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?