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Implications of Informal Learning on eLearning May 16, 2007

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
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A growing number of people are discussing informal learning and how we, as training professionals, should try to identify ways to encourage and foster it at our organizations. Does informal learning touch the eLearning space at all? Yes, it certainly does. Let’s look at some definitions and then dive more into the implications of informal learning on eLearning.

Definitions

First, let’s look at the difference between formal and informal learning. Formal learning is typically your standard instructor-led course or eLearning module. It is generally well-structured and has a clear start and end point. Informal learning, according to Wikipedia, "…has no curriculum and is not professionally organized but rather originates accidentally, sporadically…" Jay Cross, one of the biggest advocates of informal learning, describes it like this:

Informal learning is the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way most of us learn to do our jobs. Informal learning is like riding a bicycle: the rider chooses the destination and the route. The cyclist can take a detour at a moment’s notice to admire the scenery or help a fellow rider.

Formal learning is like riding a bus: the driver decides where the bus is going; the passengers are along for the ride. People new to the territory often ride the bus before hopping on the bike.

(From Jay Cross’ article, What is informal learning?, on his Informal Learning blog.)

Examples

Now let’s look at a few examples of informal learning from Wikipedia:

Examples of such informal knowledge transfer include instant messaging, a spontaneous meeting on the Internet, a phone call to someone who has information you need, a live one-time-only sales meeting introducing a new product, a chat-room in real time, a chance meeting by the water cooler, a scheduled Web-based meeting with a real-time agenda, a tech walking you through a repair process, or a meeting with your assigned mentor or manager.

These seem pretty logical to me. I can relate to most of the examples listed. I have a standard set of resources I’ll go to if I need information:

  • Google,
  • Selected job aids,
  • Instant messenger (to ask a peer), and
  • Selected knowledge bases/discussion forums.

How does this relate to eLearning?

If we apply the basic concept of informal learning to eLearning, it sounds like we should concentrate more on identifying and creating tools that empower people to acquire knowledge and skills on-the-job, rather than sticking the learner in eLearning course after eLearning course. Tools such as job aids, knowledge bases, webinar software, chat rooms, etc., should be available to learners, and they should be encouraged to use the tools as they see fit. (Remember: Not all informal learning activities involve technology, so be prepared to think outside the digital world. It’s called informal learning, not informal eLearning!)

According to one expert, "Informal learning accounts for over 75% of the learning taking place in organizations today." Some people may be worried that this could lead to less demand for formal training (specifically eLearning courses). This may be true, but I think the skill set of an eLearning professional can still be of great benefit in creating and managing the tools that support informal learning. And I’m sure that formal training will always exist to some degree.

“Informal learning sounds great. So how do we measure it?”

Ah, the million-dollar question. You’d think that there was a slick way to use eLearning to quantify informal learning. Nope. Not quite. It’s just not possible, and I think we’d hinder informal learning if we try to wrap our hands too tightly around it and track it instance-by-instance. I am very curious to see if the informal learning movement has any effect on the standard LMS/courseware model. Will we see LMSs that can launch job aids, knowledge bases, chat rooms, and webinars? This would allow us to track learners and their usage of such systems, but it seems unlikely that one system could perform all of those functions well. And then it would feel like we were forcing users to use a formal system all over again, which moves away from the main idea of informal learning in the first place.

Changes

Sure, things will change in eLearning, and we should be eager to identify ways to use technology to support formal and informal learning. After all, our job is to support and improve learning first and foremost.

Keep up with Jay Cross if you want more information related to informal learning.

Comments»

1. Jay Cross - May 16, 2007

Yes, you’ve essentially nailed it, particularly the paragraph that says “we should concentrate more on identifying and creating tools that empower people to acquire knowledge and skills on-the-job, rather than sticking the learner in eLearning course after eLearning course. Tools such as job aids, knowledge bases, webinar software, chat rooms, etc., should be available to learners, and they should be encouraged to use the tools as they see fit. (Remember: Not all informal learning activities involve technology, so be prepared to think outside the digital world. It’s called informal learning, not informal eLearning!)”

I wouldn’t get hung up on vocabulary: all learning is part formal and part informal; eLearning has lost all meaning.

Rather, I suggest a focus on how to help people do their jobs better. That leads directly to creating platforms, not programs.

Regarding measurement, the only valid metric is a business metric.

Thanks for the referral.

2. Is the Term 'eLearning' Going to Become Extinct? « eLearning Weekly - May 22, 2007

[…] Cross alluded to this change in terminology in a recent comment to an eLearning Weekly […]

3. Kristin Hebert - May 24, 2007

Great post B.J., this is one of the better posts I have come across. As an employee at SyberWorks, Inc. this educational standpoint you give is very helpful to the growing e-Learning community. We have a similar area of learning on our website. SyberWorks Online Media Center offers educational points in the e-Learning field including much on Learning Management Systems and also past success stories with LMS’s that organizations have acquired from us. So again, I just want to say great post and keep the e-Learning going!

4. vas - March 31, 2008

Hi, I enjoyed ur blog as a whole. I have one doubt.. There was a mentioning of Job Aid in your post. Does this job aid is something similar to glossary? or is there any difference between job aids and glossary? if you can give me a sample for both would be a gr8 help for me..

5. B.J. Schone - March 31, 2008

Hi Vas,

Job aids can be any type of a document or resource that helps a person complete their job. So, yes, a glossary could certainly be a job aid. Search Google for job aids and you should see several great examples.

Cheers,
-B.J.

6. vas - March 31, 2008

Thanks Schone. I tried searching in Google. I got the same definition as “it helps the end user to complete their job… and it will be like a reference guide or quick reference…”🙂 i was bit confused with the glossary… anyways thanks for the reply.. awaiting to read your postings… good luck…


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