Recognized Self-Directed Learning Kristina Opashinov, Ankita Arora, Andrew Dunlop, Diane Gibson, and Joel Marcelo


Can self-directed learning be recognized formally (post-secondary degree), accepted, and achieved in the same/similar manner as “formal”/ (a)synchronous (old-school/traditional) education?


With the introduction and ease of access to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course), online learning communities, TED Talks, online journals (in both print and media formats), etc., individuals find themselves constantly staying on top of current news, educational materials, knowledge updates etc. This begs the question, can formalized education, in the form a post-secondary degree, be achieved through the consistent and ongoing use of these many formats available. If so, can they easily be recognized; both in the form of a formalized degree parchment, and/ or as a prerequisite for formal employment? Or is it not possible to achieve the well-rounded education and experience that comes with this through self-directed learning?

Varibles to consider

LEARNING Approaches

Traditional Learning Approach

Traditional learning is a broad term that describes how many people remember their learning experiences whether from K-12 education or post-secondary education. Traditional Learning evokes memories of sitting in class in orderly rows listening to the teacher speak or watching them write on the blackboard.

Generally, in a traditional learning environment, the teacher lectures and directs the work, most of the work is performed as a group, students are given the knowledge, expected to complete tasks by the teachers, the students may not relate with the information and have little motivation to learn or participate.

Traditional education is teacher centered, does not usually take into account the individual needs of the students and is primarily focused on memorization and learning by repetition. This system has stood the test of time due to objective testing methods which tests all students the same way. Recently, this system has come into question as there are noted alternatives that show promise for better learning outcomes. Most accredited courses are traditional learning opportunities.

Modern Learning Approach

The Modern Learning approach reflects the globalization of our cultures and our learning capabilities. What truly impacts the shift to modern learning was the introduction of technology and the massive demographic shifts. With accelerating technological changes and socio-economic shifts the educational system needed to re-evaluate and make modifications to its structure.

The re-evaluation has to include a review its curricula formatting and how it is organized. In traditional learning the curricula was designed for a specific learning group and not based on globalization.

Modern Learning Approach

The educational systems needs to become accessible centres for life long learning to all students no matter their socio-economic position. The modern curricula needs to include: accessibility, building life skills and most importantly to be able to instill the love of learning.

Life long learning is a necessity in today's society and our futures may depend on it. Without lifelong learning we could risk: having weaker economies, fragmented societies, and unhappy people (GalingEDUC, 2012).

Modern learning does not negate some of the benefits of traditional learning. Modern learning only seeks to enhance the learning environment by making it more accessible to everyone and to provide a sustainable broader educational base. Part of the enhancement of modern learning is to include: Inquiry, self-directed and social learning.

Types of Learning

The different types of learning are: Formal, Non-formal, Informal, Inquiry/Problem, Social and Self-directed learning

Formal learning falls mostly under the umbrella of traditional learning because the educational component will often be teacher-centred and will have formal accreditation. Formal education is provided by academically specifically trained teachers who transfers their knowledge in a formal environment. However, informal, non-formal, social and self-directed learning can be found within a formal learning environment. The learning process is dependent on the student.

In the modern learning approach it indicates that traditional learning has value be continuing to include formal classroom based learning because it provides the students opportunities to learn social skills.

To continue with Social Learning we look at Bandura's Social Learning Theory. This theory focuses that people learn from one another, via observation, imitation, and modeling. The theory has often been called a bridge between behaviorist and cognitive learning theories because it encompasses attention, memory and motivation (Bandura, 1977).

Non-Formal learning is often confused with informal learning. The line between the two can often get blurred, however, there are some subtle differences. Non-formal is usually an organized learning event, could have a formal curriculum and may be led by a qualified teacher. Usually, it does not result in a formal accreditation, however, it builds on the individuals skill set. While informal learning has no formal curriculum, no credits are earned and can be led by anyone that knows the subject matter. E.G. a parent teaching the ABC's to their children.

Problem (or Inquiry) based learning is based on real life experiences and requires the learner to solve the complex problems that they have encountered. Problem-based learning is one of the modern learning types that have been created to help students process issues within a real life situation.

Self-Directed learning

“In its broadest meaning, ’self-directed learning’ describes a process by which individuals take the initiative, with our without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identify human and material resources for learning, choosing and implement appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes. (M. Knowles, Principles of Androgogy, 1972)"

Self-directed Learning can come in various forms for adult education. As Bengry (2014) states, this can include looking up how-to’s on YouTube videos; taking courses simply with the encouragement of motivation, through MOOCs or professional development opportunities offered through a person’s workplace, membership organizations, or sites such as Hyper Island, Coursera or Khan Academy; reading articles in personal areas of interest, or about topics relevant to one’s Community of Practice, through the sharing of apps such as Pocket, or other media tools such as podcasts or Ted Talks. This manner of ad-hoc training allows the user of the tools: the learner, to create a specialization that sometimes cannot be formally taught, and does not come in the way of a formalized curriculum, but a self-created lesson plan.

This occurs when an individual is fully engaged in the learning process, a commitment oft seen in life-long learners. A learner then understands the importance of going after a set goal, similar to a student in formalized education, hoping for the end result of a degree, represented not just as a piece of parchment, but by means of collective knowledge and experience gained through years of active readiness, participation, and evaluation of the process (“Self-Directed Learning: A Four-Step Process,” 2015). Based around socio-constructivist models, this style of learning is taking flight, especially through the increase in e-learning, and being more relevant in fields where Problem Based Learning has found to be effective. Often, self-directed learning can we witnessed through an individual passively learning-by-doing.

Formal Accreditation


What is a Degree?

As self-directed learning continues to grow in the extent of offered subject matter, availability and popularity, it poses the question as to whether self-directed, online learning will ever be accepted as equivalent to a degree obtained in the traditional manner. Traditionally a student will attend a brick and mortar institute, recognized by a ministry or department of the government, sitting in a lecture with a few hundred people, handing in papers and cramming for exams. After a few years of this you will walk out with a degree and be ready to start your life post-school.

What is a degree though? How does this differ from a diploma or certificate? This needs to be defined to show how self-directed learning might be considered equivalent.

Degrees, diplomas and certificates are actually all very similar at their core. They are courses regarding a specific subject matter that are designed to help you learn about said subject and surrounding concepts. What separates a degree from a diploma or certificate is the inclusion of general education courses to support a richer educational experience. These general education courses are most usually a mix of math, science, philosophy and history. (, 2017) The degrees themselves can come in many different forms from associates to bachelors to masters to doctorate and post-doctorate degrees.

What makes a degree recognizable?

The recognition of a degree is where this gets more convoluted. Recognition can occur at many different levels. The school that offers the degree will certainly recognize but that doesn’t mean it will be recognized by another school, employer or licensing board in a different province/state or country. As noted by the United States Department of Education, there is no single authority in the United States for rating or recognition of foreign credentials. This leaves it in the hands of the people who are hiring for the most part. Degrees in the European Union however are recognized throughout countries who are members of the European Free Trade Association, this provides a more universal system where people have the freedom to take their education anywhere. This shows the possible benefit of a global education recognition agency where schools and self-directed learning providers can apply to have their content reviewed and degrees certified throughout the world, though this would be a massive undertaking.

Domestically it is easier, in most countries a degree is recognized throughout the country as long as it was obtained from a school that has the backing of a government agency except in cases where there are licensing boards. Nurses, for example, may have to write testing to work in another province and definitely another country. These licensing boards will recognize degrees and professional designation but may require them to prove that through testing.

Motivation + Commitment

Students practicing self-directed learning approaches could have several motivators. The high cost of formalized traditional education in most nations is one of the largest. Other motivators include development of personal and professional skills for employment elevation or advancement; gaining new tools such as languages; strengthening previous skills such as the knowledge of a previously learned subject; and the sense of achievement that comes from these challenges (Yuan and Powell, 2013). Various studies have found, that the learners, “were curious or wanted to fill a specific information need, though a significant number of them wanted to learn something that could help society. As humanists like Carl Rogers, and many scholars from the self-directed learning movement would have predicted, a key aspect of using open educational contents is personal freedom to learn as well as choice, control, and fun (Bonk, Lee, Kou, Xu & Sheu, 2014).”


Value of MOOC’s

There was a debate of whether or not that MOOCs could replace the value of a classroom with a skilled and knowledgeable teacher. The use of MOOC’s do help traditional teachers as they can research how a student is doing through the online statistical information. This is something they cannot do with traditional classroom teachings. MOOC’s also help with teachers improve how they teach and reach learners with appropriate information.

MOOCs are still a credit/hour type course and follow the traditional post-secondary standards. There is still a requirement to enrol into the course and follow the schedule. MOOCS’ have very high dropout rates between 90-96% (Pope, 2014). MIT physicist David Pritchard indicates that this is a misguided percentage as the people who sign up for these courses are not serious students. They are students who are trying out the courses to see if they have any value to them.

With the rise of smartphones, tablets, and any other portable device that has access to the internet, the way people learn has changed forever. Where once learning happened at a desk while listening to a teacher; now, learning can happen anywhere, anytime. If someone wishes to learn something, they no longer have to check out a large encyclopedia from a library, knowledge is at the tips of their fingers. With instant access to so much information it is no surprise that “the largest amount (52 percent) of learning occurs at the point of need, or when the learner requires missing information” (Penfold, 2016). This self-directed learning may serve formal and informal purposes. Self-directed learning is attractive to a variety of different learners with one thing in common: readiness to learn. Self-directed learning is more than making a random online course selection or haphazardly pulling up a YouTube video; it is taking initiative to complete tasks and taking ownership of one’s learning. It takes a special kind of learner to achieve success at self-directed curriculum.

While self-directed learning has been around for many years and the benefits are widely known, the reasons why are finally being explored. Obviously, motivation plays a large role in why self-directed learning is beneficial to the learner, but what happens at a cognitive level? According to the Association for Psychological Science “self-directed learning helps us optimize our educational experience, allowing us to focus effort on useful information that we don't already possess and exposing us to information that we don't have access to through passive observation. The active nature of self-directed learning also helps us in encoding information and retaining it over time.” The sense of control an individual may feel from self-directed learning can give them a boost in self-confidence and they may learn to become more extrinsically motivated. When an individual feels like they are in charge of their learning, there may be the tendency to invest more effort, which leads may lead to increased knowledge retention.


Self-assessments are part of the self-directed learning process. Assessment in self-directed learning are used to self-manage, self-monitor, and self-modify their learning. (Costa & Kallick, 2004) Motivation for learners are intrinsic where self-assessments and continual feedback are of a greater value than grades. Free open course-ware and MOOCs are examples where learners are not motivated by the grade they receive but are motivated by learning and the process of obtaining that knowledge. Organizations value candidates that have attributes associated with self-directed learning, as potential employees are able to work in collaboration with others and are able to give and receive feedback in a constructive way. For assuring the validity of self-assessments, educators must adopt a problem based learning approach and incorporate these self-assessment as part of the learning process. ”Students need the opportunity to look back at their work… Teachers provide opportunities. Given those opportunities, students continuously assess themselves and build the strength and humility of continuous learning.” (Costa & Kallick, 2004, p.31)


Solution Overview

There is no solution at this point but in order for self-directed learning to be easily recognized as a formal degree/diploma, there needs to be a shift in education standards and accreditation. Another area that would benefit in a shift of ideologies would be in the hiring process and human resources; employers helping employees in career management and promoting the use of self-directed learning.

For self-directed learning to be more formally recognized the individual would also need to be able to track their learning and produce evidence that the learning has been completed.

One of the advantages of self-directed learning is that a person can become specialized and enhance their work performance. Human resources departments would need to determine values that can be assigned to the individuals so that self-directed learning is recognized and honoured. Another possibility is to include monetary incentives once the self-directed learning is achieved. But this is still dependant on human resources having the capability to recognize self-directed learning.

Possible Solution PathWays

Pathway 1: Formalize self-directed learning (SDL) with evaluation methods.

Pathway 2: Introduce SDL into the classroom curricula.

Pathway 3: Introduce Problem Base Learning (PBL) into formal educational programs.

Pathway 4: Human Resources develop strategies to approve SDL during the hiring process and employee career progression.

Pathway 5: Educate students on the benefits of life long learning.


After reviewing our combined research, we found that we were all in fact self-directed learners, and in fact practiced life-long learning. We hope our two media pieces reflect our experiences with this. Ultimately, we found that although self-directed learning isn’t formally recognized in our own backyards, we can still set a goal and achieve it as close to formal learning with the vast amount of resources available in this digital age, as long as motivation and self-assessment are in place. The trick we found is to utilize only recognized and trusted resources, as sources for our self-directed learning, and through this, one can ultimately amass an e-portfolio of knowledge that doesn’t follow a formalized curriculum, yet lends light to the task or topic(s) at hand.



At this time, formalized education, in the form of a post-secondary degree, cannot be achieved through the available resources and academic standards. Therefore, they are not easily recognized in the form of a formalized degree (parchment). As a prerequisite for employment, these courses may be easily recognized, but it may depend on the field of employment. It is possible to achieve the well-rounded education portion of a course through self-directed learning, but it may not always be possible to obtain the necessary experience that a formal degree/diploma would provide. Although self-directed learning is not widely accepted as a ‘formal’ degree within the majority of the workforce, we believe that the future will bring positive changes for self-directed learning, and that self-directed learning will become more recognized and accepted for career growth.


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