Student Self-Directed, Interest-Driven Digital Learning: An Investigation into the Characteristics and Motivations of Free Agent Learners

For today’s student, learning is not limited to the classroom or the afterschool program, but rather happens across a variety of settings and through a seamless flow of practices from morning to night. The increasingly ubiquitous availability and access of new digital tools and resources such as social media, mobile devices, online communities and games is the fuel that is propelling this new learning paradigm. Yet, for the most part, these self-directed, interest-driven digital learning experiences, which are beyond the sponsorship of teachers or other adults in formalized learning environments are often discounted and devalued as trivial by educators. Emerging research on how and why students pursue self-directed, interest-driven digital learning is stimulating new conversations around the imprecision of traditional terms such as informal and formal learning, and how various technologies can engage students in learning, enable the acquisition of workplace ready skills, and empower the development of student identity and capacity to become independent, self-directed learners. Current research on student learning with technology focuses primarily on how students are using digital tools and resources under the direction of teachers or other adults in both formal and informal settings. However, a nascent set of research is emerging that presents a case for how students are using new media tools to self-direct learning around academic interests and personal curiosities about their world. Using existing literature and self-determination theory as a foundation, the study examines this emerging cohort of free agent learners through a secondary analysis of a large, national data set that includes both quantitative and qualitative results. Extending the work of leading researchers, the free agent learner ecosystem explains how students are self-directing their learning around interest-driven topics, what tools they are using to scaffold these experiences, and the motivations propelling these emerging learning behaviors. The discussion of the motivations results in the emergence of a grounded theory about the centrality of purpose in driving students’ free agent learning behaviors. The findings of this study will help educators and policymakers understand the digital learning lives of today’s students as input to improving school-based learning experiences for all learners.