Monday, October 13, 2003

Informal vs Formal Learning

Some good thoughts comparing courses to informal learning communities over at Mathemagenic, with links to some great articles on the topic. Informal learning probably just feels right to most of the people who are motivated to read, write and link about their interests, but everyone else tends to be somewhat bewildered by that type of behavior. It just doesn't fit the old industrial mindset, which dictated that all learning should be formal, and preferably aimed at making you more employable.

I've probably spent as much time blogging here as studying in my masters program over the last year, and I've probably learned equally much (as if that was quantifiable). The courses aren't cheap, and they're not as convenient as informal learning, yet I continue to take them. Why? Three main reasons: credentials, discipline and feedback. The credential is probably the obvious one -- even though the concept seems antiquated in the knowledge economy, it still feels like advanced degrees make you more employable. That may be changing, but the job postings I'm seeing often require the credential.

Lilia referrs to the value of structure, and the fact that some students require it to learn much. I'm a random sort, preferring to follow rabbit trails of information that tend to lead nowhere. I could do that indefinitely and not accomplish much of would be more like entertainment. Courses require a type of discipline to think about things just outside of your normal rabbit trails and reflect what you've learned in essays or presentations you'd never attempt on your own. The product may be irrelevant, but the process is essential.

And feedback might seem out of place in a comparison like this. The blogging community talks a lot about the interaction of blogs, and we've all seen some great quasi-conversations emerge across several sites at once, but the type of feedback you get on your writing tends to be somewhat impersonal, even if you get to know the personalities behind the writing. Comments might point you somewhere for more info, or disagree with something you've written, but they rarely give you a sense of how you're doing overall. You might know that Person B disagrees with your stance on standardized testing, and that a study exists to refute one of your points, but you probably won't get help in improving the articulation of your arguments or research skills.

In a course, a good instructor (and engaged classmates) provide feedback about the process and products of learning. In an informal learning community, you get the illusion of freedom to explore your own ideas at your own pace, but if you try to keep up with everything that's going on, you get dragged into the curriculum of the commons -- the group is "deciding" what to study on the fly and that may change by the hour. If nobody else in my community is interested in what I'm interested in right now, I won't get feedback. In a course, you might be more likely to get the luxury of lingering on a topic or set of topics with a group of people who are all following the same rough schedule.

I run into this same sort of conflict in designing educational software and sites. Our customers are educators, and most want structured navigation around discreet activities or lessons. We know that students may learn more from a learning environment that lets them follow their interests and make their own connections, but that assumption is based on the idea that students are motivated enough to initiate and follow those self-directed paths.

Via Bill Brandon, who also has some illuminating thoughts on the subject.

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