Tuesday, May 2

What is informal learning, anyway?

First, more importantly, if anyone has a comment on research regarding the effectiveness of informal learning, please attach it to Peter Isackson's comment below.

For me, the question is still, what is informal learning? For the sake of effectiveness and clarity, let's have those two conversations in parallel.

For a bit of context, and also to keep this from getting personal, I would also like to quote what I wrote in "Learning By Doing," about early, pre-hype stages of any new technology, or re-launches of "re-discovered" approaches (just to make sure we steer clear of these traps):

Theory:Wouldn’t It Be Great?
New ideas first tend to bubble up in academic papers, magazine columns, blogs, or conference panels. Those who introduce the emergent idea are very detailed in critique of the last generation, very vague in their descriptions of what the actual solution would look like, and very enthusiastic about the promises of what the technology will accomplish.
A lot of history analogies are brought in (we all get to learn about Dutch shipping patterns or the advent of the abacus), as well as out-of context quotes. There is often some graph of how large something is (dot-com companies loved showing how fast Internet access was growing as a justification for their own business model), no matter how indirectly related. The technology, if there is any, tends to be described in a pure environment, one without legacy systems.
As far as the theory goes, it sounds good. And almost all who hear this new theory nod and think, “This makes a lot of sense. This could be big.” But there are no examples of it working the way it is described. At best there are precursors that are “sort of” similar. Or a wild success in a different industry is held up as a model.

So, with that "dead elephant" out of the way, what is informal learning, anyway? I grant you that 95% (or some other, huge, made-up number) of learning happens outside of formal learning. The "largeness" of that number (like the dot-coms referring to the largeness of the Internet) does not a case make, as plenty of knowledge management vendors can attest.

And much more specifically, unless you work at Google or an IM vendor, what is your "value add" to it?


Tony Karrer said...

I faced a similar struggle with this question and can't claim to have a single answer.

It's important to separate out different kinds of informal learning, especially intentional vs. unexpected and top-down vs. bottom-up. Take a look at:

eLearning 2.0: Informal Learning, Communities, Bottom-up vs. Top-Down


eLearning Technology: Informal Learning is Too Important to Leave to Chance

I personally believe that most of us are in the business of Intentional Learning leading to performance and business outcomes. Further most of us are really looking for top-down kinds of solutions because we feel more comfortable with the level of control.

Thus, when I talk about informal learning, I'm generally thinking about directed approaches such as using collaborative learning activities as part of an overall intervention. Or exploratory activities with particular outcomes in mind.

I think you'll find that other people have a much different idea and a stronger belief that bottom-up approaches will yield the same or better results.

jay said...

At eLearning Guild in Boston, several people asked me what informal learning was. I answered that it's how any teenager came to know more about your PC than you know. It's how you learned to talk. It's probably the main way you learned your job. It's how you learned most of what you know.

One workable definition of informal learning is that it is learning that is generally unscheduled, lacks a curriculum, and is formally evaluated. Think: college class.

Formal and informal learning are ranges on a spectrum of learning overall. Sometimes there's overlap. The definitions are not clear-cut.

My primary interest is intentional informal learning. The intention may be looser than with a formal program but that doesn't mean it's not there. If I am trying to solve a network problem, I'm not going to watch Law & Order re-runs in hopes that McCoy will give me the answer; more likely, I'll ask people I reckon might know the answer. Intentionally.

Clark, at first I thought your entry here was a provocative troll. Nothing like watching a couple of hot-shots duel in public. You're aware that I'm writing a book on informal learning; I maintain a site on informal learning; I've given presentations on informal learning; I'm leading workshops of informal learning. But then I thought, why did Clark ask us to respond to Peter's post? I just read that thirty seconds ago. I'll get there later.

A few examples I trot out in support of informal learning are:

National Semi going from near-bankruptcy to record results by expressing and cascading its strategy graphically, using discussion in lieu of formal learning. Value? >$100 million.

Cisco product knowledge flows from indexed recordings of community of practice sessions that are available worldwide in a matter of seconds. They put the value above $100 million.

Just about every service-intensive business is looking for ways to hand more of the doing to the customer: ATMs, e-commerce orders, pump your own gas, etc. Why wouldn't we expect self-service learning to be similarly cost-effective?

I could go on, but then no one would be motivated to buy my book. :-)

As to the hype cycle and dead elephants, let's not forget that some of those early-stage seedlings do grow into fullscale redwoods. Remember when you put blogs in the hype category? What's more, informal learning isn't new; it's a return to the natural way things were before we let schools and training classes crap things up. (Just giving you ammunition to shoot back, Clark.)

Perhaps we should have a live debate on this. You game?


Clark Aldrich said...

Hi Jay,

I would love to publically chew on this - my goal would be to increase usage of informal learning strategies by making it more real.

Unknown said...

Look here for a point of view and definition of infomral learning:


It also opens up into a greate database of educational resources, the best I have seen on adult learning