college experiences are also rich opportunities for building a network that can serve you well throughout your life. Intentional self-directed learners can certainly build powerful networks as well, but I can’t disregard the impact of being an alum from well-respected schools that offer not only a solid education but a network that can help throughout one’s life and career. Some argue that this is the true bonus of graduating from many top ranked colleges and Universities. Yes, they provide a solid educational experience, but they also give you an incredible, world-class professional network.

Self-Directed Learning Reality Check 4 – Followership

I’m quick to talk and write about developing leadership skills, but I can’t disregard the importance of learning to be a world-class follower too. Not all of us will be our own boss throughout life. Most people will hold jobs and positions where they report to others. Even when you are a CEO, you might report to a board. As such, it is important to learn to follow with excellence.

I’m not sure that being a student in school is the absolute best training ground for followership. In fact, I’m certain that it isn’t. Yet, it can be a place to learn some of the associated skills of great followers, and this can be an important journey toward great leadership. There is no question that you can learn important skills of followership through a more self-directed learning experience, but I want to at least recognize that some of the scripted or directed aspects of a schooling experience (even in more self-directed schools) can be opportunities to learn these skills.

There are many benefits to self-directed learning and I write about them often. I even go so far as to argue that nurturing self-directed learners is important for society. At the same time, for a balanced consideration, I want recognize that there can be limitations to this path, and that the degree or schooling pathway has some affordances as well.

Three Questions to Thrive as a Self-Directed Learner

Amid a fun and rewarding conversation with a couple of colleagues recently, I found myself articulating the challenges of being a self-directed learner in the contemporary world. What does it take to thrive as a self-directed learner? There are certainly many benefits to being one, but self-directed and free range learning is not without difficulties. In a world that is often drawn to academic abstractions in the form of degrees and certifications, it is not always easy to thrive as one who chooses alternative pathways to learning.

With that said, there are three key questions for such current or aspiring self-directed learners. Attending to these can greatly improve the joy and quality of the self-directed learning journey.

What do you know? What don’t you know?

Self-awareness is important for everyone, but especially for those who venture further into self-directed learning and alternate learning pathways. Champions of SDL in their own lives represent a full range of self-awareness levels. Some are very competent but not very confident in their abilities. Others are not very competent but they have immense confidence. They have an inaccurate few of their current level of expertise. There are also those with low confidence and competence. Then, of course, there are those who are highly confident and competent, a potent combination.

Regardless, it is important for the self-directed learner to have an accurate and continually updated picture of what they actually do and do not know. We need mirrors to help us see ourselves as we really are. Only then are we able to make adjustments and progress.

When a self-directed learner lacks this self-awareness, it can be disappointing and frustration. They find themselves troubled by a world that doesn’t seem to get them. If one is not careful, it can turn into a cycle of bitterness and even depression. Know thyself.

How do you achieve goals to learn something new?

Once you have a clear and accurate picture of your abilities, it is time to set goals and establish plans and pathways to achieve those learning goals. I can’t overstate how powerful of a skill set this is for people. It allows them to no longer be limited by a ready mix of formal educational offerings to achieve learning goals, but truly turns the world into one’s classroom. Of course, self-directed learners may opt to learn through formal courses and programs, but they are not limited to or restricted by those pathways.

How do you show what you know and can do? How do you tell your story with narratives and numbers?

This last one has occupied more of my attention lately. If you are going to venture into the world of self-directed learning, you must be ready to represent yourself and communicate your learning to the world around you. To learn something through self-direction can be incredibly freeing and rewarding, but what about when you need to seek a job or you are trying to communicate your accomplishments and abilities to others? For the self-directed learner, it is often not as easy as showing your diploma or formal credential. People like myself can complain about such abstractions as inaccurate and inadequate means of communicating expertise, but much of the world remains content with such signifiers of learners. As such, as a self-directed learner, you must find ways to tell the story of what you know and can do. You must be able to do it with narratives and numbers, succinctly and substantively, and in varied mediums depending upon the target audience.

Without this, you can find yourself frustrated and with limited opportunities. You might feel like people don’t get you, that they overlook you. You might even get bitter because far less qualified people seem to get the jobs instead of you, just because those people have the formal piece of paper. Yet, part of choosing the path of the self-directed learner is facing this reality and investing in the skill to effectively represent yourself in such a world. Sometimes it involves knowing when to take the common pathway and earn the credential. Other times you recognize that an alternate pathway will work as well or better to achieve your goals. Those who learn to do this well find few doors closed. We can even find instances of people finding their way in academic or University jobs with few or no degrees even when there is limited precedent for such a thing. Consider people like Joi Ito.

Being a self-directed learner has immense benefits. Yet, it takes time and effort to learn how to thrive as a self-directed learner in many contexts. Learning to invest in the skills associated with these three questions can give you a much greater chance to thrive.

Moving Beyond Popcorn Innovation in Your School

Does your learning organization have a culture of innovation? Good. How about a culture of strategic innovation? The importance is critical for the success and impact of your organization’s innovations. It is equally important for your organization to develop innovations that spread and benefit people well beyond the walls of your school. This is the idea that Linda Darling-Hammond is describing when she uses the phrase popcorn innovation. I’ve heard her reference the phrase a couple of times, so I thought it might be helpful to ask her for a definition. What does she mean when she cautions us about it? Here is the response I received from her office in a recent email:

I’ve heard her reference the phrase a couple of times, so I thought it might be helpful to ask her for a definition. What does she mean when she cautions us about it? Here is the response I received from her office in a recent email:

It’s like everyone wants to try things – there are all of these ideas popping around the corn popper, and many, many innovations stay popping, but they never turn into a strategy for innovation.  Things die without ever being funded or tried out, and as a result all these “great ideas” don’t end up being nutritious, or even filling.  Linda advocates for great ideas actually being rolled out and tried in real time in schools and then being evaluated as to whether or not they are effective.  If they are, they should be widely shared, and specs for how to roll it out included in any publicity.

 I couldn’t agree more. It is one thing to encourage innovation. It is another to turn those successful experiments and innovations into widespread impact in your school and beyond. This requires strategy, resources, and a system to support that strategy.

I’ve seen organizations that are wonderfully innovative and entrepreneurial, but they fall short. People are encouraged to innovate, even given the resources and space to do it. Sometimes they fail. Other times they have great success, but they don’t scale or expand far beyond the initial innovator or group of innovators. Sometimes this is because of silos, turf wars, or organizational structures that don’t allow for the spread of ideas across an entire organization.

Then there are the organizations that are incredibly strategic and committed to innovation, but they don’t provide the space for more than a handful of leaders to truly pursue innovation. As such, many great experiments are never tried and promising innovations are unsupported and not funded. Either they never get off the ground or they are tried with such limited resources that they have little chance of success.

What is the alternative? It is to create a blend of three elements: an organization that is innovative, strategic, committed to assessing the efficacy of these innovations, and intentional about finding ways to expand and share those innovations that produce the most promising results. This is no easy task, but if you see an organization that gets the balance right, you will also be witnessing an exemplars for educational impact through innovation.

Notice that we are talking about a mix of innovation, accountability and an eye on running with the best ideas. All three of these are an important part of the recipe. The innovation is where we get to try out good but untested ideas to see if we can improve upon what we are doing. They are informed by a compelling reason/why. The accountability is about seeing what really works. This is not narrow evaluation practices that set innovations up for failure, but it is also not celebrating every innovation just because it was imaginative or creative. We are evaluating in creating, rigorous ways, and using our findings for new iterations of an innovation along with decisions about whether to persist with it. Once we get those findings and growing confidence in the results, that is when we start to think about building on it, doubling down on it, expanding it to other parts of the organization and/or eventually sharing it as a promising practice to other organizations.

Great educational innovation is always accompanied with what is sometimes a wonderfully fanatical commitment to figuring out what works and what does not. When something works, it is hard to stay silent. You want to spread the news in and beyond your organization. Putting these three together allows us to transcend what Darling-Hammond calls popcorn innovation, venturing into the realm of high-impact educational practices.

9 Critical Issues in the National Educational Technology Plan

Over the upcoming weeks, I will be reviewing and reflecting on 2016 National Educational Technology Plan, a Department of Education document that seeks to cast a vision and priorities for educational technology in K-12 and higher education. It is an important document because:

  • it has a history of provoking large-scale conversations,
  • it gives a glimpse into potential grant funding priorities,
  • it offers a snapshot of current priorities on a national level,
  • and it helps people understand the scope of what we mean by “educational technology” today.

It represents a solid think piece about many of the challenges and opportunities of learning in an increasingly connected world, beginning with an assessment of progress from the last educational technology plan, and then moving into priorities moving forward. For this article, I will focus upon that first part.

On page 5 of the plan, the authors explain that there has indeed been progress since the last educational technology plan, but that there are nine areas that require further or greater attention moving forward. I’ve included those nine areas below, followed by a brief personal commentary of each.

1. “A digital use divide continues to exist between learners who are using technology in active, creative ways to support their learning and those who predominantly use technology for passive content consumption.”

In early conversations about the digital divide, people focused on access to hardware and software. Then there was a focus on getting schools connected to the Internet. However, the digital divide conversation eventually moved to more than just having the tools. It is about the competence and confidence in using them in diverse ways. It is not just about completing drill and practice games on a device. As such, the plan points out there is a creation versus consumption digital divide that must be addressed if we want to set people up for success as connected learners throughout life. This is partly why there is also a priority to not only have Internet access in schools, but in homes, where people are more likely to engage in unscripted play and experimentation.

2. “Research on the effectiveness of technology-enabled programs and resources is still limited, and we should build capacity to generate evidence of individual-, program-, and community-level outcomes.”

As long as educational technology has been used in K-12 and higher education, there has been a challenge to find solid research to support the efficacy of certain technologies over others. I will not go into great detail here, but part of the reason is because it is like nailing jelly to the wall. Nonetheless, there can be solid research to inform our practices. The danger is that people may use such research findings in ways that are too scripted or generalizing beyond what is warranted by the existing reserach.

3. “Many schools do not yet have access to or are not yet using technology in ways that can improve learning on a daily basis, which underscores the need—guided by new research—to accelerate and scale up adoption of effective approaches and technologies.”

The “integrating technology” discourse has not served us especially well. We have quite a few teachers who see integrating technology as an independent professional development goal instead of an integrated part of increasing student engagement and learning. Reserach can help with this, but I contend that an even more important starting point is to help all teachers move beyond the idea of integrating technology.

4. “Few schools have adopted approaches for using technology to support informal learning experiences aligned with formal learning goals.”

Now this may be one of the most important statements in the entire educational technology plan. This is a recognition that achieving our goals of preparing people to thrive and survive in an increasingly connected world can’t just happen through scripted and prescribed educational programming. Informal learning, self-directed learning and personal exploration and experimentation are all important ingredients. I am delighted to see this recognition in the educational technology plan. It affirms the great work and emerging models by many new school startups but also recognizes the critical role of learning beyond the school walls and a prescribed curriculum. In fact, it is intriguing how little there is in the National Educational Technology Plan about national standards.

5. “Supporting learners in using technology for out-of-school learning experiences is often a missed opportunity.”

Again, there is an affirmation about learning beyond the school walls. This is certainly highlighted by the great success of the Cities of Learning projects, but it doesn’t stop there. It also affirms the good and important reserach and insights of people like Mimi Ito.

6. “Across the board, teacher preparation and professional development programs fail to prepare teachers to use technology in effective ways.”

Yes, educational technology is often a later consideration in teacher education, and there are often teacher education programs that don’t have a single faculty member who was hired with educational technology as a primary area of expertise. As such, we have people experimenting and dabbling but limited true expertise. This could work, but the standard for educational technology competence among faculty is relatively low. Sometimes they are tech-savvy, but that has little to do with educational technology, and some are still slow to really understand what the field is all about. Without a vision for what educational technology is and how it can be an integrated part of a robust teacher education program, we will not make progress in this area.

7. “Assessment approaches have evolved but still do not use technology to its full potential to measure a broader range of desired educational outcomes, especially non-cognitive competencies.”

If you’ve read my blog over the last year, you probably know how delighted I am about this one. Assessment innovation is such a promising and important area in education today. Feedback works in education and designing a robust and diverse formative assessment plans is a great starting point. My only concern is that some will interpret this to just be about standardized tests, vanilla learning analytics, and the like. Yet, check out the focus here. It is on assessing non-cognitive competencies. These are things like grit, curiosity, and the love of learning; topics about which I have been writing a great deal, and are as or more important than content area outcomes when it comes to predicting student success later in life.

8. “The focus on providing Internet access and devices for learners should not overshadow the importance of preparing teachers to teach effectively with technology and to select engaging and relevant digital learning content.”

Again, early efforts in educational technology focused on the hardware and software. Yet, it is the design and quality of the resources that has the greatest impact. We must continue to move beyond getting devices in people’s hands and think more about learning experience design and learning resources.

9. “As students use technology to support their learning, schools are faced with a growing need to protect student privacy continuously while allowing the appropriate use of data to personalize learning, advance research, and visualize student progress for families and teachers.”

There is no question about this one as well. Big data and learning analytics is here. Now how do we navitage important safety and ethical issues about how and if we use these data.

These are all important issues, ones that the NEDT notes require further attention moving forward. In the subsequent articles, I will write about the five proposed prioriteis moving forward: learning, teaching, leadership, assessment, and infrastructure.