I was in Oxford a fortnight ago attending Leo Learning’s second annual e-learning debate where the motion being debated was ‘this house believes that technology-based informal learning is more style than substance’.

There were some interesting snippets of argument spread throughout the debate but the motion seemed to push those arguing for it to take an extreme stance. A pure argument for or against the motion is difficult to make because of the subjective nature of the terms used. Take a glance at some of the comments and you can see that the motion has been interpreted in a number of different ways.

However, I was a bit confused about why some of those arguing for the motion chose to frame the debate by suggesting that to vote no would indicate you were in favour of scrapping all formal learning, or replacing formal learning with technology implementations. I was, frankly, disappointed by the examples that were given.

How do you like your doctors?

Dr Allison Rossett made the tired case that formal learning is needed to make sure that doctors are medical experts, pilots can fly a plane and informal learning would be a deadly danger to us all.

I didn’t hear anyone suggesting that formal training was scrapped and I’d disagree with anyone suggesting we did so. I agree that we want to ensure that our doctors and pilots have a minimum level of competence and that well designed formal training can deliver this more effectively than informal methods. Let’s leave aside that most formal training isn’t at all well designed and concentrate on what then happens after that minimum level of competence has been achieved.

Personally, I don’t want a doctor who’s only ever received formal training. I’d prefer my GP, consultant or surgeon to have at least 10 years practical experience behind them. I’d prefer it if they were actively writing medical papers, keeping up to date with the latest research through journals, discussing issues with other doctors, sharing information and expertise online and at conferences. If my doctor didn’t have a decade of that constant informal learning practice, or wasn’t supervised by someone who did, then I’d want another doctor. I don’t care if some of that learning is ‘technology-based’, I just care that it’s happening.

Similarly, I’d prefer it if my pilot wasn’t straight out of pilot training. I’d feel much more comfortable if, in addition to their basic training, pilots go through the informal learning process of being part of an experienced flight crew, spending time as a first officer before becoming a captain in charge of the flight deck. This way they get to work with experienced pilots, learning from them through discussion, observation and sharing best practice informally.

Evidence, models and examples

Nancy Lewis, also arguing for the motion, stated that “until we have templates, until we have frameworks, until we have proof, informal learning will remain more style than substance”. However, at the same time she referenced Bloom, Kolb and other outdated and discredited models as examples of how ‘formal learning’ has research and substance behind it.

It’s true that technology-enabled learning initiatives don’t have a long and illustrious history behind them. For quite a while, e-learning was seen as one way that learning departments could slash budgets and still deliver the same, or even a better, service . However, poor design, botched implementations and a lack of enthusiasm from users meant that most practitioners working in learning and development have had poor experiences of implementing technology initiatives.

That’s changing, and we should be learning from past mistakes, but not to experiment at all, to not try out new approaches would be to act as a block to change. There are plenty of examples of organisations that have had massive success with technology supported learning initiatives along with guidance based on lessons learned – you just need to know where to look. I’d recommend starting with The Working Smarter Fieldbook by the Internet Time Alliance and The New Social Learning by Marcia Conner and Tony Bingham.

Some sense at last

During the debate, Jay Cross provided us with one of the most sensible perspectives. He observed that no learning experience can be purely formal or informal, but that all learning experiences tended to work on a scale between the two extremes.

For example, a classroom based workshop consists of formal elements, like an agenda driven by someone other than yourself, but also informal elements such as the conversations with other delegates and the connections made that carry on outside the course. The informal nature of a mentoring relationship still has formal elements to it, especially if it’s been set up as part of a wider initiative. I, for one, wouldn’t want one without the other.

Picking between informal and formal learning is a false choice, as is choosing whether to use technology or stick with traditional methods. Technology is an enabler; it speeds things up, helps make connections and can cut down the chances of errors and incorrect information from spreading. Holding back and adopting a wait-and-see approach is just holding back the organisation.