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

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Dec 04, 2006

Clark Aldrich, as cited by Tony Karrer, writes, "Can one criticize formal learning models in a book? Isn't a book the epitome of what one is suggesting is the wrong model?"

This is a pretty equivocal discussion. The words 'formal' and 'informal' are used in distinct senses.

In one sense, something is 'formal' or 'informal' according to whether it forms some part of a recognition infrastructure - the system of classes, programs and institutions that constitute our certificate and degree granting structure. Thus, when one has 'formal' qualifications, it is in reference to this infrastructure.

In a second sense, something is 'formal' if it is derived or represented in or as an abstract structure. In this way, systems or methods of doing things are 'formal', as are structures, 'forms' and other abstract entities. Thus, when we study 'formal' logic, we study abstract principles of reason, mechanisms for successful argumentation, truth tables and truth preservation, and the like.

Clearly there is a very large difference between having a method of doing something and having some educational infrastructure regulate and recognize the doing of something.

What complicates the matter is that the criticism - 'how can somebody write a book about informal learning' misses the mark in both senses. Because we have to ask - in what sense is a book formal?

The most that we could do is to try to adduce some sort of third sense of formal - something based on the length, or perhaps the book being organized into sections and chapters, perhaps, or even something based on the book being written in a language, which is at heart sequential. But neither segmentation nor sequence is sufficient to make something 'formal'.

I have over time lost patience with people who criticize informal learning on the ground that, if it is informal, it has no structure whatsoever. Articles like 'Informal Learning is Too Important to Leave to Chance,' I might add, fall into that category.

The mere fact that the learner is not being directed by some teacher or educational institution does not entail that there can and must be no structure whatsoever. nobody equates 'informal learning' with 'structure-free learning'.

The test for this is simple: ask any person who has learned something informally - whether it is how to program computers or how to tune and engine - how they learned. If they have any answer, then there was some structure to the learning. If a person says, "well I followed the discussion lists and then I looked up what I needed on Google," there's a structure. If he says, "Well I watched my uncle Fred tune a few engines, then I tried it while he watched," there's a structure.

What makes informal learning different from formal learning is not that it is formless, but rather, it that it is conducted outside the domain of the formal education infrastructure, with the associated and not trivial implication that it is managed by the learner, and not the professor or institution.

That's why a statement like 'too important to be left to chance' is so misleading. It implies that there is no reason why a person (whether an employee or a student) might choose this or that informal learning method. It implies that nothing can be done to support this person, to suggest some structures or mechanisms, to improve their likely outcome. It assumes that, unless we control this person, the outcome is 'by chance'.

But that's ridiculous. It is one thing to say, "I'm personally much more confident if I have a set of performance objectives that I can use to derive learning objectives and skill development opportunities around. I want to put structure in place that guides the learner along the way." It is quite another to say that the learner (a) must attend your class, and (b) must adhere to your learning outcomes and learning methodologies.

When I have characterized the distinction between formal and informal learning, I have done it this way: by saying, if you can walk out of the room, or change the shape of the discussion, or skip an activity, without (academic or other) sanction or penalty, then it's informal learning.

People can publish a book and still support informal learning. After all, picking up a book, reading it on your own time, and consulting it as necessary, is the epitome of informal learning. No classes, no structure, no tests, no grades, no degrees. Reading a book written by James Joyce is not somehow 'more informal' than reading a book by Jay Cross.

From my perspective, I see more of a tension when people refer to books as being authoritative on the internet.

For example, Dave Warlick did something to one of my comments recently to which I took objection, and when he asked me to justify my complaint he asked, "What book is it written in?" As though this would be authoritative.

When I replied, the internet, it was taken by some readers to be flippant or even rude. Why would I not provide a citation? But what citation would be better than the internet itself when addressing a question of what is or is not done on the internet? How would what is written in a book actually outweigh what people do online?

In certain circles, publishing a book still confers some authority upon its author, as though cozying up to some publisher (and signing away your copyright) somehow grants you some sort of status. But I don't agree.

We are at the cusp of a division between the age when people gained authority through what they printed on paper and when people gain authority through what they print online. It will not be a quick transition, because it is easy to recognize when somebody publishes a book, and much harder to recognize when they publish a quality website.

But as time goes by, and when we realize that Paris Hilton has published one too many books for our liking, or that some online writer has published one too few, this transition, from being anointed an 'expert' by the publishing industry, to being anointed an 'expert' by a community (of practice), will become easier.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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