Monday, May 26, 2008

A Panel’s Worth of Interesting Ideas about Informal Learning

I’ve participated on a number of different panels and found that, when I take notes in such situations, I usually do so to remember a point made by another panelist that I’d like to elaborate on the next time I speak.

But when I participated in the opening plenary on informal learning, I found myself taking notes for the same reasons I usually take notes in other types of sessions, because I was learning so much from the other panelists. They changed my perceptions of not only informal learning, but of the larger context of learning in the workplace. That rarely happens in any presentation at a conference.

The panelists who taught me so much were Robin Millar from Centre for Education and Work, George Siemens from Learning Technologies Centre at University of Manitoba, and Christine Wihak from Thompson Rivers University. Lynn Johnston, the ever-patient president of the Canadian Society for Training and Development moderated with her usual charm, quiet diplomacy, and acute understanding of her audience.

Some of the interesting points that arose included:

  • Our world is complex, not complicated (George Siemens). In my own words, complicated is difficult to master, but can be done because such a world follows defined rules. Complex involves the interaction of many separate systems and, as a result, even when they’re established, the rules don’t always apply so mastering the world becomes an ongoing challenge.
  • George noted that most people kill technology learning through “death by buzzword” and so he banned the word Web 2.0 and suggested alternative terms, like participatory technology and the read-write web.

    He added that noted that informal learning isn’t managed, it’s supported. This is a foreign concept in most learning departments.

  • Christine Wihak presented a definition of informal learning that presents it as a continuum, which nicely addresses a lot of the controversy about what informal learning includes and what it doesn’t. At the two ends of the spectrum are formal and informal learning. The dimensions include:

    • Process, from external (formal learning) to internal or self-directed (informal)

    • Location, from classroom (formal) to wherever (informal)

    • Purpose: To learn specific, defined things (formal) to learning as a byproduct (informal)

    • Content: From acquisition of existing content (formal) to creating new knowledge (informal)

    She credited this approach to a professor at the University of Leeds.

    Christine noted that the model leaves out conscious and unconscious learning.

  • My comment: No single situation is necessarily fully formal or informal; that’s what I like about this model.

  • Christine added that courses don’t necessarily provide certain things in context, like decision making.Robin noted that the process of assessing informal learning involves identifying what was learned, assessing it, and recognizing the achievement.

  • She added that a good learning is labeled “motivated” by a manager. But motivated is a characteristic that’s hard to change. She notes that many learners labeled as motivated are actually god learners—who have mastered certain learning processes and that “good learner” is a characteristic that can be changed.

  • Robin told the story of informal learning in the most tightly controlled of contexts. In McDonald’s, where workers are told to make 9 burgers at a time, some teen cook figured a way to make 12 at a time. When asked how he figured out how to do that, he just figured it out and did so because he knew that making 12 burgers at a time might ultimately lead to more profitability.

    My thought: In many cases, technical training increasingly focuses on “just do this,” and takes out the “why we do this.” This is, in part, to get people to performance quickly and, in part, to simplify the work. In the short run, that’s good. But if, in this case, the company had a reason for only making 9 burgers at a time (perhaps health reasons) and never shared that reason, no one would be aware of why the guideline existed in the first place and might be tempted to break it when they really should comply. In other words, at some point, dumbed down work needs to be re-smarted at some point.

  • A number of the panelists commented on who owns the learning. For prior learning assessment purposes, this seems to be an important issue, so learners can get credit for what they did. Also important in terms of giving credit for higher pay status.

1 comment:

Lynn said...

". . . dumbed down work needs to be re-smarted at some point."

I have seen this at work a lot lately--this "dumbed down" training approach. And I've seen some "re-smarting" going on:)

One co-worker resisted this approach much more than I. In doing so, he asked many follow up questions, made many contacts, and established a network, visibility, and credibility rather quickly by going beyond the oversimplified directions. I saw him take a short pause to ask aloud, “Let me see. Do I really understand? What is my next step? Can I get a demonstration to find ‘the widget’”? He capitalized on the moment rather than being left by the trainer to struggle alone. If someone showed him a procedure once, with cryptic written notes, why not ask someone else to show him the same procedure, so it wouldn’t take as long, he’d gain more confidence, perhaps some new information—which indeed he did—the person he consulted for followup gave him a great standards guide and this self-initiated followup training enabled him to meet another ally and resource.
~ Abby