Monday, 23 August 2010

A grey lesson in informal learning

Just recently I’ve been working with a group of “mature” learners, helping them get to grips with social media to embed a learning culture in the organisation they work for as volunteers. They have been joy to teach, but it has been a strong lesson for me in remembering that many people just don’t see learning as a something that happens naturally and informally all the time.

When we started the learning programme, many of them commented that they had “not been in the classroom for decades”, and that they were “too old to learn”, and that it was “ages since they had learnt anything”. Sadly, many of them were dreading the experience of what they perceived as a need to formally learn from the programme I was running.

Over the first few sessions I spent time asking them about their lives and what jobs they had had (most are now semi or fully retired). As the conversations and stories started to come out, I asked gently how they had learnt how to do those jobs. Some had done apprenticeships, some had learnt by “sitting with Nellie”, others had just picked up the skills as they went along. But to them that wasn’t “learning” because it wasn’t taught in a classroom, it was just “how you got on with the job in those days”.

As the programme progressed I discovered that most of them had mobile phones and computers, were happy using digital cameras and also quite a number of them used MSN or Skype to stay in touch with their children, grandchildren, friends and relations.

As the sessions went on I started to talk more about informal learning and it’s relevance to the social media we had been exploring. I then backtracked over the conversations and stories they had told me (and by now were continuing to tell me!) and linked the way they had learnt in the past to informal learning in an attempt to demonstrate that using social media to learn was just a more modern way of learning from others (not in a classroom) which is what they had been telling me they had done for most of their working lives. We explored how they had got to grips with the technology they owned, and much of their informal learning had been through contact with their children and grandchildren and from the television and their own internet surfing.

We had a great time together on this programme and we were all sad when it came to an end. I have gained a wide circle of surrogate “parents” and (apart from all the jam, homemade wine, home grown veg etc that they so kindly gave me, and a lot of advice on life, children, health and happiness,) I gained something really very valuable: The satisfaction of helping a group of people, who felt that “learning” anything “newfangled” was beyond them, to discover that they have been informally learning all along and that social media actually made sense to them.

Now, they are connecting with social media to extend their learning by sharing their experiences with each other and their colleagues in their organisation and beyond. They have their own internal social networking site and are posting up content that is useful, relevant and practical. The organisation that arranged this programme is delighted with the outcome. In fact, my mature learners are shaking things up a bit now, challenging the younger ones to “get with the programme” and “get learning”. Yammer is launching for them soon and they are experimenting with podcasting or, what they call “Having a chat with Pat”.

What started out as an experience they were dreading has turned into an experience that they are taking forward and actively harnessing to carry on learning. But the difference is, they now can see and value that they are learning and that they can help others learn by passing on what they know using informal tools. These “old dogs” are not only “learning new tricks” but they are positively revelling in the power of informal learning.

Social Media as an informal learning tool – it’s not about your age, it’s about your attitude.

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