The explosion of social networking technology platforms has facilitated informal learning in numerous ways. As a result, content is exploding. Perhaps most exciting is the fact that this content is free. The temptation to jump on the informal learning bandwagon is immense.
But let’s step back and take a closer look at the opportunities and challenges. There are some important issues to consider.
First of all, informal learning has always existed. It’s just that in the past, it was called experience. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that as much as 70 percent of what a person learns is the direct result of experience. The 30 percent balance has been formal learning — training and education. Since the activity has always existed but was just called a different name, one has to ask: What is causing the explosion of interest in informal learning?
First, social networking technology creates access to massively greater experiences through the click of a button, resulting in ease of use, low cost and access to an exploding universe of contacts.
The other big driver behind the movement to enhance informal learning is increased mobility. Mobile learning is really learning that provides flexibility and convenience. The attributes of mobile learning provide easy access to the vast universe of informal content.
However, no matter what happens with informal learning, formal learning is not going away. No matter how compelling the informal learning buzz becomes, there will always be a fundamental need for formal learning.
Why, you might ask? Let’s start with a more disciplined discussion about what formal learning is. Informal learning is about self-selected content. On the other hand, formal learning is about expert-selected content. Formal learning is not about how or where learning is done — it is about what is learned. It is also about what has been learned. It is about assessment. It is about competencies. It is about the use of the learning.
So two key elements of formal learning are the authority of an expert and the measurement of value created. It is the role of the expert and the imposition of competency standards that distinguish formal learning from informal.
In the end, the debate about informal learning vs. formal learning needs to shift. The challenge is not an either-or choice. It is not about whether one is better the other. It is about learning.
To move the conversation forward, I challenge CLOs to think about the basic building blocks of learning and help establish a set of learning-community principles. Ultimately, this will help us by framing a vision for our senior leadership team members and allowing them to accurately prioritize learning investments in the future.
The challenge is to integrate the critical elements of formal and informal learning. We need to drive formal learning to have the convenience and flexibility of informal learning — figuring out whether it can operate on a mobile learning platform is a good place to start. For the 30 percent of learning that is not pure experience, we need to design content and assessment in ways that provide maximum convenience and flexibility. Driven by competencies, that 30 percent requires an expert to select content, learning methods and learning objectives. For both formal and informal learning, the design needs to provide maximum access to the global resources proliferating on the Web. It needs to center around learner pull.
Currently, formal learning lacks some key attributes of informal learning. We have rigorously examined those. The challenge is to fully understand what the possibilities of the learning space are and then target our investment to take full advantage of the potential.