Dust-up at Training Zone

Some readers of an interview with me that appeared in today’s issue of Training Zone has generated a dozen critical comments and even some name-calling. First, the interview. Then, the comments. And after that, my response.

Jay Cross, the man who coined the term ‘elearning’, believes the web is revolutionising the way we learn. Not through the kind of elearning of the 1990s but via the explosion of online communities which effectively democratise the way we learn. Cross believes the era of traditional course-led training is coming to an end and that informal, social learning is the way forward. Mike Levy interviews the guru of new learning approaches.

Jay Cross has been described as a visionary, world-renowned learning strategist and believes he is the man who first coined the term ‘elearning’ on the web. Now the California-based guru thinks that learning heaven has arrived in the shape of Web 2.0. The CEO of the Internet Time Corporation is currently writing a book on informal learning, which is his passion. Informal learning, says Cross, happens without any pre-set curriculum. “It is the way we learnt before schools were invented to fry our brains,” he says.

Cross is angry about the way business is trapped by traditional forms of training and learning. He is enormously excited by Web 2.0 and its ability to put people in touch with one another so that they can learn in communities.

“We should not be talking about blended learning. It arose when people were naïve enough to think that all learning could be done on computer. Blending adds very little to the way we learn.”

He bristles when the term ‘management of learning’ is used. “That means someone has decided what you should learn. Real learning happens when you have a need for it and when you are ready to do it.” The man who thought of elearning on the web is scathing about the way computers have been used to offload knowledge on to people who haven’t asked for it. “Informal learning happens spontaneously in response to a need. It occurs without any pre-planning or prescriptive menus.”

Cross reserves his greatest derision for terms like ‘blended learning’. “I don’t believe in it – I think it is bull****. It is usually about blending what we already have. We should not be talking about blended learning. It arose when people were naïve enough to think that all learning could be done on computer. Blending adds very little to the way we learn.”

Cross’s vision of the future is one of ‘un-conferencing’ (one which is focused and run by participants) and where people are their own ‘personal instructional designers’. Cross is working on ways to create an electronic meeting place where expertise, ideas and knowledge can be shared.

Cross says: “The question is not; which course do I go on? But of all the many options for learning, which one do I choose : do I work with an expert, do I want to find it on Google or talk to my friends in the pub, or social network? These are all valid ways of learning.”

“The question is not; which course do I go on? But of all the many options for learning, which one do I choose: do I work with an expert, do I want to find it on Google or talk to my friends in the pub, or social network? These are all valid ways of learning.”

According to Cross, the power of Web 2.0 with its wikis, blogs and social networks is that people learn as they would through natural conversation and dialogue. This democratisation of learning does mean a perceived loss of control by those who control the training purse strings. Cross finds that many businesses are nervous about the power of informal learning. As he says: “I’ve been talking to a group of senior corporate executives who were worried about informal learning styles. ‘Does it work?’ they ask. ‘Of course it does, how did you learn to talk, eat or walk’.”

The promise of powerful new learning approaches via the web isn’t something that fires the average company. Cross sighs, “Most corporations don’t think about any kind of learning – all they are interested in is how much we can make in the next quarter. There is an incredible short-term focus in business. It is less so in Asia than in the UK and USA. I took a poll of organisations and half agreed with the statement: ‘we are too concerned about the present to do anything about the future’. Three quarters of respondents said that ‘if we continue with our present mode of learning and development, we will not be prepared for the future’. The sad thing is that the future is 10 minutes from now – we are far too reactive.”

Cross’s conversion to the web as a learning platform came more than 10 years ago. “When the web arrived, I thought, the world will not be the same from now on. I kept saying that the web would be the future of education. I was so excited at the new opportunities and became one of the very first bloggers.” Cross took a week on a remote Caribbean island to think about what the web meant for the future of learning. He came back and founded Internet Time Group to explore the convergence of learning and communications technology. “Later I started to use the term ‘elearning’ and people looked at me like I was from another planet. But it started to catch on.”

“I’ve been talking to a group of senior corporate executives who were worried about informal learning styles. ‘Does it work?’ they ask. ‘Of course it does, how did you learn to talk, eat or walk’.”

Cross believes that elearning has not lived up to its early promise: “My definition at the time was to create an environment where you were connected to other people and knowledge resources. Six months after we went public, everyone was selling elearning which often meant a helpline to a call-desk or downloading a book.”

Even the forward-looking businesses can be slow at taking up these new learning opportunities. Cross points to the Intel Corporation who may be leading edge with their chips but their training department, he says, is totally old style. “They are, like many other businesses, worried about the unsupervised nature of democratised learning and their IT departments have many other priorities other than building online learning communities. Organisations I talk to say that informal learning is too much and we don’t have time to think about the future.”

To address this last objection, Cross has assembled a formidable team to create an IT platform, Togetherlearn.com, a template for businesses who wish to develop online learning communities tapping into all the Web 2.0 tools. “We had thought about giving this away but this means that business wouldn’t take it seriously. We spend three days with the user of this service to make sure it is properly supported with community champions and make sure it is kept alive. That is vital to make online learning communities work well.”

What of the role of trainers and coaches in the future. Cross is sanguine, “There will be a role but not necessarily what they are accustomed to. There will be coaches and mentors but the ‘sage on the stage’ – their days are numbered.” His message is simple: with the web, we are all sages now.

Jay Cross is a keynote speaker at the Learning Technology Conference at Olympia in January

For more information visit his wesbite: www.jaycross.com

Mike Levy is a freelance journalist, author, writing and presentations coach.

Peter Mayes , 26-Nov-08
how did you learn to talk, eat or walk

An interesting article from an individual passionate about their particular area of interest; can’t fault that.

One comment that brought doubt to the foundation of the premise expressed was to do with learning to talk, eat or walk.

My understanding from documentaries, journals and books (mostly my partners for her psychology degree) is that without assistance and guidance a child will not naturally (or infomally) learn to talk, eat or walk. Unless of course the programme was a hoax there are the investigations into children who were held captive, without stimulus, support or instruction and as I understand it lost the ability of language (a switch in the brain is turned off if not used).

And for my own studies; there is no way on this earth that I would have got my degree in Management and IT via informal methods; all a matter of attitude; I for one exist in a comfort zone and will allow myself to be instructed formally to enable me to re-enforce the learning by informal experience. Granted there will be others who will push the envelope but I (and many others) am not one of them

Is the trainer a soon to be extinct dinasaur; no. Instruction (the foundation of the delivery of learning or the transfer of knowledge from one to another) has been around since the first human learnt something beneficial and taught it to someone else (not the oldest profession in the world but in my mind the oldest disciplin). And agreeing wholeheartedly with Paul Kearns; the evaluation took place in that the person taught benefited and the instruction spead.

Informal learning is in my view an addition to a raft of knowledge, skill and behavioural methodologies and just like all the other methodologies introduced in the past will not replace any particular one of them.

But then again I might be a dinasaur:)

Chief Executive
The Association for Learning Practitioners

Kevin Chamberlain , 26-Nov-08
Jay some of the way

I am with Jay’s starting point about school systems but from there we start to part company.
Jay appears to assume that everybody knows how to learn and everybody is motivated to learn – assumptions I would question.

As a coach my starting point is the person or persons in the room at that moment. My questions begin the change process. I bring my experience and knowledge, they bring theirs and from there we find our starting point. Now maybe I am back with Jay but the process I have just described invariably bighlights people’s inner-critic – people’s sense of not being good enough. That is where one has to work.

James Graham , 26-Nov-08
What a load of &*)&%&%

Embrace the way of the Tao and distructs the gurus!

Tim Drewitt , 26-Nov-08
Structured Approaches Are Often Preferred

Over the last 15 years of working with a whole variety of learning technologies as part of blended learning programmes (although they weren’t called those 15 years ago), I have seen plenty of evidence that they work and work well.

Time after time, when I’ve worked on projects that tried to encourage self-started learning or pointing people to more informal methods, the constant feedback I’ve received has been “can’t you just give us some direction…we’re very busy…give us head start.” So much so that in one organisation I worked with, we coined the term “managed self-managed” learning for a while.

I agree that lots of learning is informal – and that is can be very rich – but I’ve been careful too in not trying to “formalise” informal learning too much, which is the risk when you try to major in on it.

Organisationally, I think we do need to determine learning paths and programmes of learning and development so that we can provide our employees with the opportunities they need to develop.

Alongside these, there is a role for facilitating informal learning approaches, but it’s all about the blend.

Whereas I’m sure we wouldn’t see anarchy, I’m worried that too much emphasis on informal learning could result in some very confused results.

Stella Collins , 26-Nov-08
informal learning will happen anyway but how can you make it work better

I found this article very interesting and very frustrating at the same time. I totally agree that informal learning is vital and it’s happening, and has always happened, anyway but this article implied that it all happens on the ‘web’. Yes – many of us do learn a lot whilst blogging, surfing etc etc but it’s not the only way for the future. People will still meet formally or informally and learn from each other and I think harnessing that process has just as much relevance as what Jay Cross describes, which is effectively informal ‘web-based learning’ – so a subset of all learning. As Paul Kearns says it’s important to measure what works before throwing out all the other forms of learning. Learning needs to be focused on what the learner needs to know, and how they prefer to learn, and if it can be timed right too then it’s going to be even more effective. When you learn to walk and talk you usually have a fully dedicated supporter as well as a strong genetic predisposition to learn that particular skill. Can the same be said of e.g. IT skills, health and safety skills etc?

Steve Skarratt , 26-Nov-08

Who described him as a “visionary”? His own publicity machine. Excuse my lack of eloquence but what an idiot. I agree that “traditional” schooling methods arent necessarily for everyone -but how can he advocate what is essentially a more restricted approach by denying the opportunities that blended learning offer. There are those that do not prefer to learn in front of a PC.

Informal learning is not a new concept for goodness sake – even universities (who hav elong been guilty of lecturing for reasons of numbers) deliver many management courses informally – BUT within a formal structure so that it is coherent and understandable. There are too many contradictions in this article.

Peter Thomas , 26-Nov-08
Accreditation is still valid
I agree with the broad thrust that we can all informally learn what we want and when we want but there still remains an important place for accredited learning.

I believe that people should pass a driving test before they are allowed out on their own in a car and I would like to think that someone has checked the competance of doctors and nurses before they lay their hands on me.

That sort of learning still needs to be structured.

Leanne Hoagland Smith , 26-Nov-08
Informal Learning Is Not New

Over 10 years ago, I completed my Masters and read numerous studies that indicates that informal learning was the way most people (70%) learn. You learn best from those around you than from someone standing in front of you. Technology now has provided a way for people to reach through cyberspace and learn from each other (social networking).

What I read but did not see was that self directed learning where access to the Internet and other resources is becoming more apparent. However, trainers and teachers still must provide some resources as well as develop the higher order thinking skills necessary to maximize the self directed learning experience. High order thinking skills do not happen on their own. Development is required.

Training or learning appears to be coming full circle and returning more to the Socratic approach by asking questions causing the person to be comfortably uncomfortable. Until awareness is created, change (learning something is a change) will not be sustainable (actually performing what I learned). This may help to explain the explosion of successful coaching models that are really Socratic dialogues.

Finally, the reluctance to change has far more to do with beliefs than anything else. The status quo remains because this is how we have always learned (belief) no matter how innovative the organization is.

Brian Mulligan , 26-Nov-08
What about accreditation?
In theory I agree. I have learned more than I would in a PhD in e-learning in the last 12 years – informally. However, no-one will believe me. It seems that having the letters after your name is very important. Here’s a quick theory:

e-learning is driven by accreditation which is in turn driven by employment legislation:
If employers could easily get rid of employees that did not cut the mustard, they would be much more inclined to hire those without qualifications who would be exxpected to demonstrate knowledge and ability after they were hired. However, they generally can’t, so they cautiously hire those with the accredited qualifications and cross their fingers. Employees know this, and are therefore interested in attending courses that will give them a qualification – the more convenient the better – hence the popularity of online ‘course’. Because of this, I predict they will have a great future, even though I agree that perhaps they should not.

Nicky Adams , 26-Nov-08
Informal Learning

I have to agree with the previous comment, where is the evidence that this works? More importantly, surely saying that this is a great way for EVERYONE to learn is as wrong as trying to force everyone into a formal learning environment? Why can’t we move away from this “my way is the only way” mentality and consider that a multitude of different approaches, dependent on the individual, the situation, the topic, the organisation, the timing etc etc is the best and most appropriate way to meet the learning needs of individuals? I quite like formal learning and structure, so where do I fit in with Jay Cross’s vision? I don’t see why I, or anyone else, should have to adopt an approach that doesn’t work for them because an expert says so.

Paul Kearns , 26-Nov-08
If Jay Cross is a guru then I’m a banana

Jay Cross is so sagacious that he coined the phrase ‘elearning’ when all the technology ever delivered was etraining. He also fails to define what he means by informal learning,demonstrate how it works for organisations or provide evidence of its relevance, validity or impact. If this is what Web 2.0 is all about then if we are to take it seriously it needs to demonstrate its worth.

His prediction of the demise of the trainer might well be accurate but the role of the true learning professional, using an evidence-based approach, is just starting.

Jay Cross
Thank you, one and all. I’d much rather be read and denounced than not read at all.

Permit me to offer a few clarifications in response to your comments. After all, you’re responding to a 1,200 word summary of an interview rather than my work. That said, I consider Mike Levy’s report of our conversation an accurate representation of the way I see things. (Thanks, Mike.)

To my way of thinking, all learning is part formal and part informal. I don’t advocate one over the other so much as a proper balance. The informal aspect is what comes naturally. Hence, when I say that’s how you learned to walk or talk, I don’t mean to suggest that a trainer or instructional designer was involved. Hence, Peter Mayes and I are in agreement. A child raised by wolves does not become adapt at conversation.

Kevin Chamberlain writes, “Jay appears to assume that everybody knows how to learn and everybody is motivated to learn – assumptions I would question.” Yes, I assume everyone knows how to learn, but I think most of us could do a better job of it. And everyone is motivated to learn, because that’s how we make sense of the world, but from an organizational or societal viewpoint, they may not be motivated to learn what others consider the right things. I think informal learning is too important to leave to chance.

James Graham, you’ll have to be more specific than “What a load of &*)&%&%” for me to respond.

Tim Drewitt and I are probably on the same page when it comes to the need for direction. Informal learning does not mean “without purpose.” I do not advocate chaos. Instead, I favor making goals clear but giving learners the discretion to achieve them as they see fit. See http://tinyurl.com/5r8s4j

I think the web is a wonderful way to support and accelerate informal learning, but I don’t remember saying that it is the only way. My book on the subject describes many non-tech ways to implement informal learning. The most effective learning technology ever invented is conversation, and face-to-face conversations usually have more impact than virtual ones.

Stella Collins questions the applicability of informal learning for IT skills, health and safety skills. From what I’ve seen, the best programs for these call on both formal and informal methods.

Steven Skarratt calls me an idiot. Get a life, Steven.

I’m with Peter Thomas in wanting my fellow drivers on the highway to have passed a formal driver’s test. I remember the days when lots of cars in the UK had learner plates….

Leanne Hoagland Smith, thank you. You wrote, “Finally, the reluctance to change has far more to do with beliefs than anything else. The status quo remains because this is how we have always learned (belief) no matter how innovative the organization is.” I spend my days tilting the windmills of organizational inertia.

Brian Mulligan, certification is sometimes a worse sin than accreditation in this regard. It simplifies hiring decisions but often yields people who are better at passing tests than getting the job done.

Nicky Adams, I am in favor of what works best. And to generalize, I define ‘best’ as that which enables people to find fulfillment in work and life. This is not either/or. The evidence that people learn informally is all around us. Think about how you learned to do your work. List what you do well. Then jot down how you learned to do it. I imagine you will come up with things like observing others, trying & failing, asking questions, and so forth more often that “I went to a class.”

Paul Kearns, I agree that the impact of the true learning professional is just beginning to be felt. If you want to blame me for the failure of poorly implemented eLearning, that’s your privilege. However, if you look around the web a bit, you’ll discover that I have long decried computer-only training. During my five years as CEO of elearning Forum, I pushed hard for a more enlightened approach. You can find major portions of my book Implementing eLearning online.

If you are interested in exploring the value of informal learning rather than setting up and knocking down straw-man arguments, take a look at some of these resources:

a short YouTube video on informal learning