Posted tagged ‘formal learning environment’

Doctoring the Informal Learning Environment

3 May 2011

Anne Marie Cunningham is a GP and Clinical Lecturer at Cardiff University, Wales. She authors the blog Wishful thinking in medical education, which she uses to advance thinking about the training of student doctors.

Recently Anne Marie blogged Location and Learning (which I have reproduced here) and she asked me whether or not I consider her central idea an example of an Informal Learning Environment (ILE).

My short answer is “yes and no” – which I will explain – but for the moment please read Anne Marie’s idea for yourself…

Hospital corridor

In the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about how we can support the learning that takes place when medical students are on placement.

We know that entering wards can be a daunting experience for students. They don’t feel part of a team. They don’t know who everyone is. They don’t understand what is happening. They don’t want to interrupt nurses attending to patients or junior doctors catching up with paperwork at desks. They see other members of the team wandering in and out of the ward but they don’t know what their role is. They don’t recognise the social worker or the pharmacist or the OT. They might not even know what their own role is. They miss out on opportunities to attend meetings and teaching sessions because they don’t know they are happening.

In fact they spend too long waiting around for someone else to turn up to teach them, and on activities that have little educational value. They generally have a haphazard learning experience.

But placements are very rich environments with many unique opportunities to learn. So what can we do?

Imagine instead that before coming to the ward the students had access to a network which let them find the profiles of all the staff who worked on that ward. They could see the timetables for teaching. They could even see what the last students who had been on this placement had seen and learnt. They can select what they would particularly like to gain from the placement, and this will become part of their profile which will also be available to all the staff on the ward.

The network will also contain links to information about initiatives that are happening in the ward to address patient safety and quality improvement. The students can see if there are opportunities for them to get involved in this work and learn about the input their colleagues have had in the past.

When they turn up on the ward the students check in. They can see the profiles of the staff who are working there and when they should be finishing, when they will be on call and what clinics or theatre sessions they will be doing that week. Their calendar updates with activities that are happening that day that they should know about.

The network that they are tapping into is the same one that all the staff in the hospital use to keep themselves up to date. The students can record their learning and their thoughts about how the ward works. Their input is valued by the staff on the ward and their fellow students from other disciplines.

Do you think this will happen soon? Why hasn’t it happened already? And how could patients use this network?

[Source: Location and Learning]

Light bulb

What a wonderful idea!

Given the realities of the workplace for student doctors, shifting the pedagogy – if ever so slightly – from formal to informal sounds long overdue.

I certainly support the idea of staff profiles. If they include the name, photo, role, expertise, work roster and contact details of each staff member, the student can identify the right SME for their problem and avoid wasting precious time on a wild goose chase.

I also support the idea of the student having their own profile, and connecting it to a personal blog. The blog provides the student with a vehicle to express what they hope to gain from their placement, record their experiences, reflect on what they have learned, and even voice what they have struggled with.

Other students could read the blog to find out how their fellow student is faring, and perhaps make a social connection. The administrators and teaching staff could also read the blog to evaluate the student’s experience and remedy any problems.

Using laptop

In addition to profiles and blogs, I would also suggest facilitating an open discussion forum. Unlike a blog (which may or may not be read by others) a discussion forum enables the student to push a question to the crowd, thereby leveraging the collective intelligence of the hospital.

Senior doctors and nurses could participate in the forum to contribute their expert knowledge and lead the students in the right direction. Of course the student 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 discussion forum would also be a suitable vehicle for promoting the various initiatives that Anne Marie speaks of, providing reminders about upcoming teaching sessions, advertising project opportunities, and sharing other hospital-related news.

Doctor with iPad

Having said that, I think a big missing piece of this puzzle is a wiki or some other form of bulk content repository.

I would imagine that in a big institution like a hospital, knowledge is distributed everywhere – on scraps of paper, in folders on shelves, on a poster in the canteen, in people’s heads – which makes it really hard to find (especially when you need it). A wiki enables the hospital to centralise that content so that it can be retrieved quickly, easily and on‑the‑job via a mobile device.

I’m salivating over the thought of the kinds of resources it might contain!

Essentially, then, I would base the hospital’s ILE on three core components:

1. Wiki – the first port of call,
2. Discussion forum, the second port of call, and
3. Staff profiles, the third port of call.

Of course I recognise the importance of formal learning too. I’m not suggesting the hospital ditches face-to-face instruction, for example, with 3D animation. On the contrary, I believe formal and informal modes of delivery complement each other. The trick is determining which is best in each situation, and it might involve a combination of both – why not run a face-to-face demonstration and make the animation available in the wiki for future reference?

In the hospital, then, formal teaching sessions remain a core component of the student’s learning environment. They require support resources such as timetables, agendas and follow-ups.

Taking this one step further, the student’s shifts in the ward may also be considered a core component of their learning environment, as they are instances of on-the-job training. They require support resources such as a roster and perhaps an online check-in facility.

So Anne Marie’s wishful-thinking learning network for student doctors could look something like this:

Hypothetical medical learning environment

As you can see, the interface segregates learning from its management.

The former comprises the ILE (wiki, discussion forum and staff profiles) plus elements of the FLE (work shifts and face-to-face teaching sessions). This zone is where the student goes to learn something.

The latter zone comprises the remaining components of the FLE. This is where the student attends to administrative matters (calendar, floor maps, 60-day checklist), assessment (quizzes, assignments, due dates, grades) and performance management (PMA, development plan, 360° feedback, performance appraisal, manager’s reports).


As an organisation shifts its pedagogy towards the informal end of the learning continuum, its ILE and FLE increasingly represent the distinction between the act of learning and its management.

However, organisations are rarely so extreme in their learning model, and some (like hospitals) probably never will be because formal instruction is so crucial.

So I see nothing wrong with “doctoring” the ILE by associating it with formal elements. ILEs and FLEs are flexible concepts that should be manipulated according to the contexts in which they will be used.

Doctor with iPad

I know if I were a student doctor, I would completely immerse myself in this learning environment. I would get myself an iPad and carry it with me at all times as an indispensable learning aid.

I would check in every day. I would look up what was going on. I would attend teaching sessions. I would search content. I would browse. I would post queries. I would discuss. I would contact SMEs. I would blog. I would read other people’s blogs. I would check out my fellow students’ profiles and perhaps meet up for lunch.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced this idea is bigger than any individual hospital. It is something the Health Department should implement across the sector. Now.


Open Learning Network vs Informal Learning Environment

21 September 2010

In the comments section of my previous post, Mike Caulfield kindly pointed me to the article Envisioning the Post-LMS Era: The Open Learning Network by Jonathan Mott.

I was immediately interested because, like me, Mott is striving to bridge the gap between the organisation’s LMS and the learner’s PLE. He articulates his position as such:

“…a one-or-the-other choice between the two is a false choice between knowledge-dissemination technologies and community-building tools. We can have both.”

Amen to that.

But how do we bridge the gap?

Mott’s blueprint is the Open Learning Network (OLN). Mine is the Informal Learning Environment (ILE).

While both proposals have remarkable similarities, the pedagogical philosophies that underpin them are fundamentally different.

The ILE recapped

An ILE is a space that centralises tools and resources that the learner can use to drive their own development. In How to revamp your learning model, I propose three core components:

1. A comprehensive wiki,
2. An open discussion forum, and
3. A bank of personal profiles.

These components work in tandem with the LMS and system reports, which in turn comprise the core components of the Formal Learning Environment (FLE).

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

The organisation manages the ILE on behalf of the learners, who are free to search, explore, ask and share at their own pace and at their own discretion, and – ideally – integrate the system into their broader PLE.

The OLN compared

While the ILE is designed to bridge the gap between the LMS and the PLE, it purposefully keeps them apart. Not only do I believe in the right of the learner to keep their PLE strictly personal, but I also believe in the power of separating “learning” from its administration.

The OLN takes a different approach. Mott states:

“The OLN is not intended merely to allow the LMS and PLE paradigms to coexist in harmony, but rather to take the best of each approach and mash them up into something completely different.”

The OLN model connects private and secure applications on the organisation’s network (such as the student information system, content repository, assessments and transcripts) to open and flexible tools and applications in the cloud (such as blogs, social networks and non-proprietary content) via a services-oriented architecture.
The university network and the cloud under the OLN model. Source: Mott, J. (2010) Envisioning the Post-LMS Era: The Open Learning Network, Educause Quarterley Magazine, Volume 33, Number 1.

Both the OLN and ILE are modular because they comprise standalone resources or “learning objects”. This makes them flexible because the objects can be easily replaced by others that are more current, relevant or useful.

The key difference between the two models is interoperability. In a nutshell, the objects in an OLN can talk to one another via web service protocols such as LTI. Mott elaborates:

“In the simplest terms, web services-enabled applications leverage the elegantly simple Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) that gave life to the World Wide Web. This means that applications use a common set of verbs (such as GET and POST) and nouns (standard definitions of ‘student,’ ‘course,’ ‘score,’ etc.) to share data (as XML) via HTML. A robust services architecture will also implement role-based security and authentication protocols to manage data and application access and permissions. Within such a framework, any tool can securely interact with any other tool, passing user IDs and course and role information. Activities are then logged in the second application so that data can be passed back to the originating application (via a secure HTTP POST in the browser).”

A full-featured OLN. Source: Mott, J. (2010) Envisioning the Post-LMS Era: The Open Learning Network, Educause Quarterley Magazine, Volume 33, Number 1.

The ILE model is not as technologically complex! It makes no demands for interoperability among the components of the PLE, ILE and LMS; in fact, it celebrates their independence. The common denominator is authentic assessment, which represents the sum of all learning regardless of its sources.

Digging deeper

So while the major difference between the OLN and ILE is apparently their respective technical framework, that is simply a manifestation of their true difference: pedagogical philosophy.

I see the OLN as a solution for monitoring the student’s progress during a program of study in the digital age. It formalises the informal. The underpinning pedagogical philosophy, therefore, is formal learning – which I recognise as entirely appropriate in the Higher Education environment.

In the workplace, however, the vast majority of learning is informal. I would even go so far as to suggest that we hinder the learning process by drowning it in bureaucracy.

I see the ILE as a solution for self-directed learning, peer-to-peer discourse and knowledge sharing. It informalises the formal. The underpinning pedagogical philosophy, therefore, is informal learning – which is crying out for support in the corporate sector.

Horses for courses

So yes, Mott and I propose two similar yet fundamentally different learning models – but we have our reasons.

Neither is necessarily right; neither is necessarily wrong.

It all depends on context.

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.