Most of the research on informal learning states that it encompasses as much as 80 percent of the learning that occurs in companies today, yet very few training organizations have defined approaches to understanding and supporting it. I’m not saying that informal learning should become formal, but it appears that those of us who impact learners during the formal modalities of instruction could do a better job of impacting and supporting learners when they journey out into the informal domain.
As independent learning modalities such as e-communities and electronic performance support systems (EPSS) continue to grow and improve, the role of formal learning must change and grow with them. It will become less about designing, owning and disseminating content, and more about enabling, guiding and supporting learners through their many options for acquiring and applying content in the context of their workdays.
Three areas of enablement deal with different audiences and stakeholders in the learning process: the learner, the instructor and the learning content itself. Each has a responsibility to build enablement, and each can be addressed in the way learning programs are designed.
A learner’s ability to understand how to attack a problem is called metacognition. Each of us has learned—formally or informally—how to work toward a solution when presented with a problem. We employ different methods and strategies. Some may approach a problem methodically, relying on proven methods and tools that have worked in the past. Others randomly approach each situation as if it’s the first time they’ve encountered it, often wasting time using inefficient strategies and wandering off on tangents. With informal learning dominating the learning landscape, those with poor metacognitive skills can often founder and become frustrated. Formal training programs can do a better job of teaching metacognitive strategies.
When I first entered the teaching field, most methods focused on the instructor’s ability to get knowledge across, not necessarily to build students’ skills and strategies to discover this knowledge on their own. This approach supported the completion of the promised content, but it didn’t always teach the strategies or metacognitive skills needed to apply that content after the class ended. To enable learning and knowledge transfer beyond the formal learning domain, instructors can use a strategy called “cognitive apprenticeship,” a method by which instructors basically teach themselves out of the “support business.” Instructors intentionally model and teach effective metacognitive tools and strategies for their students to use and then slowly transfer these skills and responsibilities to their learners. The instructor gradually pulls back, or fades out support, allowing each student to try these tools and strategies for themselves with the instructor present for support and guidance.
In order for this to happen, the third area of enablement needs to be addressed: the structure and flow of the content being used. If the content used remains highly structured and supportive throughout the learning experience, growing and enabling these learning strategies is much more difficult. Designing and using content in this manner is often called “scaffolding.” As the name implies, it’s a way for the structure of the content and the flow of a class to systematically and effectively support a student through learning. If done correctly, scaffolding is removed intentionally as students learn effective methods to support themselves. If students are not allowed to try these problem-solving strategies, many will not trust their capability to use them or will develop poor strategies once the domain shifts from formal to informal. Cognitive apprenticeship is a way of using scaffolding effectively with the content being taught.
Many learners struggle with the informal learning tools and domains provided today. It’s often not the fault of the tool or strategy, but rather the methods the learner has been taught or, more typically, not taught to use that cause them to fail. Learning departments today need to focus on enabling the strategies their students use if they ever hope to see the application of training programs be successful.
Bob Mosher is director, learning evangelism and strategy for Microsoft Learning and has been an influential leader in the IT training space for more than 15 years. He can be reached at email@example.com.