Is Social Learning a fad? One Organization Seems to Believe So

Reflecting upon the growing adoption of Web 2.0 technologies in enterprises and organizations, about two weeks ago I wrote a post called Shiny new technologies used by dusty old professions . In it I considered that an ad hoc approach to adding Web 2.0-based learning channels without appropriate strategy, planning, and management could lead to a diminution of their effectiveness in the long term.

In response to my article, I received a comment from a person associated with an organization who had gone down this very road by implementing informal learning and knowledge-sharing channels (including FaceBook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and asynchronous content delivery) on an “as needed” basis, and who contradicted or declared against the points I made in my post.

Here are some of the assertions made in the comment:

  • I wrote that informal learning was “casual”
  • Regulated professional bodies do not undertake informal learning (supporting evidence to this was included via a link to the organization’s Continuing Professional Education overview document, available online)
  • Social Media is a “fad”
  • I “miss[ed] the point completely. Social media is nothing to do with e-learning.”
  • My name is Brian

Naturally I published the comment (as I do with every comment I receive unless it’s spam). The missive wasn’t e-mailed to me personally, but to my blog, so I assumed it was submitted to the public domain. About a week later, I composed a response to the comment and e-mailed it to my correspondent.

To date I have received no reply from them, so I considered the matter is closed. However, a few people who read the comment got on to me (privately) and said that the remarks that were made in the comment were so inaccurate and erroneous, that it was worth highlighting them to a larger audience.

In fact, they said, the comment was a distillation of the general lack of understanding of informal learning, e-learning, and Web 2.0, and should be addressed as a matter of credibility for L&D professionals, if nothing else. And also that my name is not Brian.

So, for your consideration, my rebuttal to the charge that “Social Media has Nothing to do with E-Learning.”

Now read on…

To whom it may concern:

Many thanks for taking the time to communicate with me. Firstly I need to apologize: as in many occupations (accountancy among them, no doubt), learning and development professionals sometimes use certain words and phrases in very specific contexts that extend their meaning beyond popular use. It simply didn’t occur to me that any of the terminology in the blog article text needed further exposition, and I regret that lack of clarity has caused you to object to and attempt to refute the remarks I made in my blog post.

However, you have misquoted me, suggested that my article was inaccurate, and that I “missed the point completely” so I’m invoking my right to reply. I’d like to say that I hate having to do this, as it makes me come across as long-winded and boring, and I am neither. Nevertheless, I wish to address each of the remarks you made in your comment: I’d appreciate it if you would take the time to reflect upon what follows.

First the misquote: you state in quote marks that I wrote “informal and casual” somewhere in my text. Let me be crystal clear about this: there is nothing “casual” about acquiring skills, knowledge, and expertise. I take the activity (and my part in it) very seriously. I did use the term “ad hoc” but in a completely different context, I will address this later.

I would assert that you felt motivated to respond to me because you would argue for what Colley, Hodkinson & Malcolm call the “perceived inherent superiority” (2002, p.2) of formal learning over informal learning.

Let’s get this formal/non-formal/informal business out of the way, because it’s part of the first point you refuted. All learning occurs on a continuum (see Figure 1) with formal learning at one extreme, and informal learning at the other, and non-formal learning ‘in the middle.’ Now here’s the good bit, so I’m going to place this in a paragraph all on its own:

Eighty percent of organizational learning takes place informally.

Gartner Research (2008, p.1).

You will note that the continuum illustrated below is on a horizontal axis, and that there is no hierarchical distinction between the learning modalities.

learning continuum

Figure 1. The Learning Continuum

It’s apparent that a dichotomy exists between the paradigms of formal, goal-directed training programs and informal “learning at the water cooler” (Grebow, 2002):

it is difficult to make a clear distinction between formal and informal learning as there is often a crossover between the two

(McGivney, 1999, p.1).

For much of the forty years since the terms were first coined (Coombs, 1968, p.1.) there has been a great deal of debate as to the nature of formal, informal and non-formal learning; the components of each of the paradigms, their boundaries and their overlaps. It’s an ongoing discussion in L&D, but at this juncture we can say that the distinctions between them have been recognized by the EU and the OECD among other organizations. The European Commission state:

Learning takes place in different settings and contexts, formal, non-formal as well as informal. Learning that is taking place in the formal education and training system is traditionally the most visible and the one likely to be recognized in the labor market and by society in general. In recent years, however, there has been a growing appreciation that learning in non-formal and informal settings is seen as crucial for the realization of lifelong learning, thus requiring new strategies for identification and validation of these ‘invisible’ learning outcomes. However, definitions and understandings of what counts as formal, non-formal and informal learning can vary between countries.

(Valuing learning outside formal education and training)

At EU level, the following definitions are used:

Table 1. Definition of learning types

Learning Type


Formal Learning

Learning typically provided by an education or training institution, structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and leading to certification. Formal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective [my italics].

Non-formal Learning

Learning that is not provided by an education or training institution and typically does not lead to formalised certification. It is, however, structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support). Non-formal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective [my italics].

Informal Learning

Learning resulting from daily life activities related to work, family or leisure. It is not structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and typically does not lead to certification. Informal learning may be intentional but in most cases it is non-intentional (or “incidental”/ random) [my italics].

Regarding your own organization, I notice that in Continuing Professional Education, under the section entitled ‘Unstructured CPE’ (p.3), it is stated that:

Unstructured CPE can be defined as any form of informal learning or development of day to day working skills achieved through self-study and/or informal training. Unstructured CPE can be measurable but is not verifiable [my italics].

Personally, I support Alan Rogers’ view that a ‘new paradigm’ for learning exists, in which “most programs [are] partly formal and partly informal” going from formal to informal and from informal to formal in both directions along a continuum. Both forms of education are important elements in the total learning experience” (Looking again at non-formal and informal education – towards a new paradigm, 2004).

As you stated in the Silicon Republic article Number crunchers find social media a ‘tweet’ surprise “It’s our job to support our members at each point in their career.” Implicit in this statement is support for the ongoing, formal, certified professional development initiatives that are required to ensure your members achieve and retain the appropriate knowledge and skills to undertake their professional activities competently. I didn’t question this facet of these activities at any point in my article.

Equally I’m sure you design, develop, and implement your formal training initiatives based upon Training Needs Assessments and Skill/Gap Analyses to remediate deficiencies in your members’ current skillsets and knowledge.

The next point I’d like to clarify concerns e-learning, social media, and the Read/Write Web (or Web 2.0). E-learning has been characterized as:

The continuous assimilation of knowledge and skills by adults stimulated by synchronous and asynchronous learning events – and sometimes knowledge management outputs – which are authored, delivered engaged with, supported and administered using internet technologies.

(Morrison, D. 2004, p.4)

So while you confidently tell me that “Social media is nothing to do with e-learning” I have to tell you that you’re wrong: it has everything to do with it.

I suspect you perceive e-learning to be that old pageturner-with-audio stuff that characterized e-learning 10 years ago, and is still occasionally foisted upon organizations like the yours for compliance and regulatory reasons.

You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to, but believe your own reasoning faculties and reflect on Don Morrison’s above definition carefully. You’ll see that e-learning ‘checks all the boxes’ that characterize social media.

As you state, social media are a great way to communicate, engage with, and create dialog between communities of practice. This is what makes Web 2.0 technologies – and it’s associated products like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, as well as related technologies like on-demand video, such valuable and effective learning channels. According to industry analysts Forrester:

Learning 2.0 – or informal learning – means that employees take charge of their learning. Specifically, employees decide when they need information, where to go for information, and how to get information from other resources.

(Schooley, C. 2007, p.3)

This approach delivers learning right when people need it via:

  • Delivering small pieces of searched for learning content
  • Providing collaborative interaction support
  • Making job aids, reference sites, and materials readily available
  • Bringing contextual learning to specific tasks while workers are on the job

Forgive me if I’m incorrect, but is this not exactly what your organization is doing?
And finally we get to The Point That I Apparently Missed.

Is social media a “fad”? No.

Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation theory tells us that the technology is maturing and has entered the Mainstream Adoption phase. My view is that the shift in information transmission we’re seeing will prove to be as socio-culturally important as the invention of movable type 500 years ago.
You say that social media is

one of many communication channels we successfully use to direct members to education and learning opportunities, class-based or online.

I say that it is a learning channel – as you yourself said “Many share war stories and know-how in the forums”: this epitomizes informal (e-)learning in action.

I think now I can reiterate my point (remember the “ad hoc” reference?). The purpose of the blog post was to highlight the issues associated with adding new learning / social media channels without a strategy, a plan, a goal, and a set of learning outcomes. Now, as we know, ad hoc according to Webster’s Online Dictionary means “for the particular end or case at hand without consideration of wider application.” As I concluded my article:

…it’s one of the advantages of a non- or informal approach to e-learning, but I would suggest that too much of a ‘make it up as we go along’ approach can lead to spreading finite resources too thinly for any of them to be truly effective.

Or, more prosaically, if you don’t manage, and maintain your content delivery channels effectively, you will see fall-off in use, and enter what Gartner call the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’ where

[technologies] fail to meet expectations and quickly become unfashionable.

Consequently, they are abandoned. In online circles this is called “blogrot” named after the estimated 125 million out of 133 million blogs that are not updated regularly (Technorati, State of the Blogosphere, 2008). To counter this, organizations need to actively manage and maintain their content and their knowledge, or can peter out and ultimately cease to be of value.

The purpose of my post then, was to commend your informal e-learning activities, but to temper that commendation by highlighting the requirement to keep up the momentum surrounding these activities, for if your initiative fails, it becomes that much more difficult to re-implement similar programs in the future. Indeed, I consult for institutions including UCC and the ECDL Foundation, assisting the development of their learning programs, so I have a substantial amount of experience in this domain.

I hope this detailed missive clarifies matters; I look forward to making your acquaintance at some point in our respective careers, and I wish you every success in your ongoing learning and development initiatives.

Best regards,

Michael Hanley BA, H.Dip.Ed., H.Dip.Communications, MSc. Education (Hons), MIITD

Certified Public Accountants (ND). Continuing Professional Education. [Internet] Available from: http://www.cpaireland.ie/UserFiles/File/CPE/CPE_Requirements.pdf [Accessed 1 July 2009]

Colley, H., Hodkinson, P., & Malcolm J. (2002) Non-formal learning: mapping the conceptual terrain. a consultation report [Internet] Available from: http://www.infed.org/archives/e-texts/colley_informal_learning.htm [Accessed 28th January 2009]

Coombs, P. (1968) The World Educational Crisis, New York, Oxford University Press.
Eraut, M. (2000) Non-formal learning, implicit learning and tacit knowledge, in Coffield, F. (Ed.) The Necessity of Informal Learning. Policy Press. Bristol

European Commission, Education and Training (2009). Valuing learning outside formal education and training. [Internet] Available from: http://ec.europa.eu/education/lifelong-learning-policy/doc52_en.htm [Accessed 1 July 2009]

Holford, J. Patulny, R. & Sturgis, P. (2005). Indicators of Non-formal & Informal Educational Contributions to Active Citizenship. A Paper Prepared for the European Commission by the University of Surrey. [Internet]. Available from: http://crell.jrc.ec.europa.eu/ActiveCitizenship/Conference/05_Surrey_final.pdf [Accessed 1st July, 2009]

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (2009). Recognition of Non-formal and Informal Learning. [Internet] Available from: http://www.oecd.org/document/25/0,3343,en_2649_39263238_37136921_1_1_1_1,00.html [Accessed 1 July 2009]

Grebow, D. (2002) At the Water Cooler of Learning [Internet] Available from: http://agelesslearner.com/articles/watercooler_dgrebow_tc600.html [Accessed 30th February 2009]

McGivney, V. (1999) Informal learning in the community: a trigger for change and development NIACE. Leicester.

Morrison, D. (2004) E-Learning Strategies: how to get implementation and delivery right first time, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Rogers, A. (2004) Looking again at non-formal and informal education – towards a new paradigm [Internet] Available from: http://www.infed.org/biblio/non_formal_paradigm.htm [Accessed 30th January 2008]

Rozwell, C. (2008) The Business Impact of Social Computing on Corporate Learning. Gartner. [Internet] Available from: http://www.gartner.com (subscription required) [Accessed 1 July 2009]

Schooley, C. (2007) Informal Learning Connects With Corporate Training Programs. Forrester Research. [Internet] Available from: http://www.forrester.com (subscription required) [Accessed 1 July 2009]


  1. Great post. The only thing lacking in the discussion piece was the “measurable” outcomes. In my experience many equate formal outcomes with “measurable outcomes”. How can organizations measure the “non-formal learning” and “informal learning” and would the measurements be different than formal learning? What role do you perceive social media in the measurement of learning? For example, one problem I hear many speak of is “cheating” that is promoted by social media. How can we move the perception that sharing information is not necessarily “cheating”? How do you measure individual learning when it has been done collaboratively online?

  2. Thanks Virginia,
    Good follow-up comments too. I have a few ideas about assessing non- and informal learning; in fact, about 72,000 words worth of ideas, because I did my MSc. Ed. on the research question, as well as developing an approach to solving the problem of evaluating the effect of NFL on knowledge workers’ behaviors, skills and expertise.

    If you’re interested, I’d be happy to forward the working paper to you?

    Brian Michael

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