Why Informal Learning is an Important Part of Future Success

Informal learning matters for students. This is my continued reflection on Will Richardson’s 9 Elephants in the Class(Room) That Should “Unsettle” Us. If you have not done so already, I encourage you to check out his original article. It is definitely worth the time and would make for a great discussion starter among educators.

And finally, we know that learning that sticks is usually learned informally, that explicit knowledge accounts for very little of our success in most professions.

In a world of democratized access to a broad range of knowledge, informal learning is taking on an even more important role. In fact, I’ve often described the capacity and extend of informal learning to be a significant part of the new digital divide. In the early days, the digital divide referred to those who did and did not have access to computers and the Internet. Then it was extended to include those who were restricted in their access and education with these items. Now we are at a point where we know that access is not equal. Those who just have access to digital technologies and the Internet in formal settings like school are lagging behind those who have access to these technologies during unstructured time.

Why is this the case? As best as we can tell, it is because this unstructured time is where young people get to direct their own learning. They hang out with others. They learn about networking. They learn how to set informal learning goals, establish a plan of action, and adjust that plan as they get feedback on how they are doing. Unstructured and informal learning is about growing as a learner, leveraging the power of passion-based learning, and learning for something other than a grade or because it was required or prescribed by some authority figure.

As such, this sort of informal learning is a place where people have the ability to develop the capacity for more self-directed approaches to lifelong learning. Those who do this and develop their skills in this area have an advantage over those who are persistently depending and submissive to authority figures who tell them what to learn, when to learn, and how to learn. While there are some jobs in the world where you are praised for just following the instructions of a micro-managing boss, the growing number of jobs are not that way. Those who gain opportunity for leadership positions show initiative. They identify problems and pursue solutions, often before a boss or another person even notices that it is a problem. They know how to play well with others and the importance of being a good follower at the right time, but they are also self-starters who are intrinsically motivated.

The greater the leadership position, the less orientation that you often get. This isn’t true across all industries but it is in many. In other words, the people who find the greatest success in terms of leadership and advancement know how to learn informally. They are not just good at doing what they are told. They can step into an ambiguous or complex and confusing context and find a way through it. They can bring order to chaos, direction to misguided efforts, energy and confidence to otherwise deflated contexts. These are the people who do more than take advantage of opportunities provided to them. They create opportunities.

All of this can be nurtured by informal learning. Yet, school is not a place that usually leaves much space for informal learning. Schools as learning communities are, by definition, frequently referred to as formal learning communities. Perhaps that is good and appropriate. Perhaps we could benefit from spending more time considering the implications of Sugata Mitra’s concepts around self-organized learning environments both in and outside of school.

Online Learning is the Real Disruption, Not Online Degrees

The real coming education disruption is online learning, not online degrees. Some argue that online degrees will disrupt traditional degrees. That is a possibility for some targeted areas, but that is not yet a certainty. I can see one potential future where the majority of people with a college degree earned half or more of it online. However, for us to see the potential for true disruption, we are wise to broaden our view. It might be online learning that disrupts, not online degrees.

Online learning encompasses more than online degrees. The phrase “Online degrees” is one that refers specifically to degree programs that are typically offered by regionally and nationally accredited higher education institutions. Online learning can refer to that as well, but it also includes informal online learning, self-directed learning, non-credit and continuing education offerings, offerings by non-universities and the increasingly common experience of people who mix and match online resources and experiences to achieve personally and professionally meaningful learning goals.

Disruptive innovations, as described by Clayton Christiansen, gain traction by providing an unmet need via what is often seen as an initially inferior product. Over time, as a customer base grows and the product gains refinement, this innovation begins to take market share from what was previously the gold standard offering. While many have followed the growth of online degrees since the 1990s (developing out of a much older tradition of distance and correspondence education), it is the online learning beyond courses, degrees and programs that has grown the fastest.

Consider the growth of online learning more broadly compared to online degrees. Yes, online degree programs have grown, but during that growth, Khan Academy grew from nothing to well over 10 million unique visitors per month. Youtube, a source of ubiquitous informal learning and the second largest search engine on the web,  grew to over 1 billion monthly users since its start in 2005. Countless communities of practice have emerged online. The concept of the “personal learning network” emerged. We saw the rapid growth of online book clubs, Twitter chats, open courses, low-cost and inexpensive non-credit courses from individuals and organizations, and thousands of companies have started that focus on educational products and services for individuals…not just providers of materials for schools.

This is a potentially larger disruption than online degree programs. These online learning options do not commonly lead to degrees (that can change and is changing in some circumstances). They do lead to something that has always been more important than degrees…learning and progress toward expertise. As concepts like multiple learning pathways, informal learning, and self-directed learning continue to grow in popularity, so will the interest in the broader world of online learning, that which extends far beyond the walls of formal schooling and accredited schools.

What has yet to occur is a clear understanding of how people will show their work, provide evidence of their increased expertise, and leverage that as a means of accomplishing personal goals. Yet, this is the space for a next and emergent round of education startups, innovators, and scholars willing to come to the table. Expect to see much progress in this area over the upcoming years. As it does, more people will begin to recognize that the great disruption in modern education might be online learning and not just online degrees.

Re-imagining Learning & Credentialing in a Connected World

I’m playing with this idea of multiple pathways to learning and earning associated credentials. So, I wanted to get the following rough ideas out to you as a way to spark discussion and invite help; especially help creating better ways to illustrate the possibilities. I’m particularly interested in how all this relates to the promise and possibility of micro-credentials. As I was driving to work a few months ago, I had this ideo of a map that could represent what I’ve been thinking about with regard multiple pathways to learning. I describe it below and then end with a 5-minute rough visual intended to visually communicate some of these ideas.

I pictured three main road: Continuing Education Court, Self-Directed Street, and Degree Drive.

Continuing Education Court 

This street represents the many accelerated, non-credit, intensive and/or compacted learning experiences available to people today. There are experiences like weekend workshops on writing, how to start a business, managing your finances or anything else. This road also includes learning from the thousands of webinars that are free or fee-based on the web today, covering topics ranging from personal development to compliance issues at work. It also includes stops at other learning events: conferences, retreats, “boot camps”, etc. These are usually just-in-time learning experiences, and I put them in the class of semi-formal learning, as they don’t include all the trappings of a full formal schooling experience. They are usually discrete and disconnected, self-selected based on learner need and interest. Sometimes there are credentials associated with the experiences, but often not. They are a collection of experiences, often provided by multiple organizations; and there is less of an overall formal curriculum across all learning experiences. Instead, the learner opts in and out as she deems useful for her goals and interests.

Self-Directed Street

Like Continuing Education Court, the learner determines the curriculum / path on this street. Activities and learning experiences are largely designed or coordinated by the learner. Sometimes they are independent learning experiences. Other times learners come together to share and learn with or from one another. Learners not only choose what to do, but how much they will do. For example. note that I put MOOC Mountain on Self-Directed Street when it could also go on Continuing Education Court. I did this because of what the research tells us about how learners use MOOCs. Most do not sign up and complete the course as formally planned. They do it their way, on their timeline, and the extent do which they believe it useful or a high priority. Nonetheless, a case could be made that there are MOOC mountains on both roads. Over time and with focus and effort, people can become incredibly knowledgeable and skilled by traveling on Self-Directed Street, but there are few to no credentials to use of evidence of this learning.

Degree Drive

This is the most familiar road when people think about learning. It represents the formal programming of a student in a school (k-12, higher education). It is often course-based and a pre-determined curriculum (decided largely by others). This curriculum determines where learners stop along the way, what they do and how they do it. There can be sights and features that resemble what you see on Continuing Education Court and Self-Directed Street, but the formal structure and directedness is a common hallmark of this road. Also, the stops along the way can be carefully connected, with one stop preparing a person to get the most out of the next. Even as one progresses, there is careful documentation of what travelers completed and how they performed. Traveling on this road culminates in a credential that is intended to give evidence of one’s accomplishments and growing competence in some area of study.

Combining the Three

What happens when we don’t think of these as three disconnected and unrelated learning pathways? What if we see this as representative of a city or region in which one travels on a lifelong learning journey? What possibilities does that create for us? Consider a model where credentials can be provided as people demonstrate competence through any of these stops along the way, whether it is the weekend workshop, the self-guided tour, the self-study stop, or a formal course. This is one of the interesting and exciting possibilities of micro-credentials and digital badges. Their affordances give us a greater ability to imagine such contexts, as evidenced by the cities of learning initiatives.

What we imagine can be exciting and terrifying. Some worry about what this would mean for formal learning organizations if such an idea were to spread. Others point out that, in this age of democratized information, it may be even more dangerous if the idea does not spread, as it could turn schools into credentialing factories instead of rich, human, and collaborative learning communities…what they are when they are at their best.

Regardless, what I just described is already partly in place. This is not simply some vision of a possible future. This, apart from the credentialing element, is already what happens for many people. It is how we learn in a connected and increasingly digital world. Now we have the opportunity to let this current reality inform our thoughts and planning about 21st and 22nd century credentialing.

Below I’ve included an embarrassingly rough draft visual to help illustrate the idea that I just described. I would love to have partners in this effort, people who can take what I started and create a more robust and aesthetically appealing version of the visual. Please let me know if you are interested, or just create it, share it, and let the conversation spread. Even if there are no takers on that front, I look forward to continuing the conversation about how we might imagine and re-imagine learning and credentialing in a connected world.

Alternative Pathways to Credentials