When you find yourself one of over 2,000 participants from 93 countries packing Online Educa in Berlin, the first sensation is one of chaos and deja’ vu. People rushing from one forum to another, crowds around the exhibitor stands, the usual mobile phone brigade and smiling girls clutching brochures and freebies. But after a while, your brain kicks into overdrive and you retune yourself to conversations. Or, in this particular case, conversations about learning, knowledge, technology and the connected world we live in. The range of topics covered in the plenary sessions and workshops was staggering – the downside being, of course, that you just cannot get to different venues at the same time.
Two speakers struck a chord – both of them at the cutting edge in the debate of what constitutes ‘knowledge’ and ‘learning’ in the 21st century. George Siemens is the rising ‘commercial academic’ star of new paradigms of knowledge – at the Conference, he focused on the ‘changing nature and context of learning’. Jay Cross has published a book called Informal Learning. Both men are compelling performers, using a fair amount of stand-up theatre plus podcasts, animated presentations, wikis, blogs, video.. the entire raft of social networking tools to turn all of us into instant publishers and messiahs. It is no accident that they are also admirers of each other’s work. They are both convinced that something fundamental is changing in the way we are learning – and in how knowledge is created and distributed. What was charming is that although both gentlemen had been in regular contact with each other for some five years, and even shared podcasts together – this was the first time that they actually met and could ‘share a beer’. Judging by the state of both guys in the plenary session, it had been a long night for both.
In true collaboration style, Mr Siemens developed his presentation for OLEB on a wiki – and even included a discussion board duly pillaged by both fans and someone calling it all ‘gobbledeegook’. You can even download his new book. Mr Cross, challenged by a participant to ‘get down to specifics’ reverted to a PowerPoint with numbers that linked to ‘specific examples of informal learning’. It was all great fun, and has already made me scamper to various blogs and papers since I’ve returned to Malta.
In a way, what is happening is that we are trying to find a new language to explain what has changed, what is still changing, because of the new, ever-pervasive technology that is being used by everyone. From my seventy six year-old father in-law running U3A courses in Alton to my son Jacob, aged 4, discovering the new games on CeeBeebies. I guess I came back from Berlin experiencing an adrenalin rush of learning. Except this time, knowledge is not the exclusive domain of the academic – but available to anyone with an Internet connection and who can browse his way to a search engine. There is something wonderfully anarchic in this. “Those, like Francis Bacon, who equate knowledge with power, find that the masses are flooding the pools and reservoirs of the elite,” says Mr Siemens. “I am suggesting that knowledge (as a power base) is increasingly accessible by “the many”. Tools like blogs, vlogs, podcasts, give amateurs a voice previously held by broadcasters/newspapers, etc. Growing movements of open education are allowing individuals in developing countries access to the educational content (though not the conversation or accreditation) of Berkeley, MIT, Harvard, etc. Knowledge that has been held in pay-only journals or the courses of elite journals, is becoming more accessible”.
Mr Cross spends more time working in the business world. He believes that executives don’t want learning. “They want execution; they want performance. Companies are using informal learning to:
- Improve knowledge worker productivity by 20% – 30%
- Increase sales by Google-izing product knowledge
- Generate fresh ideas and increase innovation
- Transform an organization from disaster to record profits
- Reduce stress, absenteeism, and healthcare costs
- Invest development resources for maximum impact impact
- Increase professionalism and professional growth
- Cut costs and improve responsiveness with self-service learning
Training is something that’s pushed on you; learning is something you choose to do. Many a knowledge worker will tell you, “I love to learn but I hate to be trained.” Knowledge workers thrive when given the freedom to decide how they will do what they’re asked to do. They rise or fall to meet expectations. Informal Learning is about challenging workers (and executives) to be all they can be”.
I know that these gentlemen ‘get it’. There is precious, unique knowledge in the head of most people within an organisation. In many cases, it is the guys and girls on the customer service desk who know more about what is going on than the sharp suits in marketing. Knowledge in the head of the few should now be a redundant concept. Corporations now have the technology at their disposal – in wikis, blogs, podcasts… – to get their most valuable resources – their brilliant people – to share knowledge and connect with others within their organisations, and beyond. Daily, unstructured, tagged.. whichever way works for the individual.
Both Mr Siemens and Mr Cross believe they are in the vanguard of a knowledge revolution. My challenge is to convince the CEOs I work with, that the old paradigm of ‘information is power’ is now not only redundant – it is potentially damaging to the organisations they lead, and a major rock in the path of the growth they aspire to.