and Distance Education
D. Randy Garrison
University of Calgary
Self-directed learning (SDL) is an intuitively appealing concept. Perhaps because of this, the concept has attracted interest from fields of practice such as education, nursing, medical education, and business. Its adoption and impact, however, has generally been limited by its less-than-coherent and comprehensive conceptual development. Much of the confusion can be attributed to the fact that it emerged largely from an informal context where learner freedom was a sine qua non (Rogers, 1969; Tough, 1971). When applied to formal educational contexts, it was often seen as a means to shift from a teacher-centered to a learner-centered approach to education. Notwithstanding the need for such a shift, it became as much a slogan as a defensible approach to teaching and learning. One explanation for the marginal status of SDL in distance education is the lack of conceptual development.
The position of this chapter is that we require a conceptual understanding of SDL that might practically shape the design and delivery of education in a variety of settings as well as guide further research into the concept. Despite the apparent compatibility of distance education and the concept of SDL, there has been little theoretical development since the seminal work in the early 1980s linking SDL with distance education. Perhaps the ultimate question is whether SDL is worthy of consideration as a means of understanding or facilitating distance education. In fact, the goal here is to explore this question. To this end, the chapter updates our understanding of SDL, identifies the core themes and issues surrounding the concept, and explores implications for the study and practice of distance education.
As with many concepts in education, the genesis of SDL may well be attributed to John Dewey, with his focus on the experience of the learner. However, in the latter half of this century, the concept more directly emerged from the humanist philosophy of Carl Rogers and was