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Hype filled buzzword or how people learn?

March 26th, 2008 by Graham Attwell

I think I am doing a keynote presentation on May 7th at the Swedish Agency for Flexible Learning. Think – well it is arranged but their emails are bouncing, they are not answering their phones and skype cannot find their account. Small technical problems!

Anyway, Pelle Filipsson, who works for the Agency, was kind enough to leave a comment on my blog this morning. he invited me to look at his blog, which, of course, I did. And I found an interesting post on informal learnng, with which I totally disagree. So, in the interests of a little debate and discourse in advance of my arrival in Stockholm, here is my reply.

Pelle says: “A somewhat hyped expression the last few years is “informal learning”. I have heard it, used it and at last I came to think about what it really means. “Informal” in popular adult education is a welcome and positive way to regard learning. You learn everywhere, in any situation. It is a central aspect of the sociocultural learning theories too. But what do I learn? When I get really drunk at the pub I learn something, apparently. When I watch a stupid youtube clip for the tenth time too? But how do I experience that I have learned something? How do I measure that learning? How do I know how to use the experience and the things learned?

And what can schools and learning institutions use from the informal learning? That it is a good idea to start teaching at discoteques? (A metaphore to what is going on in every social network on the web at the moment)

A fight broke out in the blogosphere when Bill Brantley went through Jay Crosses book “Informal learning“. Here are some qoutes:

“Informal learning is just another hype-filled, buzzword that pretends to be a radical change from the past but is really bits-and-pieces of other learning methods badly packaged.”

“Cross’ definition of informal learning is so wide open it can mean almost anything.”

Of course not every activity results in learning. But I do have to say some of my best learning has come from pubs. There is a problem that my handwriting does tend to degenerate over a long evening and I sometimes cannot make out what I write the next morning. I wonder why pubs can be such a good source of learning. Could it be in the intensity of a face to face dialogue which is so often missing in formal conferences and seminars?

I think the more serious challenge especially when looking at the use of the internet, is to distinguish between accessing information and learning. I learn little from the long time I spend searching for aircraft routes to different places in Europe (except perhaps how poor the design of so many e-commerce sites is – interestingly the cheap airlines usually have the best sites). But I learn a lot from almost random surfing. How? Often through thinking about what people are saying and clarifying my own views. I could hardly say that reading Fellipe’s post is a formal learning experience. But it has certainly caused me to pause and think.

In the ICT and SME project, which looked at the use of computers for learning in Small and Medium Enterprises in six different European projects (you can download the book of the project here), we found few instances of formal learning. But computers were being used extensively for all sorts of different activities. We considered whether these activities could be considered as learning. In many cases we concluded they could. Why? Activities identified through the project case studies were:

  • Purposeful
  • Heavily influenced by context
  • Often resulted in changes in behaviour
  • Were sequenced in terms of developing a personal knowledge base
  • Problem driven or driven by personal interest
  • Social – in that they often involved recourse to shared community knowledge bases through the internet and / or shared with others in the workplace

In my view such criteria clearly differentiate learning from the acquisition of information. And this is a widespread activity. So, Pelle, not hype at all. But probably the main way people learn.

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One Response to “Hype filled buzzword or how people learn?”

  1. Sorry to hear that our emails are bouncing – we´re usually much easier to get in touch with :). But I know we´ve been having some technical problems lately with our e-mail system.

    And, we´re excited to have you Graham as our key note speaker in Stockholm for our seminar on e-portfolio, personal learning environments and web 2.0 for lifelong and lifewide learning. During the seminar we will mix lectures with practical examples of how adult education organizations work in different ways to support adult learning and to recognise their informal and non-formal learning with e.g. e-portfolios.

    Here´s the programme: (unfortunately all in Swedish) but for those who´d like to practise their Swedish skills – we´ll also do a live video streaming of the seminar :).

    Looking forward to see you in May in Stockholm!

    Maria Skoglöf
    Swedish Agency for Flexible Learning

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