Making Informal Learning Assets Work

Seeking ways to leverage new social media environments, learning departments are discovering ways to sneak a little formal learning through the informal learning back door. Some of our clients for example, are looking to load up their social learning environments with small bits of learning content related to business goals. The notion being that these informal learning assets will live or die on the strength of their connection to employee performance need. Informal learning assets (or perhaps more accurately formal learning assets designed for informal consumption) are small segments of learning media such as videos, podcasts, documents, animations, short interactive pieces, images, performance guides, job aids, process descriptions, anything with a learning intention that can be posted to a social media environment. They can be created by anyone, from learning designers, to managers and employees and team members.

Survival of the fittest

The strategy creates a kind of Darwinian free-for-all of digital learning resources. Those of best fit to real learning and performance needs will get viewed, liked, shared, discussed and commented on more than those that don’t quite measure up. The best become internal learning memes that do their viral tour of duty and those that don’t hit the mark fall off the social radar, never to produce their learning offspring to see another day. Or so the theory goes. It’s an interesting strategy with loads of implications for designers, suppliers and users of learning content. The idea (I hesitate to call it a trend) is leading some organizations and training suppliers to deconstruct their existing learning programs into learning bits and pieces for populating internal social media environments such as they are.

Making informal learning assets work

I like the idea of infusing communities with digital learning assets but there are a few cautions to watch as we enter this new path. Foremost is the profusion of “information” oriented learning assets at the expense of the practice, application  and reflection that we know is at the heart of real learning and improvement. Information based assets no matter how novel or entertaining we make them are not enough. To bastardize an old Magerism, if telling alone resulted in learning we’d all be so smart we could hardly stand it.

There are ways to structure and design informal learning assets to maintain the best of what we’ve learned from formal design and bring them into the informal learning world. A model we’ve been experimenting with connects formal, informal and social learning, based on five learning essentials (you’ll recognize them if you are familiar with David Merrill’s First Principles or Bernice McCarthy’s 4Mat). Effective learning requires solving authentic problems and tasks, connecting new knowledge with existing mental models, uses powerful ways of presenting and demonstrating new knowledge, provides many and varied opportunities to practice new skills with coaching and reflection, and finally guides the the application to new situations on the job.

Too many informal learning assets target only the “key knowledge” requirement (#3), without any connection to the remaining four learning essentials. Well designed learning programs will account for each of the essentials, but there is no reason they all have to bundled up together in a tidy formal learning bow. In fact, the essence of good informal learning is that the guided application essential (#4) takes place on the job with feedback and coaching from colleagues or mentors inside social media environment or face to face. Forums and discussions are excellent ways to gently guide application. Job aids and performance support systems are effective vehicles for building skills into workflow (#5). Real business problems and tasks (#1) can be used instead of artificial cases. My point is that with care each of these other essentials can be developed as informal learning assets as effectively as a good information driven asset.

This view can also serve as a guide when deconstructing classroom programs for  conversion to social media environments. Instead of retaining only the key knowledge from your programs, look for effective ways to create assets that support the other learning essentials as well.

Learning assets associated with a specific knowledge domain, role or learning objective can be connected through tagging, linking or even a good old fashioned learning path.

Once loaded into social media environments users and community members will begin using them to improve their performance and manage their own knowledge. Not only will they consume the learning assets, they will create their own and in doing so create new and emergent knowledge. As new ideas emerge they will evolve to standard practice and can feed the development of new or revised formal learning programs.

This connection between formal, informal and Social learning might look something like the following:

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2 thoughts on “Making Informal Learning Assets Work

  1. Excellent article, Tom.

    I especially like the diagram that ties together formal learning, informal learning and social media. I too recognise that all three are crucial in the workplace.

    I also appreciate your mention of the “good old fashioned learning path”. I think it is key in supporting learners!

    • Thanks Ryan;
      It’s a bit of an artificial separation (informal and social learning) but as i mention in the post most conceptions of informal learning assets (or nuggets, or segments or whatever) are probably better defined as formal learning for use in informal contexts. And yes, it’s hard to reconcile learning paths with self managed social learning but it can be done. I agree with you that sometimes employees just want help with a simple path through the learner maze.

      Tom

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