Anytime + Anywhere = Never: Motivating the Self-Directed Learner

Betha Gutsche /

We all aspire to be lifelong learners, especially in service of our library patrons. And we have all hit the snag of "anytime + anywhere = never"―the reality that unlimited access, unbounded time and lack of external motivators in self-directed learning often means that our learning never gets off the ground.

The underlying assumption is that self-directed, continual learning is essential for all library staff in the modern workplace. Libraries need to be nimbly responsive to emerging technologies and changing needs of their communities. Libraries are only as nimble as their staff, who must acquire new skills and knowledge continually. Traditional training still has value but needs to be supplemented by an individual's pursuit of the specific learning s/he needs. Learning is intensely personal.

Acknowledging the need for continual learning is a start. However, roadblocks arise readily on the learning path. At a presentation at ALA 2016 Annual Conference Orlando, sponsored by the Learning Round Table, Elizabeth Iaukea (Washington State Library) and I elicited a substantial list of barriers to self-direction from the 90 attendees at the session. (View a PDF of the presentation slides here.)

We also collected and shared Self-Directed Learning Resources for understanding motivation, with case studies that demonstrate how individual motivation is stronger when people learn together and leverage connected exploration.

There is no motivation prescription to overcome all the barriers. If learning is intensely personal, so is motivation. Each person needs to recognize his/her own particular hurdles and then devise strategies to leap over them. In breakout groups, participants at the ALA session discussed and discovered motivation strategies to address the list of barriers. One group felt the need to assert that self-directed learning is not "selfish," that following one’s individual learning path is not somehow detracting from the organization’s mission or goals. In fact, it is adding to it. A clearly defined learning plan may help individuals demonstrate how their self-directed learning connects to the greater institutional good.

In solo reflection, they each created a "motivation card" to put up in their workplace to provide a visual reminder of their personal motivators. Here is just a handful of factors that participants feel motivated by:

  • Pursuing knowledge for its own sake and learning new concepts
  • Curiosity
  • Synthesizing ideas with prior learning; fitting pieces into the big picture
  • Getting new supplies, like a fresh notebook, at the start of a learning path
  • Having the incentive of job improvement or increasing one's skills
  • Being able to offer a new service to patrons
  • Sharing learning with others, including sharing the joy of learning
  • Learning together with peers; self-directed doesn't mean you have to learn in a vacuum
  • Learning something in order to be able to teach others
  • Deadlines; achievable micro-deadlines even more motivating
  • Celebrating successes—small ones along the way, big ones on completion
  • Money
  • Fun
  • The stimulation of learning that questions beliefs or previously held notions

Individual motivators also evolve over time—what motivates a person this month may not work next month. Participants were encouraged to revisit and refresh their motivation cards periodically to keep on that vital, active path of learning.