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Redefining Your L&D Strategy In Disruptive Times: Enter Self-Directed Learning

Lifelong learning is now more important than ever. Technology has brought about many changes in the world of work, and those who don’t adapt will be left behind. This creates a problem for many business owners. 

The Future of Jobs 2020 Report by The World Economic Forum revealed:

  • Skills gaps continue to be high as in-demand skills across jobs change in the next five years.
  • The top skills and skill groups that employers see as rising in prominence in the lead up to 2025 include critical thinking and analysis as well as problem-solving, and skills in self-management such as active learning and flexibility.
  • On average, companies estimate that around 40% of workers will require reskilling of six months or less and 94% of business leaders report that they expect employees to pick up new skills on the job, a sharp uptake from 65% in 2018.
  • A significant expansion of remote work is expected in the next few years— employers see the potential to move 44% of their workforce to operate remotely.
  • Since the pandemic started, online learning is on the rise. There has been a four-fold increase in the numbers of individuals seeking out opportunities for learning online through their own initiative, a five-fold increase in employer provision of online learning opportunities to their workers, and a nine-fold enrolment increase for learners accessing online learning through government programs.
  • 50% of employers will speed up the automation of tasks, while over 80% are set to expand the digitization of their work processes. In other words, jobs will disappear, and new jobs will surge. Specifically, they predict around 85 million roles are set to be displaced by automation and 97 million new jobs will emerge by 2025.

All these shifts happening so fast require employees to take greater control over their learning journey and at the same time, require employers to act fast to ensure learners have the right information at the right moment. 

A lifelong learning approach cannot be forced. That's why there's a huge opportunity for leaders in companies to focus their L&D efforts on empowering employees to embrace lifelong learning and promoting self-directed learning. In the end, not only companies are the ones that will receive benefits for this... lifelong, self-directed employees are the ones who will thrive in a rapidly changing world.

Prioritizing self-directed learning is key to developing an adaptive and flexible workforce that is prepared to navigate the uncertain times and the "jobs of tomorrow." 


What is Self-Directed Learning (SDL) and How to Encourage Workers to Pursue It

Most adults recognize the need to continue their education, but they may be used to the traditional compliance-based learning imposed by companies. Self-directed learning takes a different form, and some workers are still reluctant to get onboard. 

SDL begins with awareness of your own educational deficiencies. You must know what you want to achieve, what you need to learn to reach that goal, and how you can go about learning it. You must also know when you have gained the knowledge you need. All this requires discernment and motivation. Our role as L&D professionals is to provide the necessary support and mentorship during the process

Malcolm Knowles, the father of adult learning theory, defined self-directed learning as 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 those learning outcomes."

Self-directed learning is much more than just an approach to education. Instead, it’s a new way of life. - Novoed

There are some key things employers and L&D leaders can do to get workers more interested in pursuing independent and continuous learning. They include urging them to set goals for themselves, supporting them, and providing opportunities for learning. eLearning course creators also need to ensure their material is presented in a format that promotes an efficient self-directed learning process.

Also read: Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Self-Directed Learning at the Workplace

We’ll discuss each of these in detail:

self-directed-learning

1) Urging Employees to Set Goals for Themselves

Goal setting helps learners identify what they should learn and how they should go about getting the knowledge.

Some workers will know exactly what they want out of their careers but not all will be sure about what they want to do. Some may also be resistant to the idea of not having an instructor guide them every step of the way during a course. As a learning and development professional, you may need to spend some time educating those in the latter category about how to set goals and pursue the relevant training. You may also need to stress the importance of lifelong learning in today’s environment. This article from The eLearning Coach is an excellent resource for hesitant learners or those with misconceptions about SDL.

You must ensure that learners set realistic goals that benefit them as individuals and as part of your team. Provide them with resources that can help them to choose conferences, workshops, and seminars that would be beneficial to their careers. Offer guidance but allow them to choose on their own.

You should also give clear directions and establish proper learning objectives. Learners who enroll in self-directed courses for the first time will not know what to expect or how to work through the course on their own. They will benefit from advice on how much time they should spend on readings, assignments, and quizzes. If they know how online courses work, they will be a lot less worried about the experience. Learners also benefit from knowing how the course relates to their career trajectory. This means they can assess what they’re learning and relate it to their goals.

2) Providing Opportunities During the Work Day for Employees to Learn

Self-directed learning places the onus on employees but you should still create a supportive environment.

Learning benefits, not just the individual, but their department and the entire organization. You should, therefore, set aside some time for learning on a regular basis.

Udemy’s Head of Learning and Development Shelley Osborne said out of 425 employees surveyed in 2017, more than half believed that they would learn more if they had more time to learn at work. Corporate L&D managers shared similar sentiments. Osborne suggests putting learning on the calendar each month and scheduling it at the most popular time. She also recommends letting employees choose what they want to learn. You can ask them to consider their goals when they do this.

You don’t want learning to seem like a chore or obligation. Remind employees that increasing their knowledge is good for both personal and professional development. Explain that workers who stay on the cutting edge are more likely to retain their jobs and be considered for promotion and leadership roles. Allow your employees to have fun as they learn and to explore their creativity. Also, remind them that failure if part of the learning process and everything won’t go as planned.

Recommended reads:

How Self-Directed Learning Can Improve Your Workplace

Employers need ‘self-directed learners who are continuously upskilling

3) For Course Creators: Give Learners the Tools They Need to Succeed

Course creators can make their eLearning courses more attractive by detailing how their material can help learners reach their goals. And if the course isn’t mandatory they really have to set themselves apart! 

Course creators can also support self-directed learners by giving them more flexibility. They can try:

  • Allowing learners to choose their own projects

  • Planning eLearning modules in such a way that learners can choose where they want to start

  • Giving learners multiple opportunities to complete tasks

  • Permitting learners to set their own deadlines for projects

This may seem like a lot of freedom but employees who see the value of learning will be eager to work through the exercises. Adult learners don’t typically want to be spoon-fed by instructors so they will enjoy being able to study when it’s most convenient for them.

It is also important to track user behavior and take feedback into consideration. Instructors take note of which lessons are most sought after and which ones many learners skip. They should also look at the time of day which is the most popular and the types of materials which get the most engagement. They can use this information to inform future versions of the course.


Workers are increasingly being expected to play an active role in their education. They need to identify their career goals and find learning opportunities that will help them to reach those goals. Both learning and development professionals and eLearning course creators must ensure they offer support when necessary while encouraging independence. This will help to ensure employees are equipped to handle the uncertain and ever-changing future of work.

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