Elliott Masie’s Learning conference drew 1,850 learning professionals to Orlando, Florida for keynote sessions with Michelle Obama and John Lithgow, dozens of breakout sessions, and experiential workshops.

Integrating informal and formal learning

One theme emerged regularly throughout the sessions I attended: the importance of integrating formal and informal learning in learning-focused organizations, whether corporate, higher education, or K-12. Although doing so presents numerous challenges, informal learning is a key factor in organizational success. Here are notes, paraphrased from the many engaging speakers.

Elliott Masie, Conference Producer: We’re in the midst of the shift from formal organizational tools to informal learner-driven learning experiences. Today, people find others with shared interests more easily than we, as learning professionals, can help them find each other. That is why learning designers and producers should focus on the learning experiences of individuals.

Bringing “magic” into our learning environments

Andrea Wong, User Experience Researcher, Google: Human/computer interaction focuses on the individual, and is evolving rapidly in informal learning environments. Start with your users and develop engaging experiences that reach into the emotions and build connections between people.

Karl Kapp, a professor at Bloomsburg University: Video games provide a strong example of informal learning. Game thinking is a social learning methodology. As you collaborate with other players to “level up,” you learn from your mistakes and move forward in a nonlinear fashion. Rapid feedback and failure in games a key to learning

Guillermo Miranda, Chief Learning Officer, IBM: Students expect to find “the magic” of online games and tools they use every day, in their learning environments. However, when they are required to log into 3-4 systems, they tune out. We need to transform legacy learning experiences from silos to an interoperable ecosystem, bringing together formal and informal learning, all supported by AI and machine learning.

Richard Culatta, CEO, ISTE: Educators and Ed Tech people can work together to leverage great ideas with the ability to scale, starting with informal learning moments. We need to get teachers, software developers, and learning scientists to work together, to get out of their silos, to make a big change.

Guillermo Miranda: A “cognitive economy” is emerging where cognitive science and machine learning augment human capacity. In this economy, learners redefine themselves throughout their lifetimes through informal learning, and occupation-specific skills are less important than the cognitive skills that are consistent throughout life.

Learning through storytelling

Jayzen Patria, NBC Universal Talent Development: We need to better understand our learners so we can serve them. Diversity and inclusion need to be suffused throughout everything we do because telling our many, diverse stories is an important way to facilitate learning.

Michelle Obama, former First Lady of the United States: Storytelling was huge in my family. The way I prefer to learn is with my team, talking about an issue, and engaging in a conversation rather than getting a stack of materials and going off on my own to figure it out.

Organizational challenges

However, nearly a dozen under-30-year-old young learning professionals noted that integrating just in time, informal learning with formal learning and assessment is a significant challenge in their organizations, especially tracking the learning that occurs outside the LMS.
The Chief Learning Officers of 4 large corporations and non-profits concurred. In supporting the needs of tens of thousands of employees, they all reported they are struggling with social (informal) learning, especially in regulated fields, attempting to balance privacy and the freedom to learn from colleagues.

Julian Stodd, author The Social Leadership Handbook: One challenge: many organizations are based on models from the Victorian era, with a highly-organized, formal, hierarchical, top-down structure. That approach is valuable, but not complete. We have to reimagine our organizations. In addition to the formal level of an organization, we need to embrace the informal layer, which is good at innovation and getting things done at the small group level because it is based on tribal bonds of trust and purpose.  These social systems are multilayered and radically complex, with many elements requiring flexibility to thrive.

Danielle Goonan, Walmart Giving, Senior Manager II, Career Opportunity, former Director of Strategic Initiatives, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE): Bright students often drop out of college due to a culture misfit with the institution, especially first generation. An informal learning network is needed to provide support, which benefits retention. Leaders need to make sure passion is stewarded among all students, of all backgrounds.

Danielle Goonan: As a result of the mismatch between learners and educational institutions, millions of young adults who did not go to, or thrive in, college have low literacy, numeracy, and digital skills. Rockefeller and Joyce Foundations are investing in tools and techniques for this population. Walmart foundation is investing $2.7 billion in training and education for employees to help reduce these gaps.

Organizational transformation

Sarah Nicholl, D2L, Strategist: A growth mindset is at the heart of organizational change. The greatest challenge is changing your mental model from a sense of “the right answer” to seeking incremental improvement. The way you speak about performance in a growth mindset is key: the power of “not yet,” “almost,” and “leveling-up”

Julian Stodd: Social leaders in informal systems are deeply connected with others because fairness and kindness are key traits that build social capital. Trust grows around people grouped locally and when people become invested, they contribute to success. When organizations nurture and support social storytelling from these informal groups, they are successful.

Sarah Nicholl, D2L: Employee engagement requires trust, which flows from growth mindset plus purpose plus feedback. Ask questions to help employees find the inner purpose: What are you good at doing? What do you enjoy? What feels most useful? What creates a sense of forward momentum?

Julia Kelleher, Puerto Rico Education Secretary: The revival of Puerto Rico will be based on the revival of public schools, which are already serving as neighborhood centers for people of all ages who are learning, informally, how to live in an environment that is quite different from formal schooling.

Christine McKinley, mechanical engineer, musician, and Physics for Rock Stars: America needs to better integrate science and engineering with the arts, especially encouraging STEM skills with girls and opportunity students.

Learning in context

Elliott Masie: We as human beings value integrity and change, and we learn over time. It takes time for formal and informal learning to be integrated. You need to get quiet for the context of the learning to become apparent, to settle in. A successful learner starts by finding a few things they’re passionate about and studies them (formal learning). She then initiates conversations around those topics with people who have experience, insights, and stories, and then does an experiment to see how well she’s internalized the learning. Learning doesn’t happen in doses, but in the things we do to follow up. So, don’t just report on what you learned at this conference, tell the story. Learning happens in the stories.

How-to sessions

Here are notes from selected how-to sessions at the conference.

Mordy Golding, LinkedIn, director of content: Jobs are now more like tours-of-duty lasting 2-3 years and 35% of job skills will change by 2020. To keep up with speed of change, 69% of learning and development professionals say talent development is #1 priority at organizations. Although originally emerged to support individual professional development, its recent acquisition by LinkedIn brought a new focus on formal corporate learning. Popular categories include Professional development (critical thinking and problem solving) and Information Management (software and IT). However, enterprise tools — such as formative assessments, adaptive learning, and dashboards for tracking learner progress — are not yet available on the platform, but are in development.

Sarah Nicholl, D2L, Strategist: Although assessments are critical to clarifying an individual’s growth, they should be made very easy. Continuous social assessment of skill with video, audio, or text feedback from peers, coaches and experts brings informal learning into designed formal learning.

Rachel Donley and Tara Welsch, KFC: In large organizations, obstacles to gamifying learning are numerous, including limited access to online resources; dense content that makes maintaining engagement difficult; multiple language learners; multiple media channels drawing attention; the insane pace of change, not enough time to develop when it will be obsolete. However, some simple methods for gamifying short modules include: adding graphics and music and simple yes/no questions using tools including: Corel Video Studio, Camtasia, Go Animate, Captivate, which is responsive/mobile, supports SCORM integration, but with fewer features than Storyline, open source production and compression tools (Handbrake and Audacity), and stock assets (GraphicStock and Audio blocks).