Friday, 14 March 2008

Questions about informal learning and the need for a global brain

Let me take you on a quest for learning affordances and on a loop in which I will suggest that future informal learning will not differ from 19th century teacher top-down learning. Two topics which I find are a bit intertwined or at least connected.

Anol (author of Soulsoup) wrote an excellent blogpost on guidelines for effective corporate elearning. It shook my knowledge tree and got me thinking. I can find myself in a lot of his guidelines especially 3 years onward: the LMS one and the fact courseware is out and I personally loath presentations or lessons that put one person in front and powerpoints on some wall or other. So hooray for the ongoing liberating learning guidelines, but there are a few thoughts that keep popping up in my mind every time informal learning comes into the educational equation. And as time passes and I read more, those questions only become louder.

How do we filter and acquire information if it is out there in abundance?

Or as Ullrich Carsten mentions in his superb and recently published paper on ‘Why Web2.0 is good for learning and for research’ disorientation and cognitive overload are the principal obstacles of self-regulated learning in technology-enhanced learning. While this statement had students in mind, in this day and age it is pivotal to every learner and of course every knowledge worker. And while Web2.0 comes up with answers through intelligence of crowds, sometimes static knowledge will be needed.

The need to define learning models that are natural:

Let me start from my working experience. Most of the courses at ITM are courses that stimulate peer-to-peer revision and participation. Some of the courses are built from a student demand upwards and communication is stimulated so a collaborative intelligence can emerge. Furthermore contacts are stimulated, so in a lot of cases physicians keep in touch as a community once they go back to their home country. They learn as they practice medicine and they share that knowledge. So, yes there is some solid communicating and informal learning going on.

The students however sometimes ask for manuals, they insist on downloading them, even if they now that the medical field is an ever changing field of knowledge. The fact that learners ask for manuals, slides etcetera can mean a couple of things:

· They are processing the shift in education from formal to informal and that takes time;

· They are in a melancholy mood, yearning for some learning as they got in the past – they could sleep more often during class;

· The students are not at ease with their own self-regulating learning needs;

· Or … we – at the institute – did not find an all inclusive TEL (Technology-Enhanced Learning) solution for our courses.

I guess it is a bit of all the above, but I can help learners with the last one. Getting a good TEL solution for courses (and I mean courses in the very broad sense: build them yourself, get the knowledge… kind of way) would be the thing to work on from my side.

What we need is a book/wiki on TEL similar to ‘The Psychology of Everyday Things’ by Donald A. Norman. Every TEL should have a clear and humanly intuitive affordance. This is what we should be looking for and disperse throughout both the business and the educational world, with a difference in outcomes, business outcomes on the one hand and learning outcomes on the other and of course these two are not fully separated from one another.

Knowledge of learning affordances will enhance learning in the long tail
Capturing tacit knowledge is more relevant as you are situated in the long tail of learning (because there is nothing else out there). So it would be great if for this type of learning there could be an affordance that lets you take in the necessary knowledge in a fluent, natural way. My intuition tells me that pedagogical affordances would be closely linked to culture and your own learning style, so looking at diverse cultures would be the thing to do.

The human brain is limited because we constantly loose knowledge although we endlessly gain it as well.

Self-regulated learning can be reached if we could plug-in and download whatever was needed at that particular moment in time. Nothing more, nothing less.

As Anol mentions, the matrix has a great example of downloadable knowledge when Trinity downloads the capacity to fly through her cell phone, but… she did plug in to a place were the information was stored (a shelf lets say, with the manual). What Trinity did not need to do was to memorise it because it was directly stored with memory and everything. Someone made that information solid and ready for access/use.

Ullrich mentioned in his paper Web2.0 enables access to data at an unprecedented scale, but what if this data is plugged-out? Will there be a back-up system, a big system that forces the need to store all the knowledge in such a way that if a software or data set is lost, knowledge will stay.

Here is where this blogpost rolls over from TEL affordance to … what shall I call it, let’s say …

The (questionable) plea for a global brain

We can be sure of one thing: in human history there has never seen such an amount of knowledge accessible to all. Web2.0 is increasing and the semantic web will come into existence some time soon (I guess).

Where am I going with all this information? Well, taken into account the need for enhanced informal learning, the increase of (tacit) knowledge, the emerging intelligence… I feel the need for a global brain. How else can we as suggested in the mail by Anol “Make relevant knowledge readily accessible for knowledge workers, knowledge that directly or indirectly affects their functional priorities.” I totally agree with Anol, but how can you make out what is a functional priority? What entity will decide? One human brain will not be enough, it will have to be a global brain.

At this point in time we are (at best) embracing aspects of the noosphere as seen by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Vladimir Vernadsky. Joël de Rosnay (a great futurist) was one of the first to understand the role of the internet in promoting the emergence of a global brain and Francis Heylighen digged into this and he came up with 3 aspects: the organiscism, the encyclopedism and the emergentism. (look at Francis’ great paper on the history of the concept of the global brain - great stuff). The great minds are pondering on this possibility for the near future

Informal learning in my mind was all about freedom, but then… it is not. Informal learning can only be done within the constraints of the knowledge it is accessing.

With informal learning you look at/find static knowledge and you construct your own knowledge in a dynamic way. But nevertheless the information on which your knowledge is build will be – for the bigger part – solid knowledge (of course taken into account that all knowledge is will change over time).

How much of informal learning is in fact roaming freely amongst knowledge that is out there?

In being an informal learner, we become our own gatekeeper, subject to other gatekeepers because we remix or access their knowledge. Let’s say a global brain will emerge, then we will have one omnipotent gatekeeper and the freedom of informal learning will suddenly become nothing more then accessing a knowledge selection that has been selected for us. And if that is so… how does it vary from a teacher standing in front of a classroom telling learners what they should now because they happened to choose that particular class?


  1. I agree with your observation that "Capturing tacit knowledge is more relevant as you are situated in the long tail of learning (because there is nothing else out there)." But it is critical to remember that the goal is not to capture the knowledge but make sure is it accessed for re-use. There is plenty of captured knowledge that is already lost in databases, etc. because no one thought through who would be motivated to access it in the future. You might be interested in my ongoing research in this area. See for more information. Thanks. -- Dave DeLong

  2. hi Dave,
    thanks a lot for the link! This is very interesting and a good read.