Stop Learning the Hard Way, Part 2

In Part 1, I laid out the present reality of learning. Using a recent lesson learned in responding to my teething, seven-month old son, I made the claim that we’re increasingly gaining new information via search engines and social networks. I said that I planned to persuade your thinking on three points:

• Informal learning is the new normal.
• The real experts are in cubicles, not just classrooms.
• Social networks are the perfect, perpetual classroom.

Well, let’s get to it:

1. Informal is the new normal.

In the August 2010 issue of Chief Learning Officer magazine, Michael Echols cited the common wisdom that informal learning constitutes 70-80% of all knowledge acquisition. He said informal learning has always been around: “It’s called experience,” he said. Social networking is so powerful, he explained, because it “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.” Another key driver of the growing importance of social networks is the increasing mobility of the workforce.

Echols distinguishes informal from formal learning (i.e. a traditional, instructor-led classroom experience), arguing that informal learning is self-selected content while formal is expert-selected. He also suggests that formal learning more readily lends itself to the measurement of value.

While I understand and respect this distinction, I have to disagree. It’s just as easy — in fact, it might be easier — to access expert advice by performing a Google search or posing a question in an online community like GovLoop (https://www.govloop.com) or Quora (http://www.quora.com). In fact, I think the more important question surrounds the notion of who constitutes an expert. I would define an “expert” as anyone who can provide a relevant answer to an employee’s question with a high degree of accuracy or point them to a credible resource.

As for the measurement side of Echol’s definition for formal learning, I think it’s time to write the requiem for Kirkpatrick’s four levels of evaluation. There is really only one question by which you need to measure an effective learning experience: Did your employee get the information s/he needed to do their job effectively.” It’s time to start rewarding resourceful individuals who can find information quickly in addition to those people who can remember and regurgitate vast amounts of information on demand.

2. The real experts are in cubicles, not just classrooms.

If you agree with this paradigm shift in who constitutes an expert, it necessarily follows that we need to start questioning where we find the experts. Traditionally, we’ve adhered to the notion that experts are instructors or authors – the “sage on the stage.” You and I can access their knowledge when they stand before us in a classroom (physical or virtual) or complete a book or article.

That’s no longer our reality. You and your employees can’t wait weeks or months for the next scheduled course or publication date. We need information right now and there are tools that enable us to find it fast. In contrast to those sages, we need “peers on our PDAs.” The impact on learning is that we need to create ready access to colleagues in our field who can provide quick answers to our questions with a high degree of accuracy and agility.

There are several ways that niche communities are accomplishing both forms of knowledge exchange. On Twitter, two great examples are #lrnchat and #localgovchat, where niche groups of practitioners and thought leaders gather at a designated time every week to cover current topics of importance. The topics are generated by the people involved in the chat, not by one sole expert who purports to have all the answers. While the sessions may have a facilitator, all of the participants are encouraged to share their thoughts – and each person’s contributions are equally valued as “expert.” Of course, the real value is that participants in these weekly chats are forming relationships and building knowledge networks that they can access in real-time throughout the week.

3. Social networks are the perfect, perpetual classrooms.

Let’s say you are not quite ready to let go of the traditional classroom. I’ll grant that formal learning is not vanishing overnight, but I do believe that we need to start taking the subject matter experts out of the classrooms and placing them in online communities. I’ll say it again: your employees can’t wait weeks or months for the next training session. And why should they when we have the tools to create ready access to expert advice? Even if you’re not willing to take the employee out of the traditional classroom, it’s time to start expecting the experts to step away from the whiteboard and hang out on the web where people need them every day.

Do you want to know where we need them? We welcome their presence in places like GovLoop – a sort of perpetual classroom or conference where people convene between traditional training events and gain access to content and colleagues. One of my favorite examples of GovLoop serving a learning function was a few months ago when an employee from the U.S Office of Personnel Management asked a question about geographic information systems. Nine minutes later, a GIS technician for the County of Kankakee, Illinois, responded with a link to the exact information he requested.

Kitty Wooley, a long-time GovLoop member and an employee at the US Department of Education, put it this way:

The real point, to me, is shared learning…on GovLoop people share all sorts of things they’re learning and that adds a lot of timely value. I think of this in loose terms that allow room for lots of creativity, as “other people talking about things they’ve done, or are doing, that really work, that may be replicable.” The point is to share experience while it’s still fresh and the person’s still thinking about it.

This same concept applies to agency intranets and less formal online communities like listservs and forums. Whatever you’re choosing to use to gain on-the-job help, you’re likely not learning like you used to.

What do you think? Do you continue to appreciate the traditional classroom or should learning be moved to online portals where people have ready access to real-time resources?

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Avatar photo Bill Brantley

In response to your three points:
1) I believe that social learning is a better term than informal learning. Viewed that way, there is nothing that says instructor-led classroom training cannot be another form of social learning. To me, the issue is between the idea of broadcasting information and hoping it sticks (traditional learning) and having the students interact with each other to discover the knowledge (social learning). Experience is a great teacher but it can be rather time-consuming and harsh. There needs to be a structure to the social interactions and the experiences so that students are learning effectively and efficiently.

2) Agreed! The best instructors empower the students to question everything they hear, read, and see. I constantly encourage my students to question me but they need to have good evidence and good critical thinking skills if they expect to make a good argument.

3) I was the employee in your example and while I got a great answer on my first query, my second query about the SAS to ArcGIS bridge received no responses so I had to turn to a formal classroom for my answer. Social Networks are great learning resources but not perfect. You have to be careful what you ask and there is a great deal of misinformation.

To give a personal example: in February I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. Of course my first response was to Google this and I found a lot of resources. An overwhelming amount of resources! Many “experts” and lots of research but they all contradicted each other and I was greatly confused. I then enrolled in a series of instructor-led classes that were full of lecture but also gave me good information and at least a framework to start understanding how to treat this disease. The social networks are a good follow-up but I needed the framework first to be able to ask intelligent questions and critically think about the responses.

I don’t believe that there is an either/or in this debate. Instructor-led courses benefit from having social-networking aspects while social-networking training needs better structure and better information filters. I believe the best direction is a blended approach and that is how I teach my courses. Judging from my evaluations (and not useless Kirkpatrick levels), blended learning is quite popular with my students.

Andrew Krzmarzick

1 – Agree. I like that term, too. And it just demonstrates that the game has changed and the old rules/language don’t really apply anymore.

2 – It’s scary for a professor to open up the classroom…or to allow the students to educate each other…so we need some bold and brave folks to acknowledge that the answers are “in the room” (which could be virtual), and not in a book or one person’s head.

3 – Tell me more about that…why didn’t it get an answer? Next time, let me know and I will help you get that answer…that’s another reason why social networks are so powerful…because there are curators seeking to facilitate answer-finding. Tell me more about the formal classroom you needed to attend.

Sorry to hear about your diagnosis, Bill…but great example of the need for a more blended approach. In medical forums like that where people are not performing work related to the topic that is being addressed, the forums are not filled with experts per se, but I do believe that the predominant view of the crowd is helpful and, in many ways, “expert” when there is consistency and congruence. For instance, people ask “what should I do for X?” and people are able to say, “I spoke to my doctor and s/he said…” and 80% of the answers are similar. At minimum, the person has a cursory knowledge that informs their next visit to a health care professional.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

2) But once you open up the room, the teacher can also learn some new things and get some great research ideas.
3) I’m not sure why I didn’t receive an answer other than it may involve a detailed response or it was a newbie question. The class was at the Graduate School and it was “Introduction to ArcGIS 9.X”

What you have to watch out for in the forums where there is no subject matter experts is the “loudest voice,” groupthink, and “the plural of anecdote isn’t data.” Consensus is a useful tool for measuring the quality of claims but there is always the example of “tulip-mania” to caution against putting too much stock into what everyone agrees is true.

Tracy Kerchkof

In some cases, the business model of the owners of the information is to hide that information unless you are a paid subscriber. When there aren’t enough users of that information to fight that model, google, unfortunately, will never be the answer, as long as the companies can stay ahead of the customer demand for free information, either by hunting for it and getting rid of it OR exceeding the quality of the free information by a significant amount

I think Bill hit in on the head, this isn’t an either/or debate. Both forms of learning enhance each other. “Informal” learning is what got me into IT, but I am burned time and time again because that learning didn’t give me enough of a foundation to understand certain things. I’m catching up, but I am far behind the people that have at least some formal training under their belt. Alternatively, I wish I could find resources for scientific information that are as accessible as programming resources or even gardening. The latter is actually what drove me into IT from water resources engineering in the first place.