Informal learning spaces in adult learning institutions, or:
Learning and working in the age of digital transformation
One of the most frequent questions that we encounter in our work as organisation developers in the area of adult learning and continuing education concerns the key changes for continuing education professionals in light of digital transformation. Since 2015, we at the k.o.s. have been dealing with the topic of digitalisation in continuing education as part of the government-funded project “weitergelernt”. Our task in this project is to support continuing education institutions in Berlin to adapt their human resources development and the development of the services they offer to new (digital) challenges.
The questions regarding learning in digital spaces are actually nothing new. Initial learning concepts for changes in the way people learn date back to the introduction of multimedia learning software and the first e-learning provisions in the early 1990s. However, with the development of Web 2.0 as well as various forms of use with and via open educational resources (OER), webinars, and massive open online courses (MOOCs), it is still a challenge to keep developing learning concepts in the context of new education provisions.
But how can this be achieved? How can institutions continue to (digitally) develop existing education provisions? And what competencies need to be developed on the part of stakeholders and the organisation to that end?
Social blended learning
One possibility that we in the field of adult learning have had positive experience with can be traced back to Annette Kuhlmann and Werner Sauter. They call it informal, self-organised learning in (digital) networks, or more specifically “Social blended learning”. This learning system, too, is by no means new. But as Karl Valentin once said: “Everything has already been said, but not yet by everyone.” And sometimes things need time to gain acceptance.
But what is social blended learning, and why is it suitable for adult learning? According to Kuhlmann/Sauter, it is a form of competence-oriented blended learning that is linked to a challenging, practice-based project, and that by integrating social software makes informal, self-organised and networked learning possible.
Now let us look at each aspect in turn. Blended learning refers to a hybrid learning setting that combines virtual and non-virtual learning spaces—in other words, a combination of face-to-face and online offers. These learning settings can be very different to one another with respect to their degree of virtualisation. Blended learning formats can refer to both education provisions that primarily take place face-to-face with just a few additional online elements, as well as predominantly online education provisions that are launched with an on-site kick-off event. So be warned: Blended learning is a very broad concept!
The challenging, practice-based project that learners choose should ensure that they organise their own acquisition of competencies in the context of the learning arrangement. This includes everything from defining their own goals and the project content, to designing and implementing the project and monitoring of success. Why is this important? Because it only becomes real by selecting one’s own problem, obstacle or idea. I want to tackle that issue. I am interested in a solution and therefore highly motivated to find this solution. The practice-based project should therefore be one that drives me in my work, concerns me, has perhaps been bothering me for some time or is simply one that I want to implement.
In the context of digitalisation, for example, that might mean the digital enhancement of an already existing and successful education provision. Or the implementation of communication processes within the organisation, or internal knowledge management via an app.
So far, it all sounds relatively straightforward. But why do we need social software? And what is that anyway? Wikipedia refers to a definition from Tom Coates, the social software pioneer. According to Coates, it is software that “supports, extends, or derives added value from human social behaviour.” Accordingly, social software should perform four main functions: Information management, collaboration, communication, and networking and identity management.
In their publication (p. 16), Kuhlmann/Sauter draw attention to the rapidly increasing degree of self-organisation in recent years, which has progressed hand-in-hand with the development of e-learning. Thanks to Web 2.0 collaboration and communication functions (including social software), self-organisation has become easier. Web 2.0 “emphasises the emancipation of learners, who [...] actively incorporate and collectively develop their knowledge and experience.”
But does self-organisation mean that learners control everything themselves? No! Even an informal social blended learning format can be supported by learning professionals and companions with experience of this format. They can provide feedback on the learner’s choice of project, set up and moderate the digital space of the social software, or help to evaluate the implementation of individual project milestones. According to Sauter, however, the major challenge lies in the fact that learners have to learn to function in the context of a learning architecture in a community of practice, need to communicate actively (though asynchronously) with other learners in the technical infrastructure of the social software, as well as jointly reflect on and develop their individual learning activities via this exchange.
This special learning architecture should make it possible for learners to develop their personal competencies and train their ability to solve problems via communication and collaboration. These are the very skills that play a decisive role in the successful structuring of digital transformation.
Here, too, it is worth looking back to the past. As Galileo Galilei once put it: “You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within himself.” In times of digital transformation, this sentiment reflects perhaps the most important first step for problem-oriented learning in the field of adult learning.
Do you have any questions about learning architecture or suitable practise-based projects? Please post them in the comments section, on Twitter or by email.
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About the author: Maximilian Welter is an expert in organisation and human resources development at the k.o.s GmbH in Berlin. As a DIN ISO 29990 auditor and KODE® consultant he has spent years examining issues relating to self-organised and organisational learning in adult learning institutions. He is also an ambassador for EPALE Germany.
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