Informal Learning: All or Nothing

Responding to Jay Cross, All or Nothing.

It makes me think of the strategy employed by the Republican right.

Most people prefer to be somewhere in the middle on a sliding scale, and political opinion is no different.

So what the Republicans did, through the use of extreme viewpoints like Rush Limbaugh, Anne Coulter and Pat Robertson, is to shift the scale off to the right!

So now their former position - an hard right conservatism - now occupies the centre. And becomes the default choice. That's how we see 'balance' attained on talk shows by having two shades of right wing represented.

You're doing pretty much the same thing here. Take, for example, the scale between 'hours', '15 minutes', '3 minutes'. Well the centre and the right are both informal learning selections. Why not a scale that represents the choices I had as an instructor: '3 hours','1.5 hours', '50 minutes'?

What's interesting is that the other thing you're doing (and George Siemens does this too, and I just haven't found the words to express it) is that you are co-opting the *other* point of view as part of your point of view.

It's kind of like saying, "I support informal learning, except when I don't." George does the same thing when he describes Connectivism. "I don't care whether you call it social constructionism." I am not sure how to react - are you saying there is no fundamental difference between your position and the other position?

What is happening here is that an attempt is being made to made what is actually a fairly radical position seem moderate by saying something like, "Oh no, it's the same thing you were doing, it's just tweaking a few variables."

It's fostering the 'science as cumulative development' perspective where, most properly, it should be a 'science as paradigm shift perspective'. I don't think it's an accurate representation of the change that should be happening.

Company A wants employee B to take training course Z. Who makes the decision, the company or the employee? This is a binary switch - you can't say "they both make the decision" - that's corporate newspeak for saying "the company does".

The sliding scale disguises this by using the general term 'control'. But the point here is: either the employee is being told what to learn (some of the time, all of the time, whatever) or he or she is not. No sliding scale.

A lot of the scales are like that. They are very reassuring for managers (to whom you have to sell this stuff, because the employees have no power or control). You are telling the managers, "You don't have to relinquish control, it's OK, it will still be informal learning." But it won't be. It will just be formal learning, but in smaller increments.

In addition, the scales lock-in the wrong value-set. It's like presenting the students with the option: what kind of classroom would you like, open-concept, tables and chairs, rows of desks? Looks like a scale, but the student never gets the choice of abandoning the classroom entirely.

The 'time to develop' and the 'author' scales, for example, both imply some sort of 'learning content'. What sort? As determined by the 'content' scale. Something that is produced, and then consumed. It is manifestly not, for example, a conversation. It creates an entity, the 'resource', and highlights the importance of the resource.

The people who produce stuff will be relieved. Learning can still be about the production and consumption of learning content. They can still build full-length courses and call it 'informal learning'.

Everybody's happy. Everybody can now be a part of the 'informal learning' bandwagon.

What the slider scales analogy does is to completely mask the *value* of choosing one option or another. If you pick 'more bass' or 'more treble' there really isn't a right or wrong answer; it's just a matter of taste.

But if there is something to informal learning, then there should be a sense in which you can say it's better than the alternative. Otherwise, why tout it?

You might say, well it is better, but there's still those 20 percent of cases where we want formal learning.

Supposing that this is the case, then what we want is a delineation of the conditions under which formal learning is better and a those under which informal learning is better. The slider scale allows an interpretation under which everything can be set to 'formal learning' and it's still OK.

To make my point, consider the criteria I consider to be definitive of successful network learning, specifically, that networks should be:
- decentralized
- distributed
- disintermediated
- disaggregated
- dis-integrated
- democratic
- dynamic
- desegregated

Now again, any of these parameters can be reduced to a sliding scale. 'Democratic' can even be reduced to four sliding scales:
- autonomy
- diversity
- openness
- connectedness

But the underpinnings of the theory select *these* criteria, rather than merely random criteria, because *these* specify what it is *better* to be.

'Autonomy' isn't simply a sliding scale. Rather, networks that promote more autonomy are *better*, because they are more *reliable*. If you opt for less autonomy, you are making the network less reliable. You aren't simply exercising a preference, you are *breaking* the network.

Now there will be cases - let's be blunt about it - where it will be preferable to have a broken network.

Those are cases where learning is *not* the priority. Where things like power and control are the priority. A person may opt to reduce autonomy because he doesn't *care* whether it produces reliable results.

There may be other cases where the choice of a less effective network is forced upon us by constraints. If it cost $100 million to develop a fully decentralized network, and $100 thousand to develop a centralized network, many managers will opt for the less reliable network at a cheaper price.

But the point here is that there is no pretense that the non-autonomous centralized systems constitute some version of network learning simply because they are, say, dynamic. For one thing, the claim is implausible - the criteria for successful network are not independent variables but rather impact on each other. And for another thing, the reduction of any of the conditions weakens the system so much that it can no longer be called network learning.

It's kind of like democracy. Let's, for the same of argument, define 'democracy' as the set of rights in the charter of rights:
- freedom of speech
- freedom of the press
- freedom of conscience
- freedom of assembly

Take away one of them - freedom of speech, say. Do you still have democracy? What good is freedom of the press, or freedom of assembly, without freedom of speech?

Bottom line:

If there is anything to the theory of informal learning, then the values it expresses are more than just preferences on a sliding scale.

Representing them that way serves a marketing objective, in that it makes people who are opposed to the theory more comfortable, because it suggests they won't really have to change anything.

But it is either inaccurate or dishonest, because it masks the *value* of selecting one thing over another, and because it suggests that you can jettison part of the theory without impacting the whole.

An in the case of the particular scales represented here, the selection locks people into a representation of the theory that is not actually characteristic of the theory. Specifically, it suggests that informal learning is just like formal learning in that it is all about the production and consumption of content.

And I think this whole discussion points to the dilemma that any proponent of a new theory faces: whether to stay true to the theory as conceived, or whether to water down the theory in order to make it more palatable to consumers and clients (some of whom my have a vested interest in seeing the theory watered down).

And it seems to me, the degree to which you accept the watering down if the theory, is the degree to which you do not have faith in it.

If informal leaning *really* about duration, content, timing and the rest? Probably not. But if not, then what is it about? What are the *values* expressed by the theory?


  1. Stephen, my comments were a function of language (i.e. call it what you the end it is the concepts, not the language that matter in implementation). I see significant, foundational differences between constructivism (as it is commonly conceived) and connectivism. Yet, often when speaking to someone with a constructivist mindset, what they are saying sounds much more like connectivism. Hence my commentary on "call it what you like, but it must possess these elements" was not intended as a dilution of differences, but emphasis on the importance of concepts.

  2. Hi Stephen,

    thanks for writing this, it has helped me to crystalise the discomfort I was feeling with Jay's new book, Informal Learning. I had the same sense that you expressed here (or at least I think I have). In Australia we call it a "Clayton's" the "thing" (in the case of Clayton's, a drink) you have, when you are not having that "thing", as if to say, this is different, but it's really the same.

    The point that George makes is interesting, because, in the end, it matters not that we use the same words, but what concept we attribute to those words, and then we have no definitive way of ever knowing that our conceptual understanding is the same. The best that we can hope for is that we arrive at some vague agreement that we are both talking about the same things.

    To achieve that, the path that you suggest has merit, we carefully define what a particular paradigm will look like, I think that is a process rather than a destination.

    best... janet (who always thinks out aloud, so may sound like a muddle-headed wombat:)...

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Informal learning, if you look at it hard enough, strikes right at the heart of the way most of us reading this blog probably earn our living. We are "middlemen", intermediate between the learner and what they might learn. In some cases we point the way, act as travel agents, pointing out the most vital interesting salient aspects, and letting them decide what to focus on. At others we are tour guides; we are paid to decide what matters, what is relevant etc. Informal learning is a fundamental threat to both models, in the same way as the Internet allows us to plan our own holidays, thus threatening the livelihood of tour guides and travel agents alike.

    Informal learning has been happening for ever, rather like breathing, or cows grazing. Suddenly though, we opened the box, and the light has changed, and the cows are looking up outraged, and shouting "Wait a minute, this is grass, hey, guys, we've been eating grass!!!".

    In this sense, once the box is open, Jay's metaphor strikes me as a rearguard action, an attempt to find a business model so that we can all carry on being intermediaries.

    I have a feeling the same thing happened with a lot of other good ideas that were too radical because they threatened the livelihood of the very people who, if they were to succeed, would have had to adopt them. In order to make them acceptable they had to be watered down to buzzword level, where nothing would be threatened, but the need for something that could be dressed as new, improved and revolutionary (like the latest razor or brand of soap) could be suitably and innocuously satisfied.

    Informal learning could go the same way. Jay's metaphor is a movement in that direction, as Stephen points out. The status quo in education is notoriously resistant to serious change of this kind, but fairly benevolent, even receptive in some areas, to cosmetic tweaking.

    Maybe it IS just a flash in the pan, provoked by our (relatively) sudden awareness of the fact of informal learning, which will subside as we realize that it always happened and will go on happening, leaving the "20% formal" learning safe.

    Stephen, however, appears to suggest that it is a real sea-change, a profound upheaval that will change the business of education. If this is so, what is the role of all us intermediaries?

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