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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Real Challenge around Informal Learning

The Real Challenge around Informal Learning

Over the last few days I’ve had a blog conversation with Stephen Downes around what is informal learning:

This led me through a trail of posts Definitions of informal learning; Formal or informal - does it matter - its all learning; and
non-formal learning: mapping the conceptual terrain. a consultation report.

The last paper talks about a myriad of ways that informal learning has been defined and it's led me to conclude that I should give up on finding any definition of informal learning. Instead, I've taken away something very important:
Informal learning is like pornography

I’ll know it when I see it.

However, I do want to revisit why I care in the first place and two struggles that I still have.

First, there's a struggle with the nature of trying to support informal learning. In a recent post about this same topic, Harold Jarche talks about “the bias against informal learning” in the corporate world.

I can understand Harold's concern, but I also see a bias the opposite direciton. I’m struggling to understand what’s inside the box of informal learning and how we can better support it (with technology). The bias I see is that the moment you try to provide guidance or support, then it feels like you are going against the spirit of being informal. Julliette White tells us – “The degree of informality of learning is the degree to which you haven’t been told what to do.”

But let’s take the job aid as an example. Prior to the creation of the job aid, the way people learned how to do the job was having someone else show them. The job ended up being done a bunch of different ways, many that were less efficient. We create a job aid that takes the previously very much informal learning and now has certainly made it more formal by telling people how to do that job. We will likely have some level of push to get adoption anywhere from to pointing people to the availability of the job aid to mandating its use. We’ve certainly made it less informal. And if we did mandate the use of the job aid, we’ve gone to the dark-side that is formal (gasp).

So, my first struggle is how I can simultaneously support informal learning (making it slightly more formal) without losing valuable properties of informal learning? Is there a contradiction here? Are there safe and unsafe ways to do this?

The second struggle and what I see as the real challenge around informal learning is that I believe there’s incredible potential here to provide support, structure, environment in ways that derive tremendous value. Jay cross points out we spend 90% of our learning budget on the 20% of learning that is formal. The other 80% (informal) gets much less attention.

My day-to-day job as a person who ultimately creates technology solutions that support human performance is to:

  • Understand the performance objectives
  • Understand the human performance that can achieve these objectives
  • Where appropriate create technology support for that human performance

I believe that inside the other 80% there are some places and people that do a really good job, lots of interesting practices, great stuff, but it’s scattered. And there’s lots of inefficiency and ineffectiveness. One of the reasons that I’m so passionate about eLearning 2.0 and topics like Personal and Group Learning Using Web 2.0 Tools, is that we are just now beginning to understand some of these areas and how technology can support them.

As I pointed out in Past Year, Present Challenges, PredictionsI see one of my biggest personal challenges is to start to understand what’s inside the box that people refer to as informal learning and figure out where and how technology can be an effective support.

Any thoughts or ideas on where to find a list of 500 kinds of informal learning would be much appreciated? That's probably a better use of time than trying to understand definitions.

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