For the second year running, elearning developers Epic hosted The Elearning Debate at the historic Oxford Union. I was pleased to be able to attend, although this year I was without my Onlignment colleagues who were both committed elsewhere.
This year’s motion was:
This house believes that technology-based informal learning is more style than substance.
Speaking for the motion were Dr. Allison Rossett, Nancy Lewis and Mark Doughty, and arguing against the motion were Professor William H. Dutton, Jay Cross and David Wilson. The debate was chaired by Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s technology correspondent.
Allison Rossett (for) opened the debate by stating that they were not there to argue against informal learning per se, but rather to integrate the informal with the formal. She argued that formal training is the better option for training doctors, pilots and others whose roles dealt with public safety. Research was quoted to support her argument that discovery based learning isn’t reliable; novices need to be shown what to do and how to do it. To attain expertise requires structure, guidance and repeated practice and according to Rossett this can only be achieved in a formal environment.
William Hutton (against) didn’t speak with the same confidence and self assuredness as Rossett, but made an argument that focussed on the impact of the internet not just on learning but everything that we do. You cannot overestimate its importance as a source of information. Research undertaken by Hutton and his colleagues has shown that people trust the internet more than they trust traditional media outlets, and he argues that we should be asking how much students trust their lecturers.
Nancy Lewis (for) focussed her argument on the lack of structures and frameworks to support informal learning. It was her contention that as learning and education professionals we set high standards of excellence for ourselves, and that similar standards must be set for informal learning. Until we have agreement on what informal learning is (a common set of templates as she described it) and formal proof of its impact, it remained more style than substance.
Jay Cross (against) asked to think about how we learnt to walk and talk; was it through formal education or an informal approach? He believes that informal and formal already co-exist, and always have done, and that it’s only within formal teaching environments that any distinction is made. In a world in which the pace of change continues to accelerate, formal learning simply can’t keep up and people are getting the information they need from informal sources. He got the biggest laugh of the day by reading out a quote about the effectiveness of informal learning – by non other than Allison Rossett.
The debate was then opened up to the floor. There was noticeably less contribution than last year, and a real struggle to find anyone to speak for the motion.
Mark Doughty (for) asked the question ‘when did technology last make a difference to the bottom line?’ and then argued that it hadn’t, at least not for a long time. Through an anecdote about Apollo 13 flight director Gene Kranz, he argued that when ‘failure is not an option’ only formal learning will do.
David Wilson (against) like last year, was left to remind us what the motion was (or more accurately what it wasn’t). It’s not an argument about whether technology supported learning has value. He argued that the question of substance over style was only being asked by L&D, whereas for worked who are using these tools every day there’s no question that it has substance. He challenged the need for L&D to put labels on things; informal learning is part of work and doesn’t need an extra layer added to it by L&D. He closed by stating that if we view informal learning as something to be controlled by L&D we’re on the wrong path.
In the summing up Rossett argued that we need guard rails around our learning and only formality provides that, while Hutton said we should embrace the informal and that institutions have nothing to fear from networked learners.
The Ayes to the right 54, the Noes to the left 259
It probably comes as no surprise that I was with the Noes.
Much of the conversation before we went into the debating chamber was that those speaking for the motion had something of a poisoned chalice, and it was hard to see how they could possibly win. It’s easy for me to say of course, but I did think that those speaking for the motion fell very quickly into the trap of arguing for formal learning despite that not being what the debate was about.
There was some lively backchannel debate taking place on Twitter using the #elearningdebate hashtag, and Epic did a great job of pushing out audio clips on AudioBoo throughout the debate. The only additional thing that I would like to see next year is live video streaming for those not there in person.
Epic should be congratulated for organising a very entertaining and enjoyable event, that got positive feedback from everyone I spoke to afterwards. The only part that didn’t really hit the mark was ‘Magic Seth’ who demonstrated why even magicians shouldn’t rely on technology in live events.
The debate continues on the Elearning Debate website where you can view videos and photos, as well as adding your comments and casting your vote.