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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

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

As you can see from earlier posts, my approach to eLearning 2.0 is more from an evolutionary, pragmatic side of how does it help me with my eLearning solutions today. However, as you review some of the best thinks on eLearning (and really learning) Trends, one of the things that they quickly point to as a big part of the eLearning 2.0 trend is the ability to leverage the community as part of the larger eLearning picture.

Informal Learning and Loss of Control

Jay Cross' presentation How to Leverage Informal Learning there's very interesting slides that shows the net effect of formal learning. With his calculation, formal learning impacts less than 1% of behavior change.

Now, whether you agree or not with his final number, I think its safe to say that we all agree that blending in other kinds of support including follow-up, job aids, involving managers and peers, and other elements that we would put in Blended Learning yields better results.

Jay Cross' article Informal Learning: A Sound Investment in CLO Magazine I think begins to show more specifics of what he means when he talks about informal learning.
Support the informal learning process:
  • Provide time for informal learning on the job.
  • Create useful, peer-rated FAQs and knowledge bases.
  • Provide places for workers to congregate and learn.
  • Supplement self-directed learning with mentors and experts.
  • Set up help desks 24x7 for informal inquiries.
  • Build networks, blogs, Wikis and knowledge bases to facilitate
  • Use smart tech to make it easier to collaborate and network.
  • Encourage cross-functional gatherings.

Marcia Conner's introduction to Informal Learning. She points to a balance between formal & informal but also adds the dimension of intentional and unexpected.

I really see a lot of what is discussed around Informal Learning on the "Intentional" side as being fairly well in line with many of the things we are trying to do in our Blended Learning solutions today. But what's very interesting about the graphic is that once you get into the realm of Unexpected, it becomes much less comfortable.

Now, once we start to look at what is being discussed around eLearning 2.0, it becomes even more uncomfortable. In Stephen Downes' article "eLearning 2.0" in eLearn Magazine:

the Web was shifting from being a medium, in which information was transmitted and consumed, into being a platform, in which content was created, shared, remixed, repurposed, and passed along.

He's talking about the fact that now everyone can create content. I agree that this has a big impact on how we should be thinking about creating our eLearning / Blended Learning solutions. Also in Stephen Downes' article "eLearning 2.0" in eLearn Magazine.

What happens when online learning ceases to be like a medium, and becomes more like a platform? What happens when online learning software ceases to be a type of content-consumption tool, where learning is "delivered," and becomes more like a content-authoring tool, where learning is created? The model of e-learning as being a type of content, produced by publishers, organized and structured into courses, and consumed by students, is turned on its head.

Insofar as there is content, it is used rather than read and is, in any case, more likely to be produced by students than courseware authors. And insofar as there is structure, it is more likely to resemble a language or a conversation rather than a book or a manual.

Whoa, hang on Stephen. This is where it starts to get really different and uncomfortable for many practitioners. In particular, once you begin to head down this path (and Stephen is far from alone), we've lost control of the process.

We naturally begin to ask questions like:

  • Even if I'm successful in creating a community or a learner produced content source, how do I know that learners are getting the right information and that its support the performance that we want at the end of the day?

  • How can I make sure that I'm able to hit my learning objectives if I don't control the content and the learning process?

There is a natural feeling of a loss of control of the learning experience when we open it up to informal learning, communities, and other techniques where we are not prescribing the learning content.

I think George Siemens also strikes a chord in his article Theories for Informal Learning Design:

Informal learning is too important leave to chance. But why don't we have theories that provide guidelines?

even more amazing was that George was looking at this back in 2004 in his article Learning Development Cycle: Bridging Learning Design and Modern Knowledge Needs.

Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up

In the discussions around informal learning, eLearning 2.0, communities, etc., one of the things that I quickly realized is that I'm a "top-down" or "intentional" kind of person. Unfortunately, both terms are somewhat derogatory terms in certain circles.

What I mean by "Top-Down" and "Intentional" is that I am used to thinking about prescribing a blended learning regime that my learners will be asked to follow that at the end of the day, I'm confident will result in knowledge transfer and performance. This was the case as a professor. This is the case as a designer of eLearning / Blended Learning solutions.

"Bottom-up" and "Unexpected" learning means that you provide tools to your learners to allow them to be more self-directed, peer-supported, community based, etc. You create the environment for learning and foster it, but really you don't control it.

While I don't really dispute the need and value of the Bottom-up (99+% of my personal learning is bottom up), like most people in eLearning, I'm being asked to create Intentional learning. Someone (a client of some kind) wants to support/improve particular performance. And there is an expectation that some element of the solution will address a known knowledge gap. Likely the expectation is that additional follow-up support will be provided. If I tell the client that I'm going to create an environment for learning, that had better be after I've explained my Top-Down/ Intentional learning design.

Okay, Tony, so what?

There are lots of times and places for creating environments for pure Bottom-Up / Informal / Unexpected. Each of us reading this will probably live mostly in this domain for the rest of our lives. There are times and places for pure Top-Down / Formal / Intentional - think compliance training.

The real interesting place right now for me is thinking about the broader context of Blended Learning solutions by taking advantage of techniques/tools such as collaboration, community, learner created content, effective follow-up activities, coaching, etc. Yet, I need this to be done in an Intentional / Top-Down (structured) manner to ensure that I'm first supporting the learning objectives (performance objectives) are being met.

Putting This in Practice

So, what are we talking about here?

Look at what Bill Bruck is doing over at Q2Learning. He has communities tools that are similar to threaded discussions, wikis, groups, etc. On top of that, we has a system for creating "programs" which are a structured series of expected activities by all the participants in the learning. For example, you can set up a program that requires learners to post a review of an article and comment on two other reviews (peer-review). It tracks all the activities (which is something you don't get in most of these applications) and thus allows you to know if people are following your program.

Also look at tools that are being positioned in the "follow-up" camp. There's a review of ActionPlan Mapper that describes the basic idea of having a series of follow-up activities. Certainly, we've used this kind of approach as part of solutions with big effect.

By looking at these tools, I come away thinking that I can at least have the level of control that lets me be prescriptive about a whole series of expected activities that make up my broader blended learning solution.


Eilif said...


Thanks VERY much for alerting me to your blog and work on eLearning2.0 issues. As you know, we are addressing these issues at our next eLearning Forum meeting on Wednesday here at SRI(see I found your writing VERY enlightening and insightful and very much enjoyed reading it. Could not find much to take issue with at all and hope everyone who participates--here at SRI or remotely--will come prepared by having read your blog articles. If so, we should have a very high quality discussion. Bill Bruck of Q2Learning, whom you referred to in your blog--and his colleague (and eLearning Board member), John Darling--will also participate. Hopefully, Jay will also come to the meeting as I know this is a topic dear to his heart (and, of course, especially the informal learning issues that he is addressing in his forthcoming book).

Thanks again very much for sharing all this GREAT stuff, Tony. I have alerted many of my friends to your blog and sure they will find it equally enlightening.



jay said...

Hi, Tony,

Semantics, semantics.

You pair up Top-Down/Intentional and Bottom-Up/Unexpected.

Top-Down/Expected makes sense to me, but the implied Bottom-Up/Unintentional does not.

Serendipity is cool and I always leave room for it, but the learning I write about is always intentional. Otherwise, it's a tough sell.

You ask "Even if I'm successful in creating a community or a learner produced content source, how do I know that learners are getting the right information and that its support the performance that we want at the end of the day?" You do this the same way you assess top-down learning: performance on the job. (I contend that seat-time and exposure prove nothing.)

The question "How can I make sure that I'm able to hit my learning objectives if I don't control the content and the learning process?" assumes that you are ever in control. I think the learner should always be in control.


Tony Karrer said...

Jay - good comment. So, good, that I've posted a new article commenting on it: