Towards a self-managed approach to learning

e.learning age magazine, July/August 2007

Jane Hart helpw organisations encourage a self-managed approach to learning in their people.  Here she talks more about this concept by explaining how she learns.

I am a self-managed learner, and have been for many, many years.

In my work I need to keep constantly up to date with what is happening in the e-learning world.  I therefore spend a lot of my time using sources like websites, blogs, podcasts and wikis, or holding conversations and discussions with other e-learning professionals and users in this country and around the world via email, chat, Skype or within online communities.

I have therefore established a well-defined set of trusted sources that I regularly use.  However, this set of sources is not static; but rather I add to it as I come across new, useful sources of information.   If I need to find something out that is not in my existing sources, I simply use Google. For instance, recently I was in the middle of creating a filterable list in Excel and wanted to remind myself how to do it, so I Googled it.  I then found links to screencasts demonstrating how to do it as well as a Reference sheet with textual instructions.  As it happens I chose the latter, it met my needs for something quick and easy to achieve my immediate goals.

The vast majority of my sources are informal; that’s how I prefer to learn. However, if I did want to learn something that I knew nothing about, then I would probably look around for a more formal solution that would provide me with a comprehensive, logical approach to the topic, and I would work through it at times convenient to me.

In summary then, what I am doing is deciding what I need to learn, how I need to learn it and when I need to learn it.

Over the years I have developed a wide set of skills to enable me to learn effectively.  These include retrieving, scanning, evaluating, organising, analysing, presenting, collaborating and sharing information, as well as listening to, remembering and recording conversations and discussions.

In addition to this set of sources and skills, I also have a well-defined set of tools that I use. Here are just some of the most important ones for me: 

  • a web browser (IE7) with a number of add-ins and extensions that provide it with additional functionality (e.g. the Google toolbar)
  • an RSS aggregator and reader (Bloglines)with a desktop notifier letting me know when new blog and news items have arrived, rather than me having to go and find them
  • a number of communication tools like email, Windows Messenger, Skype and Yuuguu to communicate with my network of friends, colleagues and clients
  • a  document sharing service (Google Docs & Spreadsheets) where I can work on  collaborative documents online
  • a sharable calendar (Google Calendar) to organise meetings with others
  • a blog to share my findings with others (Jane’s E-Learning Pick of the Day)

By bring together these tools to access and manage my informal and formal learning sources, I have built what is beginning to known as a Personal Learning Environment (PLE).  Clearly, though what I am doing with my sources and tools is not just “learning” but also “working”, and hence others talk about this as a Personal Work and Learning Environment (PWLE).

Using a set of digital tools to create a PLE is the way many of my friends and colleagues are learning/working too, and I know from talking with others, that young people, in particular, are making significant use of them in the workplace as these are the very same tools that they make use of in their personal lives.

Learning & Development departments therefore need to recognise that self-managed learning is already happening, and that with the advent of Web 2.0 technologies, the world is moving from one where learning is managed from the top, to one where the individual is in control of what he/she wants to learn and how to learn it.

I am often asked how a self-managed approach to learning can be fostered and encouraged.  There are three main parts to this:

  1. by providing internal, company-specific sources of learning in different formats – both formal and informal – and identifying trusted external sources of learning  – for individuals to select those that best meet their learning preferences and needs
  2. by supporting the development of the skills required to become a self-managed learner in those who are not naturally self-directed learners, and
  3. by helping individuals identify the best tools to build their own PLEs, if they don’t feel competent to do so themselves.

I firmly believe that by supporting a self-managed approach to learning within organisations this will mean that both learning and working can finally merge and be measured in the same way – through job and business performance metrics.