Posts Tagged informal learning
This post first appeared at Learning Solutions Magazine
So I’ve had a bit of a bugbear for a while and I’m starting to feel that I’m not alone. It’s 70/20/10, the oft-quoted model from which we derive that the majority of learning happens from on the job experience, as opposed to learning from peers or in a formal learning environment. That’s not to say that I think the importance we give to informal learning is wrong, far from it. It is more that I think we’ve got the wrong model at the heart of the movement.
Where’s the research?
I’ve heard plenty of people like Doug Lynch tell us there is no peer-reviewed basis for the model. I’ve searched for peer-reviewed journal literature to corroborate the model but I can’t find any, despite there being much suggestion as to a solid research basis. I’ve had conversations with a number of colleagues in academia who are generally of the same opinion — 70/20/10 is a model based on what “seems” to fit.
Unfortunately, “seems to fit” is a trend that we don’t need any more of in workplace learning. Learning Styles “seemed to fit.” There is plenty of “seems to fit” evidence for 70/20/10, ranging in quality from anecdotal blog posts to studies like the one conducted by the Education Development Center (EDC), often quoted as the basis of most “70%” work. The EDC research is often cited as providing the corroborating evidence for suggesting that 70% of workplace learning is informal in nature, but it makes no reference to the 20% or 10% part of the model. This distinction is made by Lombardo and Eichinger as a part of their “Career Architect” process; a proprietary approach to assessing and developing leadership. Here the waters muddy further as overlapping definitions kick in. What the EDC research might call informal, Lombardo and Eichinger would call “learning from others,” and the definition often changes dependent on who you speak to. It is all rather confusing and is certainly far from a concrete foundation to effect grand change.
Digging into the references a little further, many articles which put forth the 70/20/10 model cite Kevin Dobbs’ article “Simple Moments of Learning” which appeared in Training Magazine, January, 2000. This article only mentions 70% in passing, referencing another project which found this figure: the EDC study. Fortunately, the findings from the EDC study can be found in the book “The Teaching Firm,” which can be read in full online.
The Teaching Firm includes a range of case studies that attempt to verbalize the impact and intensity of Informal Learning in the workplace. While the results tend to show that informal learning does indeed happen, and it does have direct benefits to performance, the authors make no judgement as to the intensity or percentage of total learning which was informal in nature. 70% as a figure isn’t a part of the case study results or conclusions.
At this point I’m reminded of an old adage from a Professor of mine who used to remind me on a regular basis that “not all models are right, but some are useful.” Unfortunately, I’m not convinced that 70/20/10 is actually useful either.
To quote EDC’s informal learning thesis, “informal learning is ubiquitous” (p. 178). In work, as in life, informal learning has always been present. It isn’t a new idea and it certainly isn’t powered by the internet. To generalize on how much of our learning is sourced from informal happenstance is somewhat missing the point in my mind. Measuring how much of your learning is informal sounds a lot like asking for an ROI on your Social Media initiative; nice landing, wrong airport.
Allow me to indulge myself in a story to illustrate my point. My first proper job was working in the bakery department at a large supermarket chain in the U.K. Following a formal induction, I was sent out into the big wide world to learn as I went. One of my earliest pieces of informal learning came in weighing the freshly baked loaves of bread. We had to check that the batch matched the marketed weight. It became apparent that a lot of batches failed the test and when this occurred the whole lot had to go in the trash.
Upon seeing me in action a wise old colleague pulled me to one side and offered me a tip. I was doing it wrong. If the batch was underweight you took your bakers hat off and put it on top of the loaf. That brought up the average weight slightly and allowed you to print out a label to keep the batch. Of course this led to mis-selling and, potentially, a law suit. But it didn’t matter, because it made our jobs easier.
Back to today … what I believe is really important is that we maximize the effectiveness of informal learning and make sure the right habits get taught. And for that we need our good friend, formal learning.
A different model perhaps?
An oft overlooked but potentially more relevant model to illustrate the informal learning concept is that of Ebbinghaus’ Learning Curve.
Herman Ebbinghaus was a pretty remarkable chap, especially for a man working in psychology in the 1800’s. His work on memory forms the basis for much of what we practice today, and his experiments are among a few to have been reliably replicated in scientific circumstances since his first publications. Perhaps Ebbinghaus’ most-cited work in learning circles is the Forgetting Curve. However, for me, perhaps his most interesting work came in the articulation of the Learning Curve; the rate at which a person learns information.
The learning curve as a concept has been built upon at regular intervals since Ebbinghaus. Unlike many models within the field of education, the learning curve has a root in mathematics and, as its name suggests, is measurable. As such it became popular in manufacturing as a means to demonstrate how one could produce efficiencies over time.
To over-simplify things, let me suggest that the shape of the learning curve is dependent on two variables; the Learning Coefficient and the number of repetitions. Your ability to perform an action grows as you double the number of repetitions of that action at the rate specified by your Learning Coefficient. Quite literally, practice makes perfect.
The theory suggests that if you do anything enough you will get better at it. Some of that will be the tips, tricks, and techniques you pick up yourself. Some of this will come through observation of others. Some will be the product of what others tell you. We’re all wired for this informal learning process and you have a natural knack for it which varies from task to task. What formal learning can do for you is to accelerate this process by manipulating the Learning Coefficient and giving you better practice.
For instance, let me suggest you have a Learning Coefficient of 5% for picking up Microsoft Word. You start using Word to write letters for the first time and you use it once a day for 30 days. Let me suggest that your first letter took you 100 units of “effort” to complete. By the end of that first month you would have expended 2,332 units of “effort” writing letters. If you never got any better at it, it would have taken 3,000 units of effort, so your natural 5% learning curve has been of good benefit.
Now let’s say that instead of going it alone you attended a number of training sessions to help you along the way. The intervention had the effect of giving you a better understanding of the core concepts of the application, making your subsequent learning more effective; it doubled your Learning Coefficient to 10%. By the end of the month you would have expended 1,788 units of effort. That’s nearly 25% less effort with this improvement in the effectiveness of your learning.
So what’s my point?
Working out where to put your resources when faced with a model like 70/20/10 seems to be easy; go where the biggest number is, the 70%. I’m suggesting the opposite is true, certainly in the beginning. More learning does occur informally than it does formally, I don’t question that. How effective that learning is, is dependent on three things:
The Learning Coefficient,
How good your people are at learning how to learn, and
How much GOOD practice they get.
Those three points are what workplace formal learning should be about, giving you the ability to do your job more effectively. This gets to the heart of why I’m not a fan of the 70/20/10 model; it devalues this important part of the process.
People will learn on the job whatever your efforts are in enabling informal learning. The quality of that learning and the intensity with which they get good practice will be down to the formal learning which comes first. If you really want to make informal learning fly, I’m suggesting that you need to remember the Learning Curve and get the formal learning right first.
Using the Career Architect to Assess and Develop Leadership Competencies: http://bit.ly/nSYMUC
The Teaching Firm: http://bit.ly/ozkfxk
David Cofer, Informal Workplace Learning: http://www.calpro-online.org/ERIC/docs/pab00019.pdf (Text version here.)
Kevin Dobbs, Simple Moments of Learning: http://www.allbusiness.com/services/educational-services/4278331-1.html
David Stamps, Learning Ecologies: http://bit.ly/ouqdOG (requires ATHENS login)
NASA’s Learning Curve Calculator: http://cost.jsc.nasa.gov/learn.html
Jay Cross on Informal Learning: http://www.informl.com/where-did-the-80-come-from/
Conference paper on Informal Learning: http://bit.ly/oC34Cm
The cost of Informal vs Formal Learning: http://www.knowledgejump.com/learning/cost.html
Community halls are cold places at the best of times. The hard, hollow flooring, bordered by dull, white-washed walls. The strip lighting, harsh with the occasional flicker, bathing the room in a sickly yellow hue. These are cold places for cold people, those with problems. Those people with a confession to make.
The refreshment table was laden with extra bitter coffee, like it alone could cleanse the souls of those within its reach. The biscuit tray lay beaten, already pummelled into submission by the gaggle of desperate looking zombies who filed into the room slowly, sullenly. The chairs creaked and squeaked against the hard floor as people took their seats in the circle. It was time. I rose to my feet, hesitant, but expectant as to the relief that would follow my confession.
“My name is Ben” my voice trembled. “And I’m a Vendor”…
It’s not easy to admit it, but give me a chance and I will sell you something. Whilst I am also an academic researcher, my job first and foremost is in the retail of E-learning products and services.
One of the toughest aspects of my job is working up decent sales leads. I myself loath cold callers. I hate advertising. Networking is painful. Events are boring. But come what may, it’s still got to happen somehow.
Today I’ve seen loads of tweets passing my eyes on the subject of social learning software and how to be weary of vendors selling you snake oil (see Harold Jarche, Jane Hart and Jay Cross). There’s a similar theme elsewhere too.
The bottom line is, vendors talk a lot of shit and generally screw up a good idea.
I can’t disagree, it’s true.
But vendors still need to appeal to consumers in ways that differentiate themselves from the competition. If I tell you that my social learning software is great, but it won’t create a culture of informal learning without a massive behavioural change effort and that, at best, you’ve got maybe a 25% chance of seeing a return, I’m not going to be in business long. So how can I get noticed without the hyperbole, without the empty promises?
We’re in the midst of developing a new piece of software which we are all quite excited about. It’s not going to “formalise informal learning” or anything like that. It certainly won’t transform your workforce into a legion of web 2.0 advocates, blogging their way into profits. But it will look to abandon the old “E-learning Course” structure, encourage users to connect concepts together and add new learning objects to create a unique learning environment. Engage, Connect, Contribute. That’s our tag line for it. Catchy eh!?
But we’re already following down the same path as those vendors which went before us. So how can we do it differently?
• Cold calling doesn’t work for this sort of thing; no one has a clue what you are talking about and the number of “shots on goal” you have to make before you score is absurd.
• Advertising is expensive and poorly targeted.
• Expensive networking events are generally snake oil in and of themselves.
• Exhibitor events are full of vendors shouting about their informal, formal, social wiki, learning enterprise platform.
So what’s left? Where do I submit my software for independent, transparent review which can be trusted? And how could I get the PR required to get my software reviewed without resorting to hyperbole?
The bottom line is this: Given that there is an outside chance that my products could significantly alter your organisation for the better, how should vendors, like me, sell to buyers (or potential buyers), like you?
This week we’ve been hammering out some details on what our next version of the KnowledgePortal is going to do. I have to say I’m pretty excited by it. We’ve already got a tool that blends various social and learning media together and now we’re taking it a step further. I can’t say too much, but our playground is going to be our www.opsman.org website, amongst others, so you can expect to see changes there in the coming months.
I’ve been looking back at the books to reconcile exactly what it is that “E-learning 2.0” should be bringing to the party, above and beyond the web 2.0 tools we use already. To go back to basics, I would term traditional, formal learning approaches “E-Learning 1.0”. Here Subject Matter Experts (SME’s) write materials and convey them to students, who are expected to comprehend and put into order what is said.
My thinking is that this action alone is not enough. Nonaka & Takeuchi, in their seminal work “The Knowledge-Creating Company”, highlighted a more complex model of taking Tacit knowledge and making it Explicit. The model details four stages, Socialisation, Externalisation, Combination and Internalization. When the model was written in 1995 the authors could have had no knowledge of the “web 2.0” and its philosophies, but the model is surprisingly applicable to the field and more specifically, to what might be the missing piece in “E-learning 2.0”.
Stage one of the model, Socialization, is most closely related to our traditional methods of teaching. Here SME’s try to convey tacit knowledge to students through a variety of methods. There is little difference between being in the lecture hall or working your way through a piece of E-Learning in terms of this model. The material is presented to you in an order deemed logical and appropriate by the expert and you attempt to take in what you can.
However it is perhaps not until Externalization takes place that you start to comprehend what has been said. Here you take the teaching and reflect on it to generate your own ideas and thoughts. It is the act of writing, of conceptualising the learning that helps you to develop. We occasionally touch here during the course of E-learning programmes, by the use of “learning logs” or similar, perhaps a discussion board. But I would suggest this stage is often seen as optional, especially in the world of corporate training. Learning logs are still very much the domain of Higher Education in my experience and are not so widespread in the workplace. But it need not be a log that Externalisation takes its form from; any technology that allows learners to write and reflect can work here. Blog’s, Wiki’s and comments are probably the mainstays, but Podcasts or Videos would also work.
Combination is next in the model and this is perhaps the most significant point which we miss out on at the moment. Often the learning done earlier is prescribed as the only way the subject makes sense. There is very little opportunity for you, the learner, to take your refined thoughts and re-order them to make better sense of your situation. This is of particular importance in organisational learning, where your experiences are very much significant in how you frame new information and how you will subsequently apply it to your role. In addition to this, the web 2.0 technologies that we might use in the previous stage allow us to then share this knowledge with the rest of the class. So this sorting stage allows learners to take information given by experts, their own writings and their classmates writings and put it into an order which makes sense to them. Here learners could create “learning paths” which visually explain their understanding of a subject. These could be shared between the class and even act as guides to non-students who wish to share in the learning.
Finally, Internalization is all about taking your new learning and actually applying it to the workplace. This act grows and matures your learning and so it might well be seen as important to “re-sort” your knowledge at periodic points, as well as important to keep adding experiences and reflections to the mix.
Right now E-Learning often begins and ends at stage one – sitting down and being told a bunch of new stuff. That’s E-learning 1.0. We and others have tried to embrace some aspects of the web 2.0 into our learning programmes, but perhaps we haven’t seen this bigger picture. Pedagogy experts recognise the value of reflection and as the technology is fairly obvious here, this is the area where most “2.0” tools are currently employed in E-learning.
Stages three and four are where we hope to work with our next version of KnowledgePortal. We want to make linking explicit knowledge a focus for E-learning 2.0, something which builds on the tools that web 2.0 gives us and creates something more specialist for our genre. It is my hope that by adapting models such as Nonaka & Takeuchi’s, we can create a unifying reason for using Web 2.0 tools in our learning which stretches far beyond our currently level of “because we can”.
A wise man once said “Nature abhors a Vacuum”. An even wiser man drew a cartoon of the saying. It is with this inspiration in mind I have coined a new phrase: Learning abhors a Next Button. I doubt anyone will pen a cartoon in my honour, but you never know.
This week I’m back on track with thinking about my doctorate. It, like the cartoon, is a bit foreboding, dark and sinister. Fortunately I’ve been given the greatest gift of all – time. My EngD allows 4 years to research a new approach, theorise it, make it and then defend my actions. However, there actually is the option to get the work done in 3 years and I’m keen on that as it means I gain my doctorate before I turn 30, a personal goal of mine. So less 12 months from my original 48. But of course, my registration actually started on the 1st Feb, 2009. Minus another 6 months. I’m told that most people do relatively little in their first 2 years, beside attend a couple of residential modules and read a lot of books. So take off another 24 months.
So basically I’ve got 6 months to redefine an industry.
Greatest gift my arse, I would have settled for a decent pair of socks.
Over the weekend, with the above equation in mind, I set myself the task of actually producing something. When I set out on the EngD path I had clear visions of what I wanted to achieve. I immediately released an Aladdin’s Cave of information as soon as began scratching below the surface. Who knew that so many people were interested in E-Learning? Who knew that so many would be engaged in academic research projects, exactly like mine? There’s even a bloody conference on E-Portfolio’s for God sake; I thought I was on my own there for sure.
A wise man once said “There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know”. Then Donald Rumsfeld said it and totally fucked it up for the rest of us. I’ve reached the second stage on the confusion chart; Known unknowns. I know that I don’t know very much.
It’s a scary place to be, stage 2. I went through the same process when I wrote my MBA dissertation. I went in, full of confidence. Did a little research, launched a questionnaire. Then when I started analysing the results I realised I didn’t have the first clue about what I was doing. This freaked me out somewhat. I had 700 responses and I’m sure the data was telling me something, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what. And then I eventually returned to sanity. I wasn’t under pressure to make the data tell me something. The data not telling me anything was actually a fantastic outcome. It was eliminating the strand of enquiry I was making – a very useful addition to knowledge. It was a truly small addition to knowledge, one that will probably never be unearthed. But it served its purpose.
And so now I find myself back in stage 2 once more. Again I’m overwhelmed by how little I know. But, like the recovering alcoholic, I’m beginning to acknowledge my problem and as such, I can address it. My first point of call has been to chunk down my problem into areas of investigation. The EngD, unlike a PhD, typically consists of 3 case study papers, written at a rate of 1 per year, which then tie together in the final year with a bridging paper. This brings everything together much like a thesis, but on a broader canvas of work. And you actually need to Engineer something in the process of writing these papers. My first paper is likely to centre on Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and web 2.0 tools. I don’t think I’ll stretch too far in the e-portfolio ark of this topic, but I’ve some nice contacts in the CPD arena and we’re currently working on a CPD project for a great cause in the developing world. My second paper is shaping up to be something completely different. Not necessarily a problem, it just means my bridging paper will have to be a work of art.
It was this second paper that became my focus over the weekend and gave rise to the title of this blog. Yes, the overly long prologue is now over, I am actually getting to the point. One of the issues I’ve been tussling with recently is the role of informal learning in the future of E-Learning. There are so many opportunities to learn from the web and from the information it holds. All we do at the moment is take these ideas and write it out neatly.
With so much material in existence, be that inside or outside of organisations, it seems to me that the only thing that is stopping this “informal” content being used is the lack of order it possesses. But linear learning is not necessarily the best teaching method; the “Next” button has become such a mainstay of the E-learning I see that it almost seems impossible to imagine courses without it. This is the curse of the Next button and it is something we need to break out of if we are to move into exciting new areas for learning online.
This is the area I’m going into next. I want to present a method of non-linear E-learning which embraces informal learning. For me, putting information in its place is how I learn. I like to piece it all together, to see what relates to what, to know the story and the relationships between knowledge. Clicking next doesn’t do this for me – I’m just learning the order someone said it should be in. I need to create my own journey, to be presented with the pieces of the jigsaw and put it back together again.
Then and only then can I see the bigger picture.
I’ve been contemplating the future of eLearning for a while now and one big quandary awaits me. Will companies continue shelling out cash to create formal eLearning courses or will they seek to harness the informal learning opportunities that arise in the everyday working process? The latter is the holy grail of the learning organisation and is perhaps a pipe dream. But chasing it is an awfully attractive proposition – imagine the gold at the end of the rainbow.
This week brought us two examples of innovative new technology that, from my eLearning perspective, are almost the epitome of our conundrum. They are Google’s Wave and Microsoft / Xbox’s Project Natal.
Both have big hitters behind them, Google employing the Rasmussen brothers (of Google Maps fame) to do nothing less than reinvent Email. Microsoft employing gaming and AI guru, Peter Molyneux (of Black & White fame). So you know both are serious about changing the way we work and play.
Google’s Wave technology creates new opportunities for us to harness informal and social learning streams. I’ve been telling anyone who will listen (surprisingly few) that Email is one of the biggest technology burdens to organisational learning. Email has its place, but so often information which could be useful to a wider audience is locked up and lost in private conversations, never to be seen again.
Google’s Wave allows users to communicate in a “Wave” (fundamentally a threaded conversation), both synchronously and asynchronously, sharing files and keeping track of who did what, when, plus a whole lot more.
This is exciting me and a few others in the learning world for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s unlocking email and creating opportunities to share and develop knowledge, very much in the “2.0” mould, whilst providing an audit trial of what’s gone on. Second of all I can install it on my server, locking it behind a firewall if needs be. Third, and most significantly, Google have released an API for the open-source Wave technology, allowing developers to build upon the platform and create applications to extend the functionality. I can already see applications to build onto the Wave, VoIP as mentioned by Matt Bury earlier, or perhaps social bookmarking technology for instance.
This may represent a legitimate platform for eLearning developers to build upon in an effort to reach the “holy grail” of harnessing informal learning. And that’s pretty exciting, even if it’s a long way off happening.
If this is the future of informal learning, then Microsoft’s Project Natal, specifically the “Milo and Kate” demo, might just represent the future of formal learning. Its current platform couldn’t be any different – the Xbox. But it’s just as exciting. The demos showed at E3 this week combined a number of new features, from a new user interface, to the “ability” to recognise and respond to emotions.
It was no coincidence that Stephen Spielberg leant a hand at the launch. Before he started shooting “Minority Report”, Spielberg called a meeting of the best technology experts and futurists in the business to brainstorm, over a weekend at the exclusive Shutters on the Beach resort in Santa Monica, on what the near future would look like. I can’t help but think that either the guys and girls he got together were psychic, or they are the same people who are now making Project Natal.
Microsoft showcased a range of abilities, but it was Peter Molyneux’s “Milo and Kate” demo that caught my attention. He showcased a game in which the character recognises, responds and interacts with a player. Watch the video to be impressed, I can’t do it justice in words. The demo is obviously well scripted, although apparently it does work if you stick to the material. I was critical at first, as either AI just leapt forward 15 years, or it’s a bit of scam, as the creators must have made a scenario for the player to move through. But then it struck me; that’s fine. It’s what we do. We make scenarios for players to learn from and lead them through it with good pedagogical techniques. And what an experience it would be if it could look, feel and work like that.
The simplest scenarios I can think of would be aimed at youngsters, who would be learning something relatively basic. But I can see Customer Service training being done in the same way; the computer reacting to your tone and mannerisms. And the Xbox as a platform is interesting. If we are serious about playing games for eLearning, we should surely be developing on the most popular gaming platforms.
But the two concepts, Wave versus Natal, represent polar opposites in terms of the future of eLearning.
Wave represents an opportunity to harness informal learning, its low cost, it’s got “2.0″ appeal and it’s perhaps easier to envisage in the work place.
But Natal opens doors to bring more “play” into eLearning and it provides a captivating and hugely rich user experience. It will also cost a bomb unless some clever authoring techniques can be used.
So which is the future? Commercially speaking, it will be Wave that I rush to invest my time in first. But I wish it was Natal.
This always happens.
I have a breakthrough idea and the next day I find out someone else has already thought it.
Last night’s idea came to me whilst I was cooking dinner. Despite most of my energy being focused into not setting the smoke alarm off, my cooking thoughts are often good. Perhaps its because I’m not actively trying to think of anything. On this occasion I was burning a sausage, badly, so I knew it was going to be a good one.
I’m still facing the same problem I have been for the last couple of years. We haven’t got eLearning right. It hasn’t been the explosion which was once predicted. It’s very frustrating, knowing that your industry should be the future but not being able to put it into practice.
The internet as a medium for learning is evolving very rapidly, far more so than the eLearning industry is. We are being out-paced by the platform that we seek to harness. We’ve even given this phenomenon a name in an attempt to explain why it’s not as good as us:
Pah! Even the name makes it sound pathetic. You just know it had to be thought of by people with some serious money invested in “formal learning”. Like me…
We in the formal learning world speak about the need for great instructional design, strong structural form and pedagogically sound content. But we’re all painfully aware that people are learning just as much (if not considerably more) from web sites which posses none of these properties. We can deride these efforts as poor cousins to proper eLearning – no substitute for the real stuff – but there remains a nagging feeling at the back of my mind.
What are we going to do about Informal Learning?
Formal learning does have a couple of aces up its sleeve. Proving exactly what it is that informal learning does for users, or who exactly it benefits, is tough. If you don’t sit through formal testing procedures, it’s tricky to create audit trails of any worth. And of course, not all learning is suited to the informal format; the bread and butter of the eLearning world is training that meets legislative requirements and this has to be more formal.
Some of these issues aren’t going to go away. No one is going to invest serious and consistent money into a format from which they cannot prove results. Compliance is likely to become a bigger issue in the future. And a lot of the ideas we have built up over the last thousand or so years of teaching practice have got some merit!
But Informal Learning has its own massive plus points. Low cost, accessibility, bite-sized, relevant, just-in-time – just a few of the words I could use to describe it.
Instead of slaying the beast that is Informal Learning, the eLearning industry should be working much harder to harness it and put it to use. We need a way to formalise the informal. So perhaps that is what I should focus my efforts on, alone forging a path towards a better world…
And that’s when I saw the Tweet:
@gsiemens: “formalizing informal learning is the holy grail of education for the near future”