Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Form of Informal - 2

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Dec 05, 2006

Responding to Tony Karrer, More on the Form of Informal

What do you think the meaning of the word 'dictating' is?

"How do you aim at performance objectives, provide appropriate support, structure and form without dictating to some level?"

I can 'aim at performance objectives' in a variety of ways, some dictatorial, others not:

- I can suggest that the company (or society) needs more widget experts, for example, or
- I can require that all employees undergo widget training

Similarly, given that for whatever reason a person has decided to learn about widgets:

- I can make available some resources on widgets
- I can provide some just-in-time learning support for people using widgets
- I can give salary bonuses for people who demonstrate they have passed a widget course
- I can assign an online course that all staff must complete
- I can hold mandatory widget training sessions

"No one says its structure free, but how much structure is allowed before it becomes too much to be informal? There's some kind of spectrum here with all sorts of shades."

The presumption here is that 'structure' is some sort of monodimensional property, akin to (say) 'complexity'. But it is not. Something can be very structured in one dimension and very unstructured in another.

For example: viewed a certain way, a forest is very unstructured. Nobody is organizing anything. Trees grow whether they will, deer and other woodland creatures wander about with no guidance whatsoever. But viewed another way, a forest is very structured. It is an instance of a complex ecosystem. Patterns are repeated in the shapes of the trees, the shapes of the leaves.

The point here is: 'structure' is not a 'spectrum' per se. Rather, some types of structure tend toward 'informal', while other types of structure tend toward 'formal'.

I'll come back to that.

"What's interesting is that the moment you begin to understand the form that informal learning took and provide support for that kind of learning in the future you start down the path of dictating solutions."

Again, this simply doesn't follow, unless you have a very unorthodox understanding of the meaning of the word 'dictating'.

The term 'dictating', as normally understood, entails some sense of enforcement. To 'dictate' that something will be done is to require it to be done, to impose an obligation on someone that it be done, and hence, concurrent with the concept of enforcement, is related to the concepts of power and control.

But not all structure is the result of, nor requires, power and control. This is the fallacy I've been trying to get at.

Let's call this the 'teleological fallacy' - the presumption that, where there is order, there must be an organizer, someone who creates and manages, through some process of authority, this order. A 'God' of the training room 'design', if you will.

"Providing job aids was one example that Michael McGinnis cited. The first time a person learned how to do that task/job it was likely through someone showing them how to do it. Once they put it in a job aid - it feels more formal on the spectrum. So maybe it's not a paradox, maybe its a spectrum."

The mere transfer of some 'showing' into some 'job aid' does not make something more formal. Some very formal instruction - such as, say, by a drill sergeant - can involve 'showing'. And some very informal instruction - such as a 'how-to' manual - can be a job aid.

So why does it 'feel more formal (in, at least, some cases)? Not because it has been given structure, but because the structure has changed. Some types of structure are formal, others are informal.

"But, it feels a lot like what Artificial Intelligence faces - informal is a bit mysterious and putting structure to it makes it feel more formal and much less mysterious."

Perhaps by 'structure' here you mean 'rule-based'?

Again - informal does not mean 'having no structure'. Rather, 'informal' means having a different kind of structure. One that is, among other things:
- not dictatorial
- not organized or managed by an organizer
- not rule-based

"Of course, I personally am not that concerned with the definition of the term nor really even the paradox as I am in understanding the next level of informal learning: what kinds of guidance, what kinds of support, how can be provided, that ultimately lead us to accomplishing our performance objectives?"

Right. And neither am I, because it is in attempting to define the term that we get right into the sort of fruitless and endless debates that formal semanticism so often entail.


It is still relevant to ask, what sort of structure tends to characterize the informal, and what sort of structure tends to characterize the formal? Structure that is not dictatorial, not organized, and not rule-based, to be sure. But what sort of structures look like that?

In a slogan: networks, as opposed to hierarchies.

I have elsewhere characterized the properties of systems that tend to be networks, as opposed to hierarchies, via their having following structural properties:
- decentralized.
- distributed.
- disintermediated.
- disaggregated.
- dis-integrated.
- democratic.
- dynamic.

Sorry about the cutesy list of Ds.

The sixth condition, 'democratic', constitutes what I call the semantic condition, and is constituted of four major elements:
- autonomy
- diversity
- openness
- connectedness

These (and conditions similar to these - I am not wedded to any particular characterization of these conditions) constitute a metric that distinguishes formal from informal. Things that have more of these properties are more informal, and vice versa (this will not be a strictly linear progression, which is why it is not merely a spectrum; take away even one characteristic - 'autonomy', say, and you instantly convert a system that was very informal to something very formal. The way a party becomes something very different entirely the moment someone says you have to attend.

But the main point here is that, within these parameters, there is a great deal of room (and expectation) of organization. The concept of 'distributed', for example, by its very nature assumes the existence of communications protocols between the parts. And the same for the other conditions.

When we look at this sort of model, we can see how unsatisfactory discussion akin to "Providing job aids was one example..." can be. We ask, immediately, what sort of job aid? Is it something employees were required to use (like, say, project template forms)? Is it something that needs to be scheduled? Managed? Produced from a central depot by a team of experts? All of these effect whether it can be characterized as 'formal' or 'informal'.

Different types of technology, different types of learning materials and different types of pedagogical practice may be characterized as more or less informal according to these criteria. Not based on the simplistic assessment of whether they are 'structured', but rather, on the much more insightful determination of how they are structured.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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