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The Oxford Union Debate on Informal Learning, Style or Substance?

By Samuel Greengard / August 2011

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Is technology-based informal learning fundamental or a fad? U.K.-based eLearning development firm Epic hosted a debate on the question last year at the historic Oxford Union.

The motion presented for discussion was: This house believes that technology-based informal learning is more style than substance. Those speaking in favor included Dr. Allison Rossett from San Diego State University; former IBM executive Nancy Lewis; and Deutsche Bank director of leadership, talent and development Mark Doughty. Arguing against the motion: Oxford professor William Dutton, author Jay Cross, and learning consultant David Wilson.

Much of the debate centered on the question of whether there is a need for "guard rails" for various professions and fields, including engineers, pilots and others whose jobs deal with public safety. Those who favored the motion, including Lewis, also argued that there is an overwhelming need for metrics and measurements—and informal learning rarely provides this.

Opponents, on the other hand, pointed out that a great deal of learning already takes place informally and that the value of this knowledge should not be marginalized or dismissed. Cross, for example, pointed out that both formal and informal learning already coexist, and it is only in formal corporate learning and teaching environments that questions arise about its validity.

To be sure, the event framed a number of key issues that extend beyond the academic walls of Oxford Union—a place that has hosted Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, Brittany Spears, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. As Barry Sampson, cofounder and director of the UK-based learning and communications consultancy Onlignment put it, "The debate engaged people in an important discussion about topics that are vital to anyone working in learning and development."

Beyond the Classroom

Sorting through all the issues related to formal versus informal learning is a bit of a journey down the rabbit hole. As many of the debate participants noted, both have a valid place in the world. It is scary to imagine driving over a bridge designed by someone who collected random bits of engineering concepts over the Internet. Or being treated by a surgeon who learned how to perform an operation by reading a book. On the other hand, it's clear that just about anyone who truly excels in a field learned the nuances outside a formal classroom.

A more appropriate question is: what is the role of each and which works best under different conditions and circumstances? Allison Rossett, professor emerita at SDSU believes that, in general, formal learning is best for building a foundation of basic knowledge within a field. "Informal learning does not work without a thermostat for what matters most in our society—education, medicine, law and other fields," she explains. "The ability to take an exam and demonstrate a level of knowledge or proficiency is critical."

Similarly, in the business arena, formal learning can pay dividends for orienting and training employees. Especially as it pertains to understanding a particular role or job and creating a desired level of consistency—whether it's in a call center, claims processing or among IT staff. What's more, a formalized approach provides a way to measure results. In an era of tight budgets and limited resources, L&D officers value the ability to demonstrate performance and ROI.

However, thanks to technology and globalization, informal learning is increasingly practical—and popular. The ability to venture online changes everything, argues William Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute. Most people benefit from informal learning and find it a more natural way to approach topics. "They can go on the Internet and find the specific information they desire quickly. They have access to vast sums of information and knowledge," he says.

Yet, it isn't only the ability to connect to databases and knowledge repositories that is attractive. Informal learning also provides a mechanism for connecting to knowledge residing in humans. Social networking, crowdsourcing and other approaches that tap into society's collective intelligence can further transform learning, Dutton says. In fact, some individuals now bypass search engines entirely and instead post questions or solicitations for help online—thus harnessing the collective knowledge of the crowd. "Social networking and online interaction are becoming a new and different way to find references," Dutton notes.

Jay Cross, chairman of the consulting firm Internet Time Alliance, insists that all learning is part formal and part informal. "It's only a matter of degree. Too often, he says, business leaders and academicians "have a great deal of difficulty recognizing the legitimacy of informal learning. Anything that happens off campus or outside the organization is considered informal and its value is questioned."

Making the Grade

Amid the debate about formal versus informal learning, some like Cross believe it's time to reexamine entrenched attitudes and beliefs—particularly among CLOs and others making key decisions within an organization. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 to 90 percent of corporate investments in learning go to formal processes, including classroom training, DVDs and online instruction, he says. "The reality is that 80 percent of what's learned comes through experience, coaching and mentoring."

Finding ways to amp up these opportunities—including the use of social networking—can facilitate a more natural and efficient learning process. This way, "People avoid sitting in classes and workshops that are minimally useful—and where they're bored stiff and away from handling productive work." Instead of the typical one-way data dump, participants can share ideas and tap into the collective intelligence. "There's total transparency and people build off each other," he adds.

Formal and informal learning are also likely to become increasingly intertwined and the boundaries will almost certainly blur, explains Naomi Norman, director of learning for Epic. "There will be opportunities to engage in formal learning but also to bookmark, share and interact through conversations. It's a way to tap into the best of both worlds," she explains.

Of course, a major stumbling point for informal learning is that it's often difficult, if not impossible, to directly measure results and return on investment. In addition, a learning and development department, which has a vested interest in selecting and managing content, may find itself out of the loop. "It can be threatening and frightening because it's a different way of thinking and approaching things," Norman says.

Knowledge Rules

After the dust settled at the Oxford Union debate, the tally showed 54 Ayes and 259 Noes. It's clear that the audience felt informal learning extends beyond style and provides a good deal of substance.

The way Sampson views things, the argument about style versus substance is a sideshow rather than the main attraction. "Informal technology-based learning is actually more about substance than style," he states. "Informal learning has been happening since time began without interference." However, "the introduction of technology has brought it to the attention of people who believe they should be managing it. But it is something that is essentially unmanageable."

Regardless of what formal systems an organization puts in place, individuals will create their own personal learning networks, Sampson argues. These will consist of people inside and outside the organization and include a wide range of approaches and tools—from old-fashioned networking to social networking services such as Twitter and LinkedIn; from conferences to grabbing a beer with a colleague. Says he: "In the end, organizations benefit from all these interactions."

About the Author

Samuel Greengard is a West Linn, Oregon writer who covers technology and social trends. His articles have appeared in CACM, Wired, Discover and many other publications.


  • Sat, 13 Aug 2011
    Post by Ryan Tracey

    Thanks for the overview of the debate, Samuel. The participants on both sides made some excellent points.

    Having said that, something that I think tends be skirted around in these kinds of discussions is the difference between "learning" and "assessment".

    If the latter is robust and authentic, the style of the former doesn't matter so much.

  • Thu, 11 Aug 2011
    Post by Sundar Balasubramanian

    Quite agree with the conclusions - also reflected in this blog based on our experience at BT.