Apologies in advance to the good folk who toil altruistically to mop up Wikipedia for the rest of us.
It’s just that I’ve banged heads with a few of your pig-headed colleagues over the years, and I couldn’t resist…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Figure 3. A revamped learning model
Separating the two environments like this aids in segregating them in the human mind.
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 Learning Circuits Big Question for this month is:
If you peer inside an organization in 10 years time and you look at how workplace learning is being supported by that organization, what will you see?
To answer this question, I’ve organised my own two cents’ worth under six major banners…
1. The responsibility for e-learning development will decentralise across the organisation.
In 10 years’ time, I believe organisations will rely less on external development houses to produce e-learning solutions, and instead bring more – if not all – of it in-house.
Of course this is already happening; however, it’s usually associated with the appointment of a specialist “E-Learning Team”. While such a team may fill a gap in the short term, it’s akin to appointing a Photocopier Operating Team, a Word Document Authoring Team, a Google Searching Team and an Email Sending Team. While all of these technologies were novel at one time or another, everyone has since learned to integrate them into their day-to-day activities.
E-Learning development should be no different. My view is that it’s unsustainable for a specialised E-Learning Team to remain responsible, in the long term, for developing all of the e-learning solutions for everyone in the organisation. Soon enough they’ll get swamped, their turn-around times will lag, and their colleagues will start to say silly things like “e-learning doesn’t work”.
It makes more sense to me to train the organisation’s Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in rapid e-learning authoring. Then, whenever a learning need arises, the SME has both the knowledge and the skills to develop their own e-learning solution, quickly and effectively.
Sure, the interactivity of the e-learning that is produced by the SMEs will take a short-term hit. However, that should change over time as their confidence and experience grows with using these tools. I’m sure you’re better with Word now than when you first started?
Of course, the support and guidance of qualified e-learning coaches will be crucial during this transition period.
2. E-Learning will shift from instructivism towards constructivism and connectivism.
In a previous article, I said that workplace learning has thankfully become more constructivist and even connectivist over time. I think in 10 years’ time it will be even more so.
A driver of this shift will be people power. As staff familiarise themselves with blogs, wikis, RSS, YouTube and Twitter, and as more tech-savvy Gen-Y’s & Z’s join the organisation, the demand for self-paced, self-directed learning will accelerate.
Couple that with the increasing demand for e-learning more generally across the organisation, and no one will be able to afford the time and effort to prepare perfectly pre-defined, pre-packaged content for all occasions. Something’s gotta give; open it up to Web 2.0.
I still maintain that instructivism will remain relevant in the digital age. However, with less hand holding from a “teacher”, meta‑learning (or learning how to learn) will become an increasingly important skill set.
3. Staff will collaborate and share knowledge.
The shift towards constructivism and connectivism will demand organisation-wide collaboration and peer-to-peer knowledge sharing, facilitated by blogs, wikis, discussion forums and other online media.
Single-point sensitive gurus are a liability; everyone has the obligation to share their knowledge with everyone else. This might seem a lofty or even altruistic notion, but the principles of Wikinomics tell us that the organisations whose staff don’t do this won’t be able to compete effectively in the marketplace.
This shift will be accompanied by formal acknowledgements of informal learning. Sure, you can learn something anywhere, but the organisation still needs to be confident of your capability. Insert summative online assessments here.
4. Learning will be fully networked.
As the virtual workplace gains in popularity, more and more people will be working from home, in different cities and different countries.
Virtual classrooms will be the norm for centralising everyone in the one space, while emerging technologies such as virtual worlds and holograms will also bridge the geographical divide.
5. M-Learning will be popular.
Ragan reported recently that only 10% of Americans use their cell phones to access the web daily. My gut tells me this statistic is reflected right across the corporate sector.
However, advances in mobile technology and connectivity, coupled with the business world’s shift towards cloud computing, will eventually render the cell phone an indispensable learning and working tool.
Why? Because everything will be online. Why wouldn’t you use your phone to get it if you needed it?!
6. E-Learning will be smart.
Finally, while many technological advances will continue to improve knowledge distribution, it’s on another plane to personalise it so that it’s relevant to the individual learner. I think we’re just seeing the beginnings of artificial intelligence and the dawn of the semantic web.
So, do you agree with my predictions?
How do you see workplace learning in 10 years’ time?
The LearnX Awards were presented in Melbourne yesterday, and I’m proud to say that AMP won the Green Training Award for its Green Wiki.
However, I’m not hyperlinking to the Green Wiki for two reasons:
I think the following cartoon by Hugh MacLeod sums up my second point perfectly…
In this particular case, our employees are using wiki software to share tips on how to reduce our carbon footprint in the workplace, collaboratively making our company a better corporate citizen.
Notice I said “employees”, not a “task force” or a “strategic working group” or a “steering committee”. Just regular employees like you and me.
And all because someone on the floor decided one day to put the wiki together – talk about democratising the workplace!