Informal learning will be the next big thing

Informal learning could be the next big thing – but only if it is organised properly.

Informal learning is nothing new. In fact, it is something all of us have done since birth. We don’t learn to talk or walk by attending a workshop or revising for an exam. Nevertheless, informal learning is making waves in the training world.

Proponents often say informal learning represents 80%of what we learn, yet employers allocate little, if any, of their training budget to it.

No-one would suggest that formal learning does not have its place. When you’re a novice, you need a foundation of understanding best delivered through formal learning. However, when you have mastered the basics, encouraging more informal learning is being seen as an effective way to motivate people to keep developing.

Neil Lasher, head of e-learning specialist Trainer1, says there are differing opinions on the definition of informal learning.”Some say it is an unplanned, instructional event, but others argue that if an instructional event occurs, it has been planned at some point and so isnot informal. It’s not easy to define, but I think informal learning should be about providing ways to help people learn something immediately, when they need it.”

Safe experience

A few years ago, learning centres -where a room of PCs were provided for employees to embark on e-learning courses as and when they needed them -were popular in many companies. However, Lasher says,most failed miserably. “High-level staffdid not want to be spotted finding out how to use simple applications such as Excel – they did not provide a safe learning experience,” he says.

With e-learning packages now available online and from the privacy of your own PC, providing a suite of accessible courses to be picked up at the will of staff is more promising. Online libraries and search engines are also proving to be popular research tools.

Another hot topic is peer-to-peer learning. Tools such as blogs and wikis are increasingly being used to share knowledge and build rich research banks.

It is still early days for these resources, so time will tell how useful they really are. But there are some encouraging signs.As outlined in the case study below, BBC Training has found that staffhave responded well to blogs and wikis, which have, over time, become self-moderating.

Variety is key

Vaughan Waller, director of Waller Harts Learning Architects, says that informal learning is difficult to facilitate because it has to cater for everyone’s different learning preferences. “Some people would rather read a book or search the internet than seek training or ask for help. The only way forward is to provide as much and as many varied ways for people to learn and research,” he says.

But what informal learning methods should have in common is a rapid content facility. “It’s about providing very quickly a very small but very important nugget of training. You need to tell knowledge seekers ‘here is where you will find the information’,” saysWaller.

Mark Pittaway, chief executive of Learning Light, says to make informal learning work, you need to provide a supportive culture. “To encourage people to share their knowledge and help others learn, you need to give them recognition. Peer ratings and associated reward mechanisms can encourage peer-to-peer learning. Creating a culture where mentoring and coaching is encouraged can also play an important role.”

If organisations are to invest time and money in informal learning, it is only natural that they will want to see tangible returns. There are subtle ways to measure, such as how many e-learning packages have been accessed, or podcasts downloaded. But this will not tell you how effective it has been.

“There is no point trying to track informal learning,” says Lasher. “If you finish a task on time without error and become more productive, then your boss and colleagues will know. Really that is all informal learning is trying to achieve.”

by Kirstie Redford

BBC training

BBC Training has established blogging, chatting and wiki communities. According to Nick Shackleton-Jones, the BBC’s online and informal learning manager, these tools have become effective mechanisms for spreading information and encouraging debate.

“Our concern was that we wouldn’t be able to control them or they would be abused, but the opposite has happened and they have become self-moderating. Because posts are not anonymous, people are very conscious that what they post is correct. Apart from a few links, we’ve also never had to push them – they have built big subscriptions by themselves” he says.

Shackleton-Jones says there has also been a shift away from creating large online courses towards smaller ‘awareness’ modules. “We’ve moved away from content-heavy e-learning modules to providing more reference tools to help people look things up. Trainers have also been upskilled to generate more online reference materials,” he says.

But it is not just about technology. “We also use face-to-face interventions, such as floor-walking and coaching, which have gone down really well,” he says.

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