The informal learning debate

The debate at Oxford Union this Wednesday on informal learning was very interesting, more so because some wonderful people on Twitter were actually relaying it blow-by-blow and also because I was testing my multi-tasking skills by juggling between the Twitter conversation and the PLENK session!

The motion was: The House believes that technology based informal learning is more style than substance.

Dr. Allison Rossett, Nancy Lewis, Mark Doughty argued for:

Informal learning is appealing and exciting but it has no authoritative voices, no assessments or guidance, and therefore no substance. The motion isn’t about us and how we like to learn. It’s about our need to know that the organisations and people we trust know what they are doing. Informal learning doesn’t provide that. It has no thermostat or control. We all love technology, but on the scale of substance and style, it’s still all about style. If you care about organisations, be they of pilots, doctors or cooks, if you care about performance then we urge you, support the motion.

Prof. Dutton, Jay Cross and David Wilson argued against:

Informal learning is not trivial; it is in every corner of institutions. People in the room are using technology to check facts as we speak. Technology-based informal learning enhances information and reach. It makes experts more accountable and raises the bar. And for parts of the developing world it is the only learning available. Therefore, we urge you to vote against the motion.

The main arguments were:

For the motion (more style than substance):

  • gets viewed as a cheaper alternative by managers, but no measure of formal effectiveness for learning managers
  • need assurance that our doctors are medical experts and our pilots can fly a plane
  • formal gets things done
  • not well-researched
  • no north star to guide, no common understanding of what it is
  • does not work when failure is not an option (mission critical)

Against the motion (substance and style):

  • Internet has become a first recourse for information
  • institutions need to learn to harness the network
  • (Cross) co-exists with formal learning on a continuum, only visible separation inside school learning
  • Not the tools but the collaborative activities that will sustain and evolve
  • it is part of work, we do not need to separate it

The ones against won comprehensively and there is an online vote if you want to add your weight. I think there are some important pieces to this debate.

One, learning does occur informally, whether with the use of technology or without it.

Two, by definition it is informal, loosely (if at all) structured, not pre-meditated or goal driven (let me go to the water cooler to get agreement on the next strategic shift in business). It is a space where data is not as important as the intelligence in the conversation, as the alignment between connections.

It is a space where in principle decisions may occur or new ideas may emerge or new connections may be made. It is a space that can trigger a lot of formal work. And since it is informal it may not always be serious.

Three, the separation categories of formal and informal make sense when one is trying to push out the other as being an equally or more effective way of learning. To make that claim, informal learning will have to defend itself against vague arguments of mission-criticality, dissipated theorizing and non-existent assessment methods. 

I say vague arguments because saying a doctor trained by informal methods (if any are identified) will fail to become a medical expert (or succeed) is an improperly framed, populist argument.

It assumes a distinct category for formal and informal. It assumes that informal learning is all about informal or non-serious, undirected chatter which depends on serendipitous events to become or be considered meaningful. It assumes, on the other side, that formal learning undisputedly generates medical experts or pilots. That every site of formal learning is serious, directed and purposeful.

It also throws out any chances of even considering that informal learning plays a huge role in the organization or in school learning.  In fact the argument that informal learning does not work when failure is not an option precludes the very idea of allowing mistakes to happen during formal learning (as Sir Ken Robinson argues in his TEDTalk – How Schools kill Creativity).

I would vote against the House on this one and also chasten it for selecting the motion the way it stands, more to provoke extreme reactions than to promote constructive debate.

4 thoughts on “The informal learning debate

Add yours

  1. Love what you’ve written here!

    Think about the possibilities of being able to harness the best of informal and formal learning to together accelerate people’s time to expertise and performance. Think about the imperative to be able to be intentional and conscious about doing this…and be able to repeat this to help people across the world and across all disciplines.

    That promise and our ability to articulate it is what will become a “formal” approach to development in the future.


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