Jay Cross helps people work and live smarter. Jay is the Johnny Appleseed of informal learning. He wrote the book on it. He was the first person to use the term eLearning on the web. He has challenged conventional wisdom about how adults learn since designing the first business degree program offered by the University of Phoenix.

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Informal Snake Oil

posted on
March 1st, 2010

“As soon as the software vendors and marketers get hold of a good idea, they pretty well destroy it,” writes my colleague Harold Jarche in his post on Social Snake Oil. (That’s his graphic above.) Jane Hart chimed in, reinforcing Harold’s point that “social learning is being picked up by software vendors and marketers as the next solution-in-a-box, when it’s more of an approach and a cultural mind-set”.

I watched vendors hi-jack the term eLearning, and I don’t want to see it happen to social or informal learning. At the 1999 Online Learning conference in Los Angeles, CBT Systems announced it was “Smartforce, the eLearning Company.” This was ground zero. No one else on the exhibit floor even mentioned eLearning. Yet at the ASTD Conference six months later, dozens of vendors claimed to have eLearning. Most of them had changed nothing but their brochures and their signs. The “e”? Perhaps you could ask for help via email.

This old story is playing out again. In additional to social learning, vendors are claiming to provide informal learning. Instead of email, you get blogs and wikis tacked on. This is akin to saying that word processors write novels: it’s hardly the whole story.

informal learning book

Informal Learning in a Nutshell gives my definition of informal learning.

When you see “informal learning” on an LMS vendor’s brochure, you might inquire if they’re using Jay’s definition. And how they do that.

Sleight of hand

In the last ten days, I’ve been invited to attend three different webinars on formalizing informal learning. The topic arises from faulty semantics, a word trick.

None of the speakers really call for formalizing informal learning; that would kill it. What they mean to say is that informal learning is too important to leave to chance. The formalizing means giving an official blessing to building an environment that encourages informal learning. Thus, it’s generally a good practice to provide comfy nooks that foster conversations; it’s malpractice to tell people what they should talk about in those nooks.

The Informal Learning Page
Social Snake Oil (Harold)
The State of Social Learning Today (Jane)

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