This is an intriguing question that I have been pondering for years.
Stephen Brookfield in this paper on self-directed learning concludes:
A view of learning which regards human beings as self-contained, volitional beings scurrying around in individual projects, is one that works against cooperative and collective impulses. Citing self-direction, people can deny the importance of collective action, common interests and their basic human interdependence in favor of an obsessive focus on the self.
The notion of self-direction is to a great extent related to autonomy for learners, where autonomy is posited as one of the essential elements in fostering the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities under self determination theory (SDT), a theory of motivation.
“Ironically, as Boshier (1983) has pointed out, policy makers can also use the concept of self-direction to reduce public spending on adult education. After all, they can argue, if adult educators tell us that adults are naturally self-directed learners (in contrast to authority-dependent children) then why bother making provision for their education ? Won’t they self-directedly take their own initiatives in learning anyway ? But atomistic, divisive interpretations of self-directed learning need not be end of the story concerning the contributions of this concept to adult education theory and practice. “
I could understand that self-directed learning have been a major concern for distance education in the 80s – 90s, where a lot of learners might drop out of the course due to the isolated feelings of learning. It would likely be true that only those who were more “capable” and motivated would succeed in learning in the distance education mode. Besides, adult educators had been under the pressure to provide better education with limited resources at the time of 80s and 90s.
In my self-directed learning post:
Could we use social networks for informal education and learning?
Is access to learning resources still a problem?
I think more adult learners could access open education resources and information more readily via the internet at this digital age as compared to the 90s. Although there are still many articles and artifacts locked inside the library or publishers website, where fee for service or reading is required, however, adult learners could still exercise their learning options with the aid of various information web sites, social media and networks.
Are adults naturally self-directed learners? I don’t know the answer to this important question. I think many adults would prefer to be self-directed, when they are self-motivated, and are given an option to learn, with when, where, how and what they like, especially at this digital era with the affordance of technology (mobile and computer technology), abundant information and ubiquitous networks and social media. Confidence, motivation, information technology and communication skills, and experience would likely determine whether learners would take their own initiatives in learning, especially in social media and networked learning.
As I have argued here in my previous post: “I still believe that learning is a personal and private “business”, especially in blogging. Autonomy is most important, for those self-paced, self-organised learners. I am one of them, as I did “distance education” all by myself, in the past, even in the pre-internet era, and I still enjoyed it.” It is through blogging where I could fully reflect personally on what is and what is not relevant to my life and work experience. It also provides plenty of opportunities for others to provide critical comments to my open and public posts, which serves as sounding board for me to engage into more in-depth conversations and reflection. This is also where I could form part of the blogosphere, and be connected to the networks and communities at large. Would this also add to the social capital, when collective inquiry through blogging is achieved?
In conclusion, self-directed learning has become a way of learning for lots of adults at this era, especially in the developed world where technology is readily available. Should we still provide education if adult learners are self-directed? The answers to this question would be dependent on the context and the type of adult learners that we are dealing with. As illustrated in the above case study of MOOC (Kop & Fournier, 2011), adult learners would need additional critical literacies when learning through the web and internet. Adult learners who are highly motivated and confident in the use of new and emergent technology would more likely become independent, autonomous and self-directed learners.