Learning professionals rely on non-formal learning

Learning professionals know only too well that keeping up-to-date with the latest trends in the age of digital learning is challenging. At a rational level, we understand the need to adopt the latest research into how adults learn and how technology can enable and support the learning process. At a practical level, we often find ourselves overwhelmed with the constant flow of new and exciting information.

Learning professionals use personal learning networks (PLNs) to support their own need for continuous learning
While most organisations provide formal learning opportunities through traditional facilitator-led programmes and access to digital learning, non-formal learning has become widely accepted as a critical component of the learning process. Most of the literature on learning highlights the increase in non-formal learning as a way to supplement, and often enhance, formal programmes.

The establishment of PLNs is an example of informal learning. PLNs provide a means to connect people and information. PLNs are made up of a collection of connections and resources including individuals, professional bodies, books, conferences, blogs and online communities. This type of learning, known as connectivist learning [1], shifts the focus away from merely accumulating knowledge to creating and maintaining connections as sources of information. The originator of this theory, George Siemens, explains that most learning is self-organised (i.e. informal) and argues that we acquire some of our most significant skills through trial, error and experimentation. However, while learning professionals recognise that sharing information and knowledge is an important component of learning, we cannot expect to experience everything there is to learn by ourselves.
A recent study investigated how learning professionals overcome this challenge by using PLNs for their own learning [2].

PLNs may be technological or non-technological
The study showed that most learning professionals set aside approximately three hours a week for non-formal learning to either keep up-to-date or equip themselves with knowledge and skills for new projects. This included an automatic push of information via subscriptions to LinkedIn, professional organisations and e-magazines (to keep-up-to-date) and Google search (for equipping themselves with knowledge for new projects). Webinars and blogs were also seen to be highly valued sources of information.
A second approach is deemed equally beneficial: reaching out to people in personal networks. This illustrates the importance of having a strong network of trusted sources. Personal contact tools include professional organisations, conferences and LinkedIn. Less experienced professionals placed more value on professional organisations and conferences, while more experienced professionals relied heavily on LinkedIn.

Application of PLNs in workplace learning
There is a definite need for learning professionals to develop PLNs to support their own continuous learning and to promote the use of them in the workplace. This will encourage a shift from meeting only 20% of an organisation’s learning needs to implementing new approaches that meet 100% of the learning needs.

Manning recommends the following for constructing a PLN and implementing a learning strategy to meet organisational needs:

Personal learning network construction
• Incorporate blogs, Twitter and other social media as integral parts of personal learning.
• Create new, timely, and relevant content to enhance social ties.
• Use social bookmarking to access and share relevant information with the network.
• Create dashboards to aggregate content from various sources based on topics of interest.

Organisational learning

Formal learning strategy
• Develop courses only for critical procedures and for the appropriate moments of need: when first learning about a topic and when learning more about a topic.
• Use connectivist principles in formal learning courses to encourage students to create artifacts that can be stored and accessed from the intranet, corporate wiki, or electronic

performance support system (EPSS)
• Leverage experts as facilitators of course topics, possibly in MOOCs, rather than only as subject matter experts.
• Develop small ‘just-enough’ training learnlets, especially using a video format, that can be incorporated into a learning-on-demand system behind the firewall that can be
tagged and searched using a Google-like interface.

Non-formal learning strategy
• Leverage the learners’ approach to non-formal learning: use email for on-going learning and Google searches for project-based learning.
• Develop a wiki that is curated by the Training or HRD group and added to and updated by the entire organisation.
• Encourage the development of communities of practice across all departments and internal organisations to break down the silos of information present in many corporations.

References
1. Siemens, G. (2005b, August 14, 2011). Connectivism: Learning as network creation. Retrieved from http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/networks.htm

2. Manning C. The Construction of Personal Learning Networks to Support Non-Formal Workplace Learning of Training Professionals. International Journal Of Advanced Corporate Learning [serial online]. May 2015;8 (2):4-12.