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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Learning Outcomes

My post on learning goals has some great feedback via comments and a couple of blog posts. The focus of the post is really about the design of informal / social learning experiences and my belief that they need to have context for what I call Directed Learners. Particularly, there still needs to be Learning Outcomes defined. But please don't read Learning Outcomes to mean Learning Objectives. They are distinct and while I'm not claiming to have a great definition here, I think you can get the flavor from this post.

Business Outcomes and Learning Outcomes

This relates to my recent post about Improved Learning or Business Benefits. However, the context of that post is more about defining the overall benefits / positioning. Still in my learning goals post I said:

"Unlike formal learning, informal learning is generally not going to ensure that specific knowledge will be transferred. Instead, people will learn what they need in order to accomplish the ultimate objectives. We aren't sure what they will learn."

and Jay Cross responds:

In a business context, isn't learning enough to accomplish the objective sufficient?

At a more fundamental level, the massive swing from the industrial age to the network era is accompanied by pervasive uncertainty. Twenty years ago, the business world seemed predictable; corporations wrote five-year plans. Today, it's a world of surprises. We're all tied to the unpredictable interplay of complex adaptive systems. It's tough to assemble a viable learning to-do list when you don't know what tomorrow will bring.

Jay, I agree that it is extremely hard to define effective learning experiences in a chaotic world. It's even more challenging when you have to deal with Directed vs. Flow Learning Styles and with motivation and with questionable outcomes. That said, I don't think the answer is really (and I don't think Jay thinks this either) to ignore the challenges of working with Directed Learners. I actually think that informal learning experiences can be greatly improved by ensuring that you are dealing with learning outcomes or business outcomes.

Concrete Learning Outcomes

And to that end, great post by Michele Martin that responds to my learning goals post. She provides some context and then positions it in a question that I think is really great about specific learning experiences:

So the issue becomes, how do you define learning goals for social, informal learning in a way that provides context and makes sense for more concrete directed goal learners?

Michele has concerns that defining a learning outcome or business outcome or set of known learning objectives for the informal / social learning experience is a good start.

In my experience, this may be true of a directed learner like Tony, but he seems to be an exception. The people in my work who are most uncomfortable with informal, social learning are those who are also uncomfortable with something as ill-defined as a "business outcome" for their learning goals. They want very specific, concrete, actionable learning objectives AND they want a step-by-step process for getting there. In fact, I find that these types of learners have no patience for informal learning. To them, it's not learning at all. It's too messy and ill-conceived (in their minds).

Likely most of us can relate to this. Even if everyone in the room at the end of the session feels like they are better able to perform some task, but they all got there a different way, there will be some members of the audience who aren't sure if they saw the right stuff, missed something … it's just that uncomfortable feeling of not being sure if you really got it.

Michele may be right that:

I'm not sure that it's possible to provide enough of a structured goal orientation to informal learning to totally satisfy most directed goal learners.

That's probably true – but I'll guess that people are likely somewhere along the spectrum and while the extreme ends of directed learners may not be happy with an outcome that achieves the purpose but has an uncomfortable path, I believe that you can greatly increase the comfort of directed learners with the right kinds of context setting.

Michele pretty much lands right there:

In designing informal learning activities, we may need to get better at helping directed and flow learning people forge a learning path for themselves to navigate the social learning space. But that's a good thing--because then we're also helping people develop the skills they need to learn from work itself.

Well said!

Social Learning Design Revisited

What's also interesting about this is that Michele, Harold Jarche and I went through the whole design of the Work Literacy Ning learning event and had several discussions about how the nature of the social learning environment might feel uncomfortable to many of the participants. But until now, I didn't really have the words to describe the issue.

Drilling down a bit on this, we did start out by collectively defining some high level goals. For example:

The goals of the event are to:
* Introduce you to new tools and methods for work and learning
* Discuss implications of these tools for learning professionals
*Prepare you to participate in DevLearn in new ways as an attendee or as a spectator.

And then for a particular week such as the one on Social Networking, there would be a list of more specific goals:

different topical areas to explore:
**The Tools--LinkedIn, Facebook and Ning are the primary social networks being used by learning professionals.
** How people use these networks for personal professional development
**How people use social networks to facilitate learning
**Issues and concerns related to privacy, managing multiple networks, and the value of these networks in terms of the time commitments involved.

But we knew that no one could possibly "explore" it all … so we also said:

Also--DO NOT FEEL YOU HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING! (Yes, I just shouted that). We have given you many different ways to dip in and out of these topics and by no means are you expected to do everything. You don't even have to read every forum on social networking or do all the activitities related to any particular topic. We have a few hundred people here and we wanted to give people a variety of ways to explore different aspects of social networking. This module is not linear--it's meant to give you an introduction and some avenues into exploring and discussing the tools. As Harold Jarche has said, "there are no gold stars." This is for your learning, so feel free to pursue it in the ways that work best for you.

Here is where we start to have a bit of a challenge because if I don't have to do everything and there's too much to explore, how do I know when I'm done?

In looking back, a lot of our focus was in describing the process and the systems that we would use to allow discussion. And we focused on topics to explore. I think we could have spent a bit more time defining some specific learning outcomes or at least have made some parts have higher importance. For example, if the point of the experience is to help learning professionals understand implications of these tools for themselves, then we might make an assignment to: examine how these tools fit into your personal work and learning environment. Or the assignment could be to write a list of five suggestions that they can present to their manager or someone in the business. Or ???

Basically, I would work with Michele and Harold to define a business / learning outcome that is close to what you would really want to achieve for the business.

Of course, the flow learning types might not like something to be mandatory or an assignment or have higher precedence or however you want to say it. They may have to put up with me trying to put some directed learning structure on top of their flow learning event. Having someone write a discussion item, blog post, or whatever that is the ultimate outcome that we are going for is really something that I would push for in hindsight.

I have no idea what Michele, Harold and I would have finally done as an outcome of this discussion. But I'm glad to have the context to discuss it now.

1 comment:

V Yonkers said...

I think there is still a piece missing here. Until there is some way to assess informal learning (i.e. an annual portfolio of work you have done and the sources you used to accomplish it, for example), organizations will not give credit for informal learning. Formal learning then becomes the currency that an employee can use for promotions, etc..