Archive for the ‘informal learning’ category

How to revamp your learning model

7 September 2010

In my articles Online courses must die! and The ILE and the FLE in harmony, I advocate the development of a virtual Informal Learning Environment (ILE) to work in tandem with the Formal Learning Environment (FLE) to support both the learning process and its administration.

Heeding the advice of Bill Brandon, I will now flesh out that idea with an illustration of how it might be implemented in a real organisation.

Informal learning

I believe in the power of informal learning. In fact, I go so far as to say it should be the central philosophy of the organisation’s learning model.

In a practical sense, that means we need to provide our learners with tools and resources that they can use to drive their own development.

This is where the ILE fits in: It’s a space (like a website or intranet site) that centralises those tools and resources.

The ILE illustrated

There are a thousand and one possible combinations and permutations of an ILE.

However, if I were to consider (read “fantasise”) a greenfield opportunity (read “pipedream”), what would I design?

Essentially I would base my design on three core components, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Informal Learning Environment, consisting of a wiki, a discussion forum and personal profiles

Figure 1. Informal Learning Environment

Core component #1: Wiki

The primary component of my ILE is a comprehensive wiki.

In a big corporation like the one I work for, knowledge is distributed everywhere – on obscure intranet pages, in random folders, in people’s heads – which makes it really hard to find.

A wiki enables the organisation to centralise that collateral, whether directly (by inputting it) or indirectly (by linking to where it exists elsewhere), thereby functioning as the first port of call.

A wiki can contain – or point to – all manner of media, such as text, graphics, documents and multimedia. The learner can search and explore the content that’s relevant to them, just-in-time if need be.

The flexibility of a wiki also allows anyone to contribute content. This empowers the learner to share their knowledge with their colleagues, build on the knowledge that has already been contributed by others, and communally keep it up to date.

Core component #2: Discussion forum

The secondary component of my ILE is an open discussion forum. I say “secondary” because my rationale is that, if the learner can’t find the knowledge they need in the wiki, they can crowdsource it via the forum.

A discussion forum enables the learner to post a question to their peers, thereby leveraging the collective intelligence of the organisation. Of course the learner can also share their knowledge by answering someone else’s question, and they can learn incidentally by reading the questions and answers of others.

The questions posted to the forum may also serve to expose knowledge deficiencies in the organisation, which can be remedied by updating the wiki!

Core component #3: Personal profiles

The tertiary component of my ILE is a bank of personal profiles. I say “tertiary” because my rationale is that, if the learner can’t find the knowledge they need in the wiki nor via the discussion forum, they can target an SME directly.

For example, if the learner is struggling with a Java programming problem, they can look up a Java expert in the system and send them a direct message. The SME may be recognised as a “Java” SME because they have said so in their profile, or – if the technology is sophisticated enough – their contributions of Java-related content in the wiki and participation in Java-related conversations on the discussion forum flag them as such.

I’m in two minds as to whether a full-blown social network is useful for internal learning purposes. Apart from profiling, I’m not convinced that friending, status updating and other Facebook-like activities add much value – especially when a discussion forum that accommodates groups is already in place.

Formal learning

Self-directed, informal learning is great. However, there are some things your employer must know that you know.

The most obvious example is compliance, eg privacy, trade practices and OH&S. If you breach the regulations, the company will be in hot water, so they’re not just going to take your word for it.

There are plenty of other examples, such as a certain level of product knowledge, that may be critical to the role.

In a practical sense, this means we should map required competencies to each role and assess the employee’s proficiency against each one. That probably leads to a development plan, which in turn forms a subset of the performance agreement and is subject to regular appraisals.

Then there are formal training events like courses and workshops that are important and require documentation, and some people want their informal learning (eg reading a book) recorded too.

The FLE is a space (like a database or platform) in which all this administration is done.

The FLE illustrated

Again, there are a thousand and one possible combinations and permutations of an FLE.

However I base my design on two core components, as illustrated in Figure 2.

Formal Learning Environment, consisting of an LMS and reports

Figure 2. Formal Learning Environment

Core component #1: Learning Management System

The primary component of my FLE is a Learning Management System (LMS).

The LMS is an oft-derided yet invaluable educational technology. I suspect the typical organisation under appreciates it because it uses it illogically.

My advice is to use the LMS for what it’s designed for: managing learning. Competency maps, auto-marked assessments, registrations, completion statuses, grades, transcripts, performance agreements and performance appraisals are what the LMS does well. Some even extend into talent management and other HR domains.

Conversely, my advice is to avoid using the LMS for what it is not really designed for: managing content. Leave that to the ILE, which is a much more open and flexible environment, and is purpose built to support “learning”.

Core component #2: Reports

The complementary component of my FLE is the range of reports that can be generated from various systems to provide useful data. Such data may include productivity statistics, quality scores, complaint volumes, engagement indices… whatever can be analysed to identify training needs and/or evaluate learning outcomes.

At the end of the day, learning must support performance.

Putting it all together

My revamped learning model, then, comprises two discrete but related virtual environments:

1. An ILE, and
2. An FLE.

The former supports the process of learning; the latter supports its management.

A revamped learning model, consisting of an ILE and an FLE

Figure 3. A revamped learning model

Separating the two environments like this aids in segregating them in the human mind.

Why bother?

Because learning should be a joy.

By definition, an ILE should be unforced, unscored, unthreatening.
It should be a safe, open space where people are excited to go because they want to learn, without the burden of forced navigation and pass marks.

Simultaneously, an FLE should focus on what really matters. Too often when formal and informal learning are mixed, goals blur and we run the risk of formalising for formalising’s sake. We don’t need to monitor our colleagues like Big Brother; we just need to assess them when necessary.

How long is a piece of string?

Of course, many more components may be reasonably argued for inclusion in the learning model.

An onsite classroom, for example, is obviously a part of the formal learning environment. So too is a university campus on the other side of town.

In terms of informal learning, the water cooler, a cabinet of books – and even the pages in a book – may be considered components of the ILE.

How about a library of online courses? That might be considered a component of the ILE if the learner is free to explore it at their convenience, but it will suddenly revert to the FLE if the learner is instructed to complete a particular course.

Clearly then, the ILE and the FLE are elastic concepts, highly dependent on perspective and context. That’s why I have focused on the core components that I think can provide a universal framework for a revamped learning model.

The two virtual environments are constant; everything else around them is variable.

The ILE and the FLE in harmony

15 July 2010

In my previous article Online courses must die! I advocated the development of Informal Learning Environments (ILEs).

Since then, Steve Wheeler’s thought-provoking article Anatomy of a PLE has prompted me to extend my argument a little further.

My updated premise is that an organisation – be it a corporation, university or otherwise – should facilitate two discrete but related virtual environments on behalf of its learning community:

  1. An Informal Learning Environment (ILE) which supports the learning process; and

  2. A Formal Learning Environment (FLE) which manages that learning.

The ILE will contain self-paced, self-directed, unmeasured learning resources such as readings, video clips, podcasts and discussion forums. The ILE might be called a learning portal, a learning centre, or some other friendly moniker.

In contrast, the FLE will contain administrative tools such as enrolment lists, formal assessments, grades and transcripts. The FLE might be called an MLE, VLE, LMS, or some other acronym.

Both the ILE and the FLE can be hosted on the same platform, but I think the front end of each needs to be demarcated in order to psychologically separate the “learning” from its administration.

Online courses must die!

7 July 2010

A touch dramatic, isn’t it?

Now that I have your attention, please bear with me.

There’s method in my madness…

The myth of rapid authoring

The proliferation of so-called rapid authoring tools over the last few years has coincided with an explosion in the number of online courses developed in-house.

In the bad old days, technically challenged L&D professionals had to pay exorbitant fees to development houses to produce simple modules. These days, however, everyone seems to be creating their own online courses and distributing them via an LMS.

In tandem with this trend, though, has been the increasingly familiar cry of “It’s not interactive!”. Critics rail against boring page turners – and rightly so.

Bored at the computer

But you know what? Even when L&D professionals consciously integrate interactivity into their online courseware, I usually don’t think it’s all that engaging anyway. Increasing the number of clicks required to view the content does not make it more interactive. It just makes it annoying, especially for time-poor employees in the corporate sector.

Yes, I know you can embed real interactivity into courseware via games, branched simulations, virtual worlds etc, but hardly anyone does that. It requires time – which you don’t have because you’re too busy building the online course – or dollars – which defeats the purpose of developing it in-house!

So what’s the alternative?

Frankly, there’s nothing most online courses do that a PDF can’t. Think about it: PDFs display structured text and pretty pictures. Just like a typical online course, without the fancy software or specialist skills.

Businessman typing on keyboardAnyone (and I mean just about anyone) can create and update a PDF. Suddenly SMEs are back in the game…

Write up a Word doc and convert it? Easy.

Update the Word doc and re-convert it? Easy.

Now that’s what I call rapid.

The best of both worlds

If we dispense with online courses in favour of PDFs, how can we incorporate interactivity into the learning experience?

Enter the Informal Learning Environment (ILE).

Occupying a place on the continuum somewhere between a VLE and a PLE, an ILE is an informal learning environment that a facilitator manages on behalf of a group of learners.

Essentially, an ILE is a space (like a website or intranet site) that centralises relevant learning resources in a particular domain. The site may host some of those resources and point to others that exist elsewhere.

So your PDFs can go in there, but so too can your audio clips, videos, puzzles, games, quizzes and simulations. Don’t forget podcasts, RSS feeds, slideshows, infographics, animations, articles and real-life case studies. Not to mention blogs, wikis, discussion forums and social bookmarks.

Man working on computer

Unlike a VLE, an ILE is strictly informal. The learners can explore its resources at their own pace and at their own discretion. No forced navigation, no completion status. In this sense, the pedagogy is constructivist.

Unlike a PLE, an ILE is communal. It exists to support a community of practice, whose members can (or more accurately, should) incorporate it into their own respective PLEs. In this sense, the pedagogy is connectivist.

But that’s not to say that the pedagogy of an ILE can’t be instructivist either. The facilitator should provide a learning plan for novice learners which defines a sequence of study, identifying specific resources among the potentially overwhelming array of options.

The sky’s the limit

An ILE is a scalable and flexible learning environment. If we view each resource within that environment as a learning object, we can appreciate how easy it is to add new content, update old content, and remove obsolete content.


It’s incredibly inefficient to use up the precious time of an L&D professional to build, publish, test and upload an online course, only to edit, re-publish, re-test and re-upload it later, just because a few words need to be changed and a graph replaced. Instead, the SME can create and update the object via Word.

If you are keen on creating interactive tutorials, games or virtual worlds, now you can go for it! You have more time, and new tools are coming out that are making these kinds of thing easier to do. The finished product can be added to the ILE as another learning object. Again, if it needs to be updated later, there’s no need to edit, re-publish, re-test and re-upload a whole course – just that object.

If you commission an external developer to build a smokin’ hot immersive scenario, guess what: you add it to the ILE as another learning object. When it needs to be updated, you pay the developer to work on that object and that object only.

In this age of iPhones and Flip cameras, why not encourage your learners to generate their own content too? It’s another rich source of objects to add to the mix.

All these examples illustrate my central premise: when content is managed in the form of independent learning objects, it remains open and flexible, which means you can keep it current, relevant and organic.

Rockin’ role

Under the ILE model, the role of the L&D professional finally evolves.

Happy professionalThe SME is empowered to produce content, which frees you up to apply your own expertise: instructional design. This may involve a greater focus on engagement and interactivity.

The responsibility of learning is assigned back to the learners, which frees you up to guide, scaffold, encourage, discuss, prompt, probe, challenge and clarify. In other words, facilitate learning.

Your value in the organisation goes through the roof!

Take the ass out of assessment

I claimed earlier that there’s nothing most online courses do that a PDF can’t. I glaringly omitted assessment. Please note I left it out on purpose.

There are just some things that the company must know that you know. You get no argument from me on that.

However, how we assess that knowledge is bizarrely old fashioned.


While it’s convenient to wrap up some content and a quiz into a single package, I just don’t see the point from an instructional design perspective. Forcing someone to register into a course, just to pass a dinky quiz at the end, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

It is widely acknowledged that the vast majority of learning in the workplace is informal. From exploring an ILE to chatting around the water cooler, there is a myriad of ways that people learn stuff. Assessment should represent the sum of that learning.

This is where the LMS comes in. In my view it should manage assessment, not content. More specifically, it should deliver, track and record standalone tests that are linked to particular competencies.

When the LMS is used in this way, the L&D model aligns more closely with the learning process. The employees learn informally all over the place, using an ILE as their central support resource, then (if necessary) they record their competence. The focus of measurement shifts from activity to outcome.

This unorthodox approach makes many people nervous. Their primary concern is that someone can jump straight onto the test and pass it immediately, without ever “doing the course”. In response, I make these three points:

  1. You can jump straight to the assessment in most online courses anyway.

  2. If someone bluffs their way through the assessment and passes, clearly it wasn’t robust enough. That’s your fault.

  3. Conversely, if someone passes the assessment because they already have the knowledge, what’s the problem? You are recording competence, not making people’s lives difficult.

Of course, this kind of nervousness isn’t confined to the corporate sector nor to e-learning. For example, many universities have a minimum 80% attendance policy for face-to-face lectures. I don’t see the point of turning up just to fall asleep with my eyes open, but that’s another story!

The method in my madness

Online courses must die because they are unsustainable in the modern workplace. They aren’t rapid, flexible or scalable, and they usually don’t take full advantage of their medium anyway.

So unlock your content and manage it in the form of individual learning objects in an ILE.

Shift the bulk of the content to PDF. In the age of e-readers, no one will notice much difference.

By all means invest in authoring tools, but only in ones that will help you create interactive and engaging objects – easily.

Exploit Web 2.0.

Use standalone tests to record competence on your LMS. They cover all sources of knowledge.

Informalise learning. Formalise assessment.

My award-winning IQ

10 June 2010

Ryan collects awardToday I had the honour of collecting a Best Blended Learning Solution Award (Gold Level) at the 2010 LearnX Asia Pacific Conference.

The blended learning solution in question is “IQ”, an intranet-based portal that I developed for my colleagues at my workplace.

My driver for creating this portal was the realisation that, in a big corporation like the one I work for, knowledge is distributed everywhere – on random intranet pages, in obscure folders, in people’s heads – which makes it really hard to find.

As an L&D professional, my concern was: if someone wants to learn something, where do they start?

The answer is IQ

Essentially, IQ is a site that centralises learning resources for staff. It doesn’t host content itself, but rather points you in the right direction.

Businessman typing on keyboardFor example, if you want to attend an advanced negotiation skills workshop, you can look up the sessions delivered by our preferred training providers.

If you want to read about leadership, you can refer to our book list or search our e‑book catalogue.

If you want to do a self-paced course on Java programming, you can jump onto our e-learning platform.

In this way, IQ covers the full range of delivery modes that are available to our staff, from face-to-face classes and online courses, to books, e‑books, podcasts, blogs, wikis and other social media. I’m also keen to add information about our mentoring and coaching programs.

It’s our first port of call for learning.

So what?

Reading this, you might be scratching your head and asking yourself what all the fuss is about.

I’m the first one to put up my hand and say, as a blended learning solution, IQ is really simple. It doesn’t involve any new whizz-bang technology. After all, it’s an intranet site.

But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that it’s also an important step in the evolution of the learning model at my workplace.

5 Stages of Workscape EvolutionIt shifts an instructivist pedagogy towards a more constructivist and connectivist one.

It transforms a formal learning environment into a more informal one.

It returns the power (and responsibility) of learning back to the learner.

That’s why I’m so pleased to claim this award. It’s not just a pretty trophy to sit on my desk; it’s the validation of my instructional design by my peers in the industry.

Business applications of Twitter

4 September 2009

Blue birds

Earlier this week, I attended a Twitter Camp billed Twitter is not for dummies. I had the privilege of facilitating one of the breakout sessions, which focused on the business applications of Twitter.

We discussed a range of issues around this topic, and we generated some really bright ideas that I feel are worth pursuing in the corporate sector. Some of the ideas specifically relate to e-learning, while others may fall more comfortably into other portfolios.

BuildingsIn a nutshell, I see the business applications of Twitter falling into three main categories:

1. External
2. Internal
3. Personal

Allow me to elaborate…

External applications

By “external”, I mean your company playing in the real world, beyond its office walls.


With upwards of 20 million Twitter users around the world, companies should at the very least be scanning this massive public forum to keep tabs on what people are saying about them.

I see this kind of activity falling into the Public Affairs portfolio, as it concerns brand management. They need to know if someone is bad mouthing the brand across the Twittersphere, and respond accordingly.

Frustrated customer

But of course, tweet scanning also falls into the Customer Service portfolio. Twitter is used by many as a loudspeaker to vent their displeasure at bad service. Organisations shouldn’t be scared by this; in fact, it presents you with an opportunity: Why not respond to the customer, remedy their issue and turn their loyalty back around? I can tell you that CommSec actually did this for me recently, so it sure does work.

According to Susan Hall, Dell takes tweet scanning one step further: They don’t just look for mentions of Dell, they also look for mentions of their competitors. What an opportunity to win new customers!

Active tweeting

Tweet scanning is one thing, but active tweeting is something else again.

Perhaps your company should be sharing news and conveying other key messages to the Twittersphere. NEC is very active in this space, as is Southwest Airlines in the US: Imagine a raging storm shuts down Dallas airport and all flights are diverted to New Orleans; the Southwest call centre is jammed with thousands of panicked callers. Suddenly Twitter comes into its own as an alternative communications medium.

Businessman typing on keyboardWhat could your company tweet about?


• Its latest financial results.
• The release of a new product.
• The latest warm & fuzzy activity undertaken by its staff for the community.

But you have to be very careful to provide value. If you keep your tweets company-centric, then you won’t be very interesting and no one will want to follow you.

The trick is to keep your tweets customer-centric instead. In fact, according to Spike Jones, you probably shouldn’t even mention the company name at all.

Imagine these tweets from a boring old insurance company:

• Are you paying too much tax? Make sure you submit your Tax File Number to your financial institution.
• Did you know that the average Australian is woefully under insured? Ask your financial planner if you are adequately covered.

Saving money? Suddenly I’m interested.

It’s all about WIIFM.

Happy customer

A two-way street

OK, so you could send messages out to the Twittersphere, so why wouldn’t you also invite them in? Well guess what, ANZ and Telstra are doing just that.

These companies invite their customers (or prospective customers) to ask questions, submit complaints, provide compliments (Heaven forbid!), and most importantly, they have staff at the ready to respond quickly.

So maybe Twitter provides your business with an opportunity to engage with a different demographic of customer. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like robots answering my calls and putting me on hold forever, only to be transferred upteen times. But send a tweet? Yep, I can do that.  

Internal applications

The CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, actively encourages his staff to follow him on Twitter. He tweets jokes, inspirational quotes, humorous anecdotes, that kind of thing.

But what if your organisation wanted to tweet behind closed doors, out of sight of the prying public? Well, you can do that with Yammer – a Twitter-like platform that allows you to set up a “group” comprising your employees only.

Imagine interacting with your colleagues across the enterprise, asking questions, collaborating, sharing knowledge. Why spend half an hour running around trying to find someone who can help you, when you can just post it to Yammer and let the crowd post a reply.

This is a classic example of informal learning, and it’s central to the evolution and modernisation of workplace training.

Personal applications

By “personal”, I mean you using Twitter for your own professional purposes.

For example, I use Twitter as an international community of practice. I’m connected to a circle of e‑learning professionals from all over the world; I’ve chosen to follow their tweets, and some of them have chosen to follow mine. I share my knowledge, and I learn a lot more in return.

Digital world

So as a technology, Twitter is really simple. It’s what you do with it that makes it powerful.