Monday, August 07, 2006

Informal Learning - the end of courseware?

This post focuses on some interesting debates that I have been following on the role of informal learning and the impact on training of the application of new technology. While an apparent diversion from my current core focus on the UNE strategic planning process, there is a link because of the impact on the markets within which UNE operates.

On 23 July Dave Lee reported in his e e learning blog on the opportunity he had had to join some of top media and content names in San Francisco for a conference on the future of media that was held concurrently with a similar gathering in Sydney, Australia. Dave also posted a longer discussion to the Learning Circuits blog.

I won't discuss Dave's posts in detail, but instead use certain points to set a context for an introduction to another debate on the way in which the combination of informal learning and technology is affecting courseware.

Conference Conclusions

In his e e learning post, Dave included a chart comparing US and Australian involvement in content creation on the web. Around one third of people in both countries had added content in one or more ways to the web. This is simply another indicator of the web's importance, but an important one because it focuses on the more proactive content creation process.

While the overall proportions involved in each country were similar, there were some interesting inter-country differences.

The first two bars, posted a blog and added information to own web site, had the US in front. Thus 8 per cent of Americans had a blog as compared to 4 per cent of Australians, 14 per cent of Americans had added material to their own web site as compared to 10 per cent of Australians.

The second two bars, added information to a work or group web site or blog and shared on the internet created content such as photos, videos, words had Australia in front. Thus 16 per cent of Australians had added information to a group site or blog as compared to 13 per cent of Americans, 29 per cent of Australians had shared content as compared to 26 per cent of Americans.

This suggested to me that the US was in front on do your own thing, Australia appeared to be in front in contributing to someone else's thing. Dave agreed with this assessment.

The data also showed that while web activity in both countries was greatest in younger age groups, it was also spread across all ages. Thus while 42 per cent of people 18-29 had contributed content to the web, 18 per cent of people 65+ had also contributed content.

This age usage information raised another issue in my mind, one that came up last year when I attended a Sydney Slattery IT conference celebrating the internet's birthday. There speakers mainly from the internet boom period spoke of trends largely focused on the young age cohorts. There was no discussion of older age markets, nor of the market impact of demographic change.

This experience led me to conclude that there was something missing from the debate about age and computer usage, and that was the nature of the relationship between age and computers themselves. Here I concluded that there were in fact three age groups.

Group one grew up in the world before computers. They regard it all as something that must be mastered if the need is there. I belong to this group. Even though I have been working in areas connected with high technology for over twenty years and have loved some of the stuff - among other things I grew up on sci fi then had the chance to re-establish the Australian National Space program - I did not go computer literate at a personal level until I absolutely had too. I found it boring.

Group two grew up in the early days of the computer revolution. This is the group that is in love with the technology and which now controls the game.

Group three, my own daughters (16,18) included, grew up with the technology. While some still fall in love with it, to most it is just an accepted tool, a means to an end. They are actually closer to group one than two. Intensely tribal, they automatically use the stuff, adopting new things either for fashion (an important driver) or because it helps them to do things or stay in touch.

The majority of computer users in fact belong to groups one and three. Yet much of the discussion about computers is driven by group two, the enthusiasts, and is conditioned by their view of the world.

The final point I want to mention from Dave's report is the importance of trust and the building of trust in achieving success in the on-line world. This also links to related concepts including web 2.0 with its concept of the tail and James Surowiecki's work on The Wisdom of Crowds - also here.

Content creation is maximised where the tail - the long extension of people who might be interested - can be involved. This maximum involvement also helps build trust and brings into play self-correcting mechanisms, themselves a contributor to trust.

Informal Learning and the end of courseware?

On the Learning Circuits blog, Tony Karrer suggests that the general sentiment among many in the workplace learning and performance industry is that the course model is beginning to fade and one of our biggest challenges is figuring out what comes next. This post follows a continuing dialogue between - among others Tony, Jay Cross and Brent Schlenker - on informal learning, new delivery techniques and course based models.

Tony, Jay and Brent are all e-learning specialists. I am not, although I have had some involvement with e-learning for a very long time. I come at the question from the perspective of the policy analyst and manager who has then become a consultant and trainer. This conditions my thinking.

A key issue in the earlier "Is Training Snake Oil?" debate (discussion summary here) on the Learning Circuits blog was the way in which the internet in particular had undercut some traditional training activities by giving people access to information when they wanted it. Other key linked issues were the role of informal learning, together with evidence that showed that the great majority of job related learning took place outside formal training. What, then, was the role of formal training and of trainers in this new world?

The current discussion takes this one step further by suggesting that formal courses and courseware as we have known it may be coming to an end outside certain fields such as compliance or credentialling. In saying this, I am not suggesting that my colleagues are asserting this as a given, simply posing legitimate questions.

In moving forward, let my start with some simple definitions.

I define informal learning very simply as all learning taking place outside formal education and training structures and associated training mechanisms and courses including short courses. For simplicity's sake, I then divide informal learning into three broad categories:

  1. Personal learning, where individuals seek information, knowledge, for their own purposes. This is the traditional domain of, for example, the public library and is an area where the internet has had a major impact, expanding individual freedom at the expense of certain types of knowledge based training.
  2. On-the-job learning where the individual acquires knowledge and skills both from colleagues and from actually doing. In my view, this has always been the dominant source of learning in organisations, with organisational training usually supplied as a top-up or gap filler. This is also an area where both LANS and later the internet have had some impact on the training function by giving people access to information previously supplied by courses.
  3. Family and community learning, where again the individual learns by doing and interacting. When I was recruiting new graduates for the Australian Treasury for example, I used to look for graduates who had good academic results but who had also been active on campus because I knew that they would have learned some organisational and management skills.

Now against this background, when we come to look at the impact of the internet, we can see that it has shifted boundaries along three key training dimensions:

  1. It has shifted the boundaries between informal and formal training, increasing the importance of informal training.
  2. Then within the changing domain of formal training, it has affected delivery modes, creating new modes, reducing the importance of traditional modes, facilitating mixed modes.
  3. It has also affected content, with some traditional information based content dropping out, new internet and computer related content being added.

What does all this mean?

Well first, given the importance of informal - especially on-the-job - learning we need to find better ways of integrating formal and informal learning. This is partially a management question, partially a training question. In essence, it involves some degree of formalising, some degree of facilitating informal learning.

I have recently tried to address this issue in my training primer series on the Managing the Professional Services Firm blog. While my focus there is on people management in a professional services context, my argument is really a general one.

A core point is that if 90 per cent of knowledge and skills formation within the organisation is going to come from on-the-job experiences, then improvement here is critical to organisational performance. By implication, organisation training needs to focus on the 90 per cent, not the 10 per cent.

The second point is that the role of the trainer will change, will become more demanding. The emerging role of the trainer in facilitating access to information was discussed in the Snake Oil debate. However, effective integration of formal and informal learning, maximisation of the value of informal learning, will require new approaches. Here I personally believe that many traditional training skills such as instructional design can be applied in this new environment.

My third point, and this is something that has concerned me for a while and links to my earlier discussion on computers, the internet and age, is that we should not get too hung up on delivery modes. Every mode has its place on its own or in conjunction with others. This will be determined in part by the need to be met, but will also be constrained by organisational constraints.

To me, one of the exciting things is the way in which the technology options now available facilitate new approaches to learning in a variety of settings, including better integration of and improvement in informal learning.

Traditional courses and courseware however delivered retain a place, but only as one weapon in an evolving armoury.


Dennis D. McDonald said...

Dear Jim,

Thanks very much for this post. It has helped me to better understand some of the issues I've been wrestling with over the past few months.

In my personal research and consulting I've been applying a background in information technology-related consulting, project management, and research to understanding how large organizations can take advantage of currrent social networking technologies and processes. One thing I've found is the need to become more aware of current trends in both "knowledge management" and "e-learning" (the latter is what in the past I've been generically referring to as "training.") Marketing and communications are also being profoundly impacted by technology-enabled communications.

There's a lot of overlap among these areas especially in how they approach managing organizational change. One of the nice things about the Web is that it's easier than ever to become exposed to relevant information in different fields and, because of the personal communication that often results, traditional barriers caused by differing language and terminology seem to be easier to bridge.

I'm seeing less mentions of the term "convergence" than in years past; perhaps it is obvious that, with so much going on, being able to move from one point to another is more efficient than to attempt to bring all the points together? (I'm sure that's not an original idea!)

Anyway, thanks for putting the effort into your posts!

Dennis McDonald

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for the kind comment, Dennis, especially considering the expertise displayed on your own blog, Managing & Living with Technology, Media, & Systems -

The issue of the best way for large organisations to take advantage of current social networking technologies and processes is an interesting one.Here there was an interesting earlier exchange on Learning Circuits on blogs as a knowledge management tool sparked by Jay Cross -

I think that your distinction between technologies and processes is critical. If organisations are to take full advantage they have to get the processes right.