Tuesday, May 2

The evolving culture of informal learning

I'm currently preparing a project for European funding aiming at the development of communities of practice as a structured way of fostering and deepening transfer and sharing of skills, knowledge and competency. Thanks to Jay Cross and others, we know that informal learning is ultimately much more productive of lasting effects than traditional formal learning, whether it be face to face, distance tutoring or the self-access variety of e-learning. (Should simulation be dealt with as a separate category? Clark and others will no doubt have an opinion, but that isn't really what concerns me today).

Communities of practice are part of the response to the need to encourage informal learning and perpetuate its results. But even before any formal organization of this type is undertaken, it occurs to me that the actual amount of informal learning has increased significantly over the past few years, though in a completely unstructured and anarchic way, thanks to the culture of the Web: discussion groups, blogs, etc. as well as the recently acquired habit for many people of googling.

Which leads me to pose a question to everyone involved in these things: are there any studies or reports indicating a recent increase in informal learning attributable to the culture of the Web? It's clear to me that the kinds of newly acquired habits we can see all around us in the use of the Internet must necessarily increase the opportunities for informal learning, but has their been any kind of identifiable trend or measurable effect that can be accounted for?

All contributions to this debate are welcome (and will help me build my arguments for our project, for which I thank you in advance).

8 comments:

Clark Aldrich said...

The statement, "Thanks to Jay Cross and others, we know that informal learning is ultimately much more productive of lasting effects than traditional formal learning," would seem to indicate a body of research.

Why isn't that sufficient for your presentation? For what else are you looking?

Peter Isackson said...

Clark,
I'm looking for something more general in the ambient culture about the ways informal learning is accomplished and how recent shifts in technology and the use of technology influence that. Informal learning is traditionally coffee break banter, awareness growing out of sometimes random workplace experimentation (and mistakes), the influence of different colleagues "level of discourse", etc. But that has always been true and was never dependent on technology.

My question is how has the way people use technology (the culture of keyboards, mice, PCs, the web, video games etc.) changed the way in which and the degree to which informal learning takes place. Is there more of it than before? Less? Is it more focused or more confused?

All these things have bearing on future policies concerning communities of practice.

Bryan Zug said...

>>
are there any studies or reports indicating a recent increase in informal learning attributable to the culture of the Web?
>>

I am very interested to know about formal research into this topic as well. Everything I have read on the increasing use (and traditional effectiveness) of water-cooler training has been anecdotal.

One recent quantifiable trend in the tech training community in this area is the recent rise in number of the unconferences over the last two years (FooCamp, BarCamp, Mind Camp, MashUpCamp. etc) – conferences with no agenda other than informal sharing of ideas and learning – gatherings of tech professionals where sessions are wiki’d in a public space in the first hours of the conference.

Seems like it would not be too hard to research the number of these gatherings over the last 2 years vs. other comparable times.

I’ve participated both of the Mind Camp gatherings like this in Seattle (one this last weekend) and the resultant energy being devoted to these things is definitely a significant trend.

jay said...

This is a tough one, Peter. Intuition tells me more is going on but I know of no statistics. We won't have comparative data. Communities of practice and other informal learning have flown under the radar for so long few people measure them. I'll check around to see what I can find.

Stormy said...

While I acknowledge that informal learning and self-directed learning are not necessarily the same, there is one element of similarity that you might want to explore and that is the motivation issue. Most people really need to be motivated by a topic to want to learn about it -- whether it be through a SDL project or an informal "googling" of information. Yes, I would suspect that the "size" of the learning need (or project) will effect the motivation. The larger the project, the larger the motivation required. I think of informal learning as being small bits of information needed, not necessarily a lot of depth and/or breadth.

It's becoming a bit dated, but for info on SDL, I recommend Brockett, R. G., & Hiemstra, R. (1991). Self-direction in adult learning: perspectives on theory, research and practice (http://home.twcny.rr.com/hiemstra/sdlindex.html)

Stormy said...

... I should add that I've seen this motivation (or lack thereof) issue in the Communities of Practice that I am involved in at work.

Damon Regan said...

Peter,

Your response to Clark, "I'm looking for something more general in the ambient culture about the ways informal learning is accomplished and how recent shifts in technology and the use of technology influence that," reminded me of a note I made in January when I was sick.

I was sick for a few days and decided to learn more about Biology. I wasn't all that interested while in school, but I wanted to understand viruses and their effect on my body.

I watched video lectures on Biology courtesy of MIT's OpenCourseWare. I kept an Internet window open alongside the Real Player window of the video lecture to lookup terms or images using Wikipedia, Google, Google Images, etc. I also kept an Instant Messaging window open to chat with my Dad who helped answer questions and keep the interest going.

Afterwards, as I thought about genes, proteins, amino acids, and viruses, I realized that the capability to learn in this way probably did not exist five years ago.

Peter Isackson said...

Damon,
You've put your finger on the kind of thing I suspect is becoming more and more typical. Our reflexes about knowledge are changing without any of us being totally aware of it. It isn't just googling for a bit of information, but -- in cases like your own -- actually getting into a subject. To tie in with Stormy's remarks, the motivation comes from the context (your illness), but the availability of resources and possession of the culture required for using them are critical conditions for success.

How did you and others acquire this skill of inquiry, which had to be drummed into us in school (and was therefore perfunctorily executed without necessarily being learned)? I expect your answer will be... informally!