Archive for June, 2005

Theories for Informal Learning Design?

Monday, June 27th, 2005

Many different theories exist which try to explain how we learn. Based on those theories, we have numerous approaches to learning design. The whole field is quite connected (inbred?)…and boring. These theories are strongly slanted to reflect a course-based approach to learning. Courses are effective for many types of learning (especially for learners starting out in a new field). For most of us, however, the bulk of our learning has come from informal methods.

As informal learning gains greater recognition, it’s worth exploring the different learning theories that inform this style of learning. Except for one problem – there aren’t any. Over the last six months, I’ve reviewed a significant number of theories, severely abused Google, and have yet to come across a theory that provides guidance for designing informal learning(IL). Many resources exist for designing communities of practice, but that’s only one type of informal learning. Many organizations don’t focus on IL – they assume that the learners (employees) will find the answer to their problems. Even companies who are advanced in this area often do little more than provide software to blog, ask questions, and try and access the tacit knowledge of others in the organization.

Informal learning is too important leave to chance. But why don’t we have theories that provide guidelines (I imagine “steps 1, 2, and 3″ approaches would be a bit at odds with informal learning) to designing in these environments? Or is the notion of informal learning to vague (free spirited?) and applying increased design is an effort in futility?

Perhaps the challenge with IL is the many different approaches a learner might take (i.e. how can we plan and design for it?). Perhaps even our notion of design is worth rethinking – do we design learning? Or do we design environments in which motivated learners can acquire what they need? Yet if we can’t impose some type of order on the process, is it really design? Will corporations invest in a learning theory that isn’t strongly tied to strategic goals?

I wonder which established processes and systems can inform designing for informal leanring? Complex adaptive systems? Or am I seeking a difficult solution when an easier one exists? Any thoughts?

Do we really need learning objectives?

Monday, June 13th, 2005

I’m trying to wrap my head around how learning objectives became the de facto approach to learning design (in particular in elearning). Almost all training and learning design begins with a “learning objective” – a clear, concise statement of what the learner will be able to do after exploring the content. Most resources for developing learning objectives include a lengthy list of appropriate verbs useful in crafting the objective. These verbs, coupled with specific criterion, conditions, and standards, are central to writing “good” objectives.

Is there another way? Do we have the wrong view of designing? Instructional designers assume that learning will occur in a course-based format. Yet our learning occurs in a rich environment of diverse experiences – email, conversations, communities, workshops, tutorials, seminars, etc. If instructional designers remain focused on the narrow subset of designing for courses, they will quickly usher themselves into irrelevance.

Our entire learning system is still largely based on the schema that the learner is an empty container that we as educators fill. We talk about dynamic, learner-centered instruction. Often those words deny the reality that our institutions are primarily set up to “fill learners”. The very process of writing objectives states that we know what learners need to know. This may be true in some instances, but in most cases, I believe that learning objectives should be more of a dialogue than a statement of fact. Learners should be able to input their own needs and interest (or personal objectives) into the process. A learner’s motivations and objectives for learning are important. In many cases, they are more important than what the instructor feels they should know.

Highly structured information transmission is more suited for pre-determined objectives (in particular when introducing learners to the basic language and concepts of a field…or any point when learners do not have a well developed base of knowledge for making new connections). Our education system is starting to see less and less of these types of learners. Instead, we are seeing learners entering second or third careers who are often tech savvy, highly motivated, and aware of their own learning needs. Isn’t it time that we consider updating our design methodologies? Our learners have changed. Why haven’t we?

Informal Learning

Thursday, June 9th, 2005

Informal Learning: “Still think learning means school? Expand your definition of learning to include conversations with your peers and your children, from books, articles, informal networks, Internet searching, television, and what you learn through trial and error.”

Most people involved in education (corporate, higher ed, K-12) recognize that we need to expand our view of the learning process. Most learners still equate courses with learning, and often dismiss the informal learning elements they experience each day. If, as I’ve previously describe it, learning is actionable knowledge, then the informal pieces of information/knowledge that we acquire (and put to immediate use) is often of greater value than a course. For example, as we are struggling with a particular work-related problem, we may have lunch with a colleague and share our frustration. During the discussion she makes a point that completely shifts our thinking and opens a door that leads to a solution. Course-centric views of learning would fail to account for the value of this conversation, even though it may have been more effective than taking a multi-week course.

We know that learning “happens” as we live life in our current knowledge economy. In fact, knowledge comes at us constantly – TV program, newspaper article, a workshop, or a problem we solve on our own. We incorporate many of these knowledge points in how we see the world and how we do our work (most educators, as an example, haven’t taken a formal course on constructivism…even though they practice many of the concepts in their course development and instruction. How did they learn these skills? I imagine much of it comes through the network in which they reside – i.e. the network (their information sources) holds elements of knowledge relating to constructivism, and they adopt elements simply because they make sense and work).

This concept of network learning answers many questions about how we acquire much of our knowledge (even elements that contradict each other). When we exist in a knowledge climate (or network), we constantly scan, evaluate, and select for use, elements that answer questions with which we are struggling. Some elements of learning will relate to our values, attitudes, and beliefs, others will relate more concretely to how we perform our work. In an election season, politicians rely heavily on “teaching” the electorate through a network imbued with their message. If the electorate is unwilling to accept the message directly, perhaps it will accept the message when embedded in our existing learning network (i.e. an unpalatable concept is more attractive when it links (even if inaccurately) to our existing values and lines of reasoning). Perhaps as educators, we need to become more aware of how people learn from their network. Often, I imagine, our formal instruction competes with information sources in their existing learning network (particularly relating to soft skills).

Sequencing Instruction

Wednesday, June 1st, 2005

Lately, I’ve been thinking about sequencing instruction. Various theorists promote sequencing in terms of:

  • Moving content from simple to complex
  • Moving content forward based on prerequisites
  • Meeting goals of learners by advancing goals as content advances
  • Linear content presentation (behavioural)
  • Adaptive sequencing based on learner needs

As I’ve discussed previously, so much of our learning design is rooted in approaches that may no longer provide value to learners. Most learning is content-focused, with the underlying assumption stating that our ability to navigate content is what generates learning. What if exposure to content isn’t learning? What if content isn’t even required in the learning process? Inquisition and dialogue are the core traits of learning in complex environments, largely replacing content (due to the fact that content is changing rapidly).

In this environment of chaos and shifting core elements (note the changing fields of media, music, and news), what we know (usually thought of as possession of content-based knowledge) is replaced with how we continue to stay current and informed. We often think of this learning process as isolated based on the learner learning a new concept or idea. It’s valuable, however, to see learning as a whole – when one element changes it creates a ripple effect on others. A network image is more completely explains what happens when things change quickly (and at their core). As a node in a network is updated, it creates a ripple effect that alters the network itself – but not the other nodes in the network (this is the concept “connected specialization” – one node advances (hopefully) and impacts the health of the network…but still allows all additional network nodes autonomy to function as they desire).

What does this have to do with instructional sequencing? If instruction is more than content, and learning is about increased development of health within a network as a whole, then sequencing needs to include interaction, dialogue, and network-related functions (i.e. creating a network, growing a network (adding new nodes like content resources, newcomers, masters, correlative/complimentary nodes, etc.). Sequencing in this model still allows designers to incorporate some of the approaches listed above (e.g. simple to complex, linear). While the methodology may be similar, the process of sequencing is extended to include a rich array of non-content based items. Giving learners control to explore the network, interact with nodes of interest, and then continue on in fostering their own network may replace much of the designer’s design process. Learning motivation is not exclusively a function of learner goals…instead (in a network model), motivation is also driven by contextual changes, reactionary to growth or nodes within the network as a whole.