Sunday, May 03, 2009

Is there no room for Informal Learning?

There is an ongoing discussion around formal v. informal learning and I think we are at a point where we need to put a stake in the ground.  Jay Cross is doing an admirable job introducing the learning community to the idea of informal learning.  LearnTrends and other efforts have been well received by the community but not without constructive feedback.  Jay posts his own thoughts about April's LearnTrends event here.  It is VERY hard to be an agent of change and so I applaud Jay's, and others, efforts in taking risks and pushing us all outside of our comfort zones.

However, I think the pendulum needs to swing back to the center as we find that there is a time and place for both.  I think we can learn a lot from productivity gurus, and "effective meetings" advocates by continuing to ask "why are we here?" What's the purpose of us gathering here today.  From personal experience, I know that I find having a neutral facilitator managing the meeting process helps keeps everyone on track without hindering the free flow of ideas.  When the room gets quiet they tend to ask the write questions.  When the room gets loud they can help redirect emotions towards forward progress.  Being a GOOD facilitator of conversations is a powerful skill to have in these chaotic times of uncontrolled, open conversations.

This may sound a bit ironic but perhaps its time to put some definitions around conversations.  In Jays post he reminds us to step back and take a look at the origins of these words.  Let's start with Conversation:
"conversation. 1340, from O.Fr. conversation, from L. conversationem (nom. conversatio) “act of living with,” prp. of conversari “to live with, keep company with,” lit. “turn about with,” from L. com- intens. prefix + vertare, freq. of vertere (see versus). Originally “having dealings with others,” also “manner of conducting oneself in the world;” specific sense of “talk” is 1580."
I was a little surprised by this definition.  But it makes perfect sense, and fits nicely into how I've been "presenting" informal (learning2.0) concepts to audiences.  The thrill that we've all experienced from informal learning is thrilling because its NOT scripted, its not planned, and its not expected.  People often refer to "formal events" as having the most action in the hallway conversations.  Why? My guess is the thrill of serendipitous encounters with admired colleagues and engaging in passionate conversation. 

The definition above seems to point conversations as being an ongoing process.  And I think that's where conversations make sense as something better and more meaningful than singular learning events.  "To live with, keep company with" is a very human description of something more than just a casual one-off conversation.  It would point to something more like a relationship.  Building relationships takes time and relationships build as we talk to and learn from one another.  In our lives as busy professionals it is important to schedule in "relationship building" events:  lunches, coffee, dinner, sports, etc.  A certain part of serendipity must be planned.  Being flexible in how we spend our time in order to make room for the unplanned moments is also required.  There is no possible room for complete and total informal learning.

Another great experiment of conversation is being done via twitter.  Thanks to @marciamarcia for "scheduling" and planning the Thursday evening #lrnchat conversations.  This may be a more appropriate system for facilitating semi-informal learning.  With 140 character limits the conversation stays alive and fresh.  Its also much easier for everyone to "speak" at the same time.  And by the nature of the system if you jump into the conversation late, you just scroll back a little to get caught up.  Its a very different type of conversation that fits into this new definition of conversation because I'm meeting new people and building relationships over the long term.  The conversation doesn't need to stop when the scheduled time is over.  Actually to the contrary, #lrnchat simply starts the conversation.

So that leaves us with Presentation.  Nothing surprising in that definition so I won't reprint.  Although, the idea that presentation is to formal as conversation is to informal, and as opposites, is misleading.  After all, are we not "presenting" our opinions during "conversations"?  If you are participating in the twitter conversation you are, in fact, presenting...right?  Or maybe the word is publishing...or is it? Hhhmmm.

We've discovered Pecha Kucha as a sort of short-form presentation. 
(And as an aside, its literal translation is "the sound of conversation" in Japanese)

Perhaps twitter is the micro-form presentation.  Can you present your point in 140 characters or less?  Or perhaps a little more by using a string of tweets?  Sure.  So, why is it so important for us as a community to be so excited about pushing informal learning as a model or method?  This question has been nagging at me for quite some time.

At one extreme you have those who feel as if no planned event should ever (or rarely) occur. And on the other, those with the overwhelming need for structure and a plan. As always, I think the dust will settle somewhere in the middle.

As I've told my audiences in the past...
I believe learning is about people, NOT technology
I believe people have a NEED to connect
I believe people CAN connect in powerful ways via technology
I believe meeting IRL (in real life) is ultimately THE most powerful way to enhance conversation

But I will add this...

I believe true conversations require people connecting in both IRL and via new media for the most significant impact over the long term.

Many different industries are impacted by the proliferation of new media technology.  The enhancements new media brings to the human experience is on a scale of magnitude greater than anything I've thought possible in my life.  However, face-2-face meetings and conferences are not going away.  We NEED them.  I can follow you on twitter and subscribe to your blog, but at some point I'm going to want to shake your hand, or even give you a hug.  I find it sad that even writing that sentence makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.  And for that very reason, I'm confident that informal conversations will continue to begin and flourish most powerfully in the structured formal setting of the University or conference facility.  There is plenty of room in both for the effective use of presentation and conversation.   


jay said...

Brent, you say there is a need for both informal and formal. I could not agree more. In fact, all learning is part formal and part informal.

The choice is not how much "con" and how much "pre"; it's finding the right balance.

F2F meetings are not going away. (Thank God.) But Virtual meetings are better than no contact at all when F2F sessions are not possible.

Ole Kristensen said...

Great article! It made me think on a bunch of other stuff, which leads me to following point:

Whatever is in the center of a learning activity is NOT what you learn the most, but if good it stirs up a lot of learning in the periphery.

Peripheral learning (not to be mistaken with superficial!)happens when you're attending a lecture - and then the hallway talk is where you learn the most from great people.

When the above article is in the center I'm thrown by the peripheral force to rethink a lot of things, but not much on the core point of the article ;-)

That's the point when we're talking about the challenge to formalize informal learning.

eLearning Guild events are great examples. You go to a bunch of sessions and suddenly you find your self skipping some because you meet up with great peple instead. But without the forma sessions no informal connections!

And vice versa: Great conversations in the hallway can qualify you to make better choices of relevant sessions later that same day!