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Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning (SDL) has gained significant momentum as a design priority across the varied educational landscapes, today. Although this growth has been driven in part by the significant numbers of adult learners entering formal learning programs, it is perhaps most directly connected with the unprecedented, contemporary need to help learners gain capacity as life-long learners. Never before have global work and life environments experienced such rapid, persistent and volatile change. It is for this very reason that SDL has moved to the frontiers of learning both in the classroom and online.

Although SDL as an educational concept can be traced back at least to the time of the ancient Greeks, more modern, formal uses of SDL came into practice via the writings of Malcolm Knowles in the 1970s. One of the key ideas in Knowles’ definition was the desire to see students “take the initiative” in their own learning [1]. Since that time, SDL has expanded to include the value of collaboration and guidance in the self-directed learning process, evolving into an array of perspectives under titles such as Self-Initiated Learning, Self-Managed Learning, and Self-Regulated Learning. As designers of online learning, it is helpful to consider Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner’s (2007) suggestion that the growing literature on SDL be divided into three main categories: [2]

  1. The goals of SDL
  2. SDL as a process or approach to learning
  3. SDL as a personal attribute in the learner

We will not take the time to explore the range of possible “goals” or outcomes associated with SDL except to reiterate the strategic value in approaches to learning that orient themselves around the traits and preferences of adult learners and toward the development of capacity in life-long learning. Thinking practically about how online learning designers might create meaningful and engaging learning within an online course, we have organized SDL ideas and resources into three subsequent webpages:

SDL Skills

The SDL Skills page is organized around the subjects of professional development and personal growth, skills that are desirable as outcomes in learners’ and teachers’ lives, alike. These important capacities and mindsets engender real-world skills that are essential in what Bob Johansen describes as the global “VUCA” (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment in the work workplace, today [3].

SDL Learning Processes

The goal of SDL in online learning requires focused attention on the processes of learning as well as the subject matter. The SDL Learning Processes page is organized around strategies for scaffolding learning activities and assessments that lead to the competency of life-long learning. This page also explores the question of how learners acquire the ability to effectively evaluate the quality and validity of an ever-expanding flood of resources available today. 

SDL Resources

The SDL Resources page highlights the subject of open learning alongside examples from the growing assemblage of open educational resource (OER) repositories available for use today. These resources offer examples and ready-made components that can be leveraged for more quickly scaling the design process. 


[1] Knowles, M. (1975). Self-directed learning: A guide for learners and teachers. New York: Cambridge Books, p. 18.

[2] Merriam S., Caffarella R., and Baumgartner L. (2007). Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

[3] Johansen, B. (2017). The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.