Informal Networked Learning

We’re currently in our second Informl Learning Unworkshop, using various web tools that didn’t exist several years ago, with participants around the globe.

My initial experiences in the learning field were from the point of view of methods of instruction (how to get subject matter across to captive students) and later, the systems approach to training (from which flows instructional systems design or ISD). Later I became immersed in human performance technology, and found it a good method to analyse certain aspects of organisational performance. HPT ensures that training, which is costly, isn’t prescribed unless it addresses a verifiable lack of skills and/or knowledge. Even HPT itself seems to be too constrained for me now.

What I like about informal learning is that it opens up the way to look at other methods of helping people to learn. Training and education are two sets of tools but there are many more. Options for learning have increased exponentially with access to the Internet. As with any new technology, we first put the old media (modules, courses, classrooms, programs, degrees) into the new medium. Now that some of us are becoming more comfortable with the medium, we are seeing more experimentation.

Using blogs, wikis, podcasts or social bookmarks for learning can change the dynamic from teaching-centric to learning-centric. Informal learning is not new, but the ways in which we can connect with others have improved drastically (skype, anyone?). Informal learning is about connecting – whether it be to information or people.

The network effect of the Web is explained in detail in Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks. Benkler describes the changes that a networked society can have on our governance, economic and cultural structures [more to follow on this book as I savour every page]:

The networked information economy improves the practical capacities of individuals along three dimensions: (1) it improves their capacity to do more for and by themselves; (2) it enhances their capacity to do more in loose commonality with others, without being constrained to organize their relationship through a price system or in traditional hierarchical models of social and economic organization; and (3) it improves the capacity of individuals to do more in formal organizations that operate outside the market sphere. This enhanced autonomy is at the core of all the other improvements I describe. Individuals are using their newly expanded practical freedom to act and cooperate with others in ways that improve the practiced experience of democracy, justice and development, a critical culture, and community.

Learning skills, especially outside the formal training & education sphere, are necessary for everyone in our society to take advantage of the opportunities of a networked information economy. I believe that the development of environments that nurture informal, networked learning will be the ISD of the 21st century.

5 Responses to “Informal Networked Learning”

  1. Dave Lee

    You know that I’m as big a fan of Web 2.0 and Informal learning but I’m worried that the Unworkshop has put you a bit over the top with your enthusiasm.

    For a moment there, I thought you were going to label informal learning a model of instructional design alongside ADDIE and HPT. Glad you didn’t go that far.

    My distress comes in the statements at the end that describe informal learning as the new salvation for the new networked world. As a field, we learning professionals have been very good at overselling whatever it is that we’re excited about. Informal learning is not even close to being new. We may have the internet with blogs and wikis, but our foreparents had grapevines, old boy networks, and gossip circles.

    The difference that we feel such positive feelings about is the democratic nature of the internet. The old informal learning networks were also used to discriminate and exclude “others” from what those that were networked had. While the change to anyone being able to participate is great, it it’s impact on learning is not primary.

    What is new is our new focus on trying to manage what happens in informal learning settings. I then come back inline with you and believe that we will have new models of instructional design which will draw upon and feed into the network effects that Benkler discusses.

  2. Harold

    Dave, thanks for giving me a chance to clarify my post. That’s the conversational aspect of blogs, isn’t it? Give a little, take a little.

    I see informal, networked learning as a new field of learning practice. ISD came out of the need to train a lot of soldiers for war. In the case of informal learning, it has always been around, but now we need a lot more it for most of our lives.

    Previously, the only way to be a continuous learner was to constantly take courses, go to conferences or read. With the Web we have more options, but we don’t have a lot of tools and methods for learning outside the course model. Many learners, once dropped into a networked, informal work and learning environment, are in a state of confusion.

    I don’t see training & development or even ISD being replaced. Becaue ISD became pervasive in business, especially with the advent of CBT and WBT, we had too many performance issues labelled as training problems. That’s why I think that informal learning has the potential to be the next ISD; because now we have the conditions to build informal, networked learning environments at a minimal cost and with a wide reach.

    Informal learning isn’t the salvation for the networked world; it is an essential requirement for success in a networked. Learning how to learn will be one of the most important skills for my children. Those who can learn quickly will thrive. Those who can’t may fall further back on the economic and social ladder. As learning professionals, we had better come up with methods and practices for informal learning with the same sense of urgency as those who developed ISD for our soldiers.

    So maybe it’s a matter of approach, Dave. You think that “new models of instructional design which will draw upon and feed into the network effects that Benkler discusses” may be the solution, and I guess that my approach for a new field is a bit more radical.

    Thanks again for taking me to task. It’s always good to have constructive, informed feedback.

  3. Dave Lee

    thanks for the clarification, Harold. As I suspected, we’re closer in thought than it seemed in our words.
    I will still restate my feeling that we’re doing ourselves a disservice if we believe that courses, conferences, and reading were the only ways to learn things in the past. Informal learning techniques that are being championed like apprenticeships, learning from experts, and communities of practice aren’t new. Granted, our ability to proliferate these techniques has been greatly enhanced with the Internet and Web 2.0. My concern is that we spend time and energy “inventing” techniques that have been honed for literally centuries.

    Thanks for the dialogue. Amazing how right Socrates was that much can be learned through an honest conversation.

  4. Harold

    You’re right that there’s no need to re-invent the wheel for techniques that have existed for centuries. However, the Web has increased opportunities for some informal learning methods that were available to only the rich or the lucky. Who else but the rich could afford a tutor as part of the household staff?

    With Web tools, I can ask questions on my blog and a “tutor” may come along and help me. For instance, James Farmer and Seb Paquet both helped me a lot when I started blogging. I also think that we need to review these older methods, given the distributed nature of our world. The Socratic method still has value, but Socrates didn’t have to deal with multiple time zones. We also have to help generations of learners who have spent most of their time in industrial age classrooms.

  5. Dave Lee

    Exactly, Harold. It’s my hope that we can “retool” some of the old methods to the new distributed environment faster and more efficiently than creating and testing/confirming new methods.

    I honestly think we should be thankful for those generations of learners who will cling to the industrial age classroom ways of thinking about learning. The rate of change is already frightening. Can you imagine what it’d be like if they weren’t holding us back?!?! The thought sends a shiver up my spine.


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