Friday, August 14, 2009

Formal vs. Informal Learning: Gathering My Thoughts Post Learnchat Session Today


Today's #learnchat question revolved around formal and informal learning. The initial part of the session was spent on trying to pin down the meanings—denotation as well as connotation—of formal and informal. This led to some interesting Derridean debate bordering on Deconstruction in a bid to unravel the layers of meanings and possibilities encompassed by the two words.

One point that struck me was the use of the word social:

Social = culture; Social = Group

All learning need not be group driven or take place in groups. However, all learning, and I am not talking of education or training here, i.e., the interpretation and internalization of what comes our way are inherently social where “social” signifies culture. The way we learn is thus a manifestation of our culture, worldviews, and upbringing. However, we need to be careful to not conflate social with sociable or collectivist here. That is a different point altogether. (Interesting, provocative post from Venkatesh Rao on this point:

Wikipedia has an interesting definition for the word “social.”

The term Social refers to a characteristic of living organisms (humans in particular, though biologists also apply the term to populations of animals and insects). It always refers to the interaction of organisms with other organisms and to their collective co-existence, irrespective of whether they are aware of it or not, and irrespective of whether the interaction is voluntary or involuntary.

I think, when it comes to learning, the last sentence in the definition above is of importance. Whether we are conscious of it or not, our learning and what we seek to learn and from whom (especially, if it’s informal learning) is driven by our instinct of co-existence. Hence I believe Homophily plays such an important role in our interactions, especially in informal social learning.

A snapshot of formal vs. informal learning:

Formal Learning:

1. Structure driven—usually decided by a figure of authority who takes the call on what needs to be learned
2. Fixed objective-oriented
3. Scheduled
4. Most often top down
5. Typically followed by evaluations and grades and certificates = proofs of apparent success (presumably of the training program)
6. The solitary aspect of this is more individualistic because we typically select to opt for these programs/courses
7. Solitary formal learning is more self driven than formal social learning like classroom trainings that typically take place in organizations

Informal Learning:

1. Serenditpitous and incidental
2. Structureless and unscheduled
3. Lifelong = there’s no beginning or end
4. No course-end certification as learning does not end
5. Without any measurement or performance matrix
6. Self-paced = individual or the group sets their own pace; occurs out of a refusal to have an authority figure set the pace and impose rules
7. Personalized = “Outcome is what the learner desires”
8. Learner empowered = requires effective “self learners” and good knowledge networkers since it involves connecting with and finding expertise
9. Pull learning= just in time, just the right amount
10. Meaning formed via social interaction since no learning can happen in a vacuum
11. Can happen as a follow up to formal learning when the latter has been inspiring enough to drive learners to explore further
12. Can take place through one or more of the following means: discussions, observation, experience, traveling, reflecting, and anything and everything we do throughout our lifetime
13. Requires being able to learn across and bind different learning ecologies

As Roger Schank points out, “People who learn on their own learn exactly what they find interesting and potentially useful.”

LCB’s blog post “Characteristics of Formal and Informal Learning Episodes“ lists 10 reasons why learners prefer to learn on their own based on an initial survey done in the 1970’s:
1. Desire to set my own learning pace.
2. Desire to use my own style of learning.
3. I wanted to keep the learning strategy flexible and easy to change.
4. Desire to put my own structure on the learning project.
5. I didn't know of any class that taught what I wanted to know.
6. I wanted to learn this right away and couldn't wait until a class might start.
7. Lack of time to engage in a group learning program.
8. I don't like a formal classroom situation with a teacher.
9. I don't have enough money for a course or class.
10. Transportation to a class is too hard or expensive.

Some pertinent questions that can be applied in the current situation of corporate training and learning are the following that I came across in one of the comments to the post:

1. Can formal learning lay a foundation that will support the informal learning process?
2. Can we provide tools and systems (e.g. Subject Matter Expert Location Programs, Knowledge Repositories, etc. ) that enable the informal process to be more efficient and effective. Reduce the 15 hours a week to 10?
3. What can we learn from the informal process that may - or may not - inform a somewhat more formal approach?
4. How can we figure out when any learning - formal or informal - is not even needed? Where does 'just doing it' and moving on without ever learning a thing, become acceptable in terms of performance?
5. Can we discern where a more formal approach is really useful? Where does it realy help someone learn to begin to know and/or do something?

What could then be the points of leverage that will encourage informal learning in an organization?



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