A Model to Support Self-Directed Learning Online

More and more, organizations are looking for online alternatives to training courses for staff. Online courses exist in a variety of professions. Online conferences and webinar series are widely available.

The Good and the Bad of Self-Directed Learning Online

There are well-known advantages to self-directed online learning. These include:

  • reduced travel cost and time
  • can be taken most any time and any place with an Internet-connected device
  • cost effective! Courses are often reasonably priced relative to real-time training
  • learners can work at their own pace, and repeat content as needed
  • learners have the freedom to explore and to fail without a roomful of peers and an instructor watching

These advantages are compelling and can lead organizations to readily adopt self-directed online learning for staff. But there are downsides worth considering. The big ones include:

  • lack of motivation to complete courses, or, trouble managing time without start-and-end-date structure
  • learners feel isolated and miss the opportunity to share ideas, get clarification, or have questions answered
  • learners are vulnerable at the point of application. It can be a challenge to transfer learning to the real-world work environment

Moore’s Three Interactions

When I think about learning and addressing disadvantages like these, I like to apply Moore’s Three Types of Interaction. Moore’s three interactions are 1) learner with content, 2) learner with instructor or expert, and 3) learner with learner. This is a simple framework that can be applied whenever we want to maximize learning.

Moore's Three Interactions“Learner with content” interaction is what we typically think about when we consider education—reading a text, listening to a lecture. This is the common interaction in a self-directed online course.

“Learner with expert” interactions go beyond the “dump of information” typically associated with a lecture or the standard click-and-read online course. Learners interact with the expert (aka teacher, facilitator) to clarify concepts. The teacher is able to provide alternative explanations based on levels of understanding. They also provide essential guidance with applying what’s learned to the real world.

“Learner with learner” interactions are important for learners to test and synthesize their ideas among peers. Learner-learner interactions are central to many learning theories and pedagogies (for example, social constructivism, communities of practice, problem-based learning, team-based learning, and authentic learning). As with learner-expert interactions, learner-learner interactions are often lacking in self-directed online courses.

Finding A Way to Blend All Three

How can we help to blend in all types of interaction when we’re looking to online learning to support our staff?

When I was working at the Colorado State Library, we developed a straightforward model for implementing this kind of learning, which blends all interactions. The model includes considerations and actions for both learners and their managers.

Model to Support Online Learning

The model starts with questions to ask during a Planning stage, where the learner and manager closely consider the needs of the organization and the learner, and look in advance at how the learning will be applied. The model goes on with suggestions for making a Commitment to learning, through scheduling, clarifying expectations, and defining what success looks like.

Spending time in these early phases works to ensure the learning is relevant to the learner and to the organization, is being taken at the appropriate time, and is supported with time and scheduling. These phases begin to provide structure and support for the learner-content interaction even before the coursework begins.

The model then offers further structure to support the learner while consuming the course Content. The bulk of the learner-content interaction takes place here. Learner-expert interactions also begin, with the manager mentoring on course content and assessing the learning.

Both learner-expert and learner-learner interactions are addressed in the last phases of Application and Sharing. Here the learner is coached in applying the material to the workplace by the manager. The learner goes on to relate with peers by sharing the course content and its application, in staff meetings, in brown bags, through tip sheets, and more.

This model can be implemented or repurposed in your own environment to provide much needed structure to self-directed online learning. It creates an opportunity for the necessary interactions to take place that ensure deeper learning and successful application to the workplace.

There are certainly other ways to provide a blend of interaction to support self-directed online learning for staff. How are you supporting your staff with learning online? Are you allowing for learner-expert and learner-learner interactions? Please share your ideas, approaches, successes and failures in the comments.

Adapted from a post created for the American Library Association Learning Roundtable blog, which is no longer online.