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Insights: L&D is playing a key role in supporting informal learning

This post continues my commentary to the Learning Insights 2012 Report produced by Kineo for e.learning age magazine. The second of the ten ‘insights’ in the report is that ‘L&D is playing a key role in supporting informal learning’.

Informal learning is a broad term, covering everything from on-job instruction and coaching, through to the use of performance support materials, collaborative and experiential learning; anything, in fact, that doesn’t come bundled up as a full-blown course. In the Learning Insights Report, they use the term in quite a restricted way, to refer to the use of digital content on an on-demand basis – resources rather than courses. They see evidence of increased involvement of L&D in providing or curating content that is ‘good enough’ to do the job, although rather less progress with user-generated content. If this really is a trend, then it’s a very important one.

For some in L&D, the only learning resources they get involved with are the printed handouts they provide alongside their classroom courses. While these may be useful to some, they are in the wrong form completely to meet contemporary needs. They are a relic of another age. Practically everyone on the planet with access to a PC or a mobile device is used to the idea that you can get any information you want, anytime you want, in practically any format you want, just by typing key words into a search field. It might be a technical miracle that this is possible, but for the general public it’s simply expected.

The message does seem at last to have got through to L&D (and to e-learning developers). While there is still a need for formally-packaged courses, these are for special occasions, when we or our employers require some formal record of achievement (or at least of participation). In the meantime, there’s a job to be done, and that’s far better achieved through access to videos, PDFs, forums, blogs and simple web articles. These are much easier to produce than highly-structured e-learning and just as easy to consume. Nothing lasts more than five minutes and the emphasis is strictly on practical application.

In the Learning Insights Report, they refer to this as a ‘disaggregation’ of learning resources. Why bury useful material, such as videos and decision aids, somewhere in a hard-wired monolith of an e-learning course, when they can be accessed in an instant as separate resources? By producing digital content in this granular fashion, you dramatically extend it’s usefulness. A great example of this is the ubiquitous YouTube video, which can be embedded just about anywhere from a blog post to an email, perhaps even played in a classroom! In some ways this is a realisation of the concept of ‘learning objects’, which failed to make any impact ten years ago, but which could soon be taken for granted.

I’m working on several projects with clients at the moment which take the form of collections of resources in a wide variety of formats. Often this material already exists, and where it doesn’t, the gap can be filled with rapid content. This is a far more flexible, scalable and manageable process than we’ve seen before, but it doesn’t take away the requirement for professional outside help. Even making content that is ‘good enough’ requires strong communication skills and lots of concentrated time for analysis and creative thought. Many L&D departments are stretched to the limits and simply don’t have the capacity.

Which brings us to the idea of user-generated content, which should, in theory fill all the gaps that cannot be resourced on a top-down basis. Clearly this is one aspect of contemporary online living that has yet to transfer on any serious scale to the world of work. Perhaps we are expecting too much. The 90:9:1 rule suggests that only one in a hundred will start up a blog, create a new thread on a forum or put a video on YouTube. We’re not going to see people do things like this at work unless they are seriously incentivised. On the other hand, nine in every hundred will keep the conversation going and contribute in some way with a comment or refinement. That is more realistically where we should expect to see user-generated content emerging in the workplace – as thousands of short contributions to hundreds of conversations. With powerful search facilities on a corporate intranet, these can provide the answers to the everyday questions of the remaining 90%.

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