‘Informal learning is more style than substance’ was the subject for debate at the Oxford Union (a superb event hosted by Brighton-based Epic this month) and the motion was voted down by over 80 per cent of the audience. However, there was no lack of passionate argument on both sides - in best Oxford Union tradition. Alan Bellinger reports.

The case for

The case for the motion was opened by Dr Alison Rossett of San Diego State University. She argued firstly that informal learning needed to be integrated into formal learning and therefore, that it couldn’t stand on its own.

She said that the common view of informal learning was that it was out of control, it wasn’t trustworthy and that its serendipitous nature meant that you couldn’t rely on it. She emphasised this point arguing that ‘when lives and fortunes are on the line informal learning is simply not up to the job’. In conclusion, she argued that ‘formal learning doesn’t win applause, but it gets the job done.’

Nancy Lewis, formerly CLO at ITT and IBM, was even more passionate on the argument and even more structured in her approach. She argued that, for informal learning to have substance, it needed a ‘qualified body of science and practice as well as recognised standards of evidence’ - and at the moment it didn’t exist.

She said that there was no evidence that informal learning had any impact on the bottom line and that even the term informal was both ‘arrogant and irresponsible’. But Lewis did recognise that new models of learning will evolve, but she was adamant that informal learning wasn’t ready to play a part in those models - at least not yet.

The last speaker in support of the motion, Mark Doughty, who is a director at Deutsche Bank, brought real passion and vigour to the debate by referring to a poster he has on his wall quoting those five immortal words from Apollo 13: not ‘Houston, we have a problem’, but ‘Failure is not an option’.

He argued that when those Houston scientists were searching for a solution, they didn’t turn to Wikipedia, but relied on the skills they had developed over years of formal learning. Doughty was adamant that, in a crisis, you needed to know that the skills people were using to resolve the crisis were comprehensive, realistic and developed in an appropriate way. When the ‘pressure is on, you can’t rely on Twitter or Google’.

All of the speakers presented their case well, but they very often strayed from the point. They should have been putting forward an argument that informal learning had no substance and that it couldn’t stand alone, could be unreliable and was inappropriate in a crisis.

Rossett summed up the case by arguing ‘if you were unconscious, having a critical operation, would you want a surgeon that had learned all their skills through Wikipedia?’ My response would have been ‘no, but I’d rather have someone who kept up-to-date on new approaches as opposed to someone still in a time warp.’

The case against

The case against the motion - arguing that informal learning does have substance - was opened by Professor William H. Dutton, Director of the Internet Institute at Oxford, who presented the audience with a raft of statistics showing the way in which the use of the internet had grown. He argued that the internet had fundamentally changed the way we do things today.

When we don’t know something we look it up on Google; when we need goods and services, we don’t go to a shop, but buy it online; when we need to get a message to someone, we email it rather than using the phone. Indeed the internet was breaking new boundaries, and he concluded by arguing that ‘people who don’t trust the internet are people who don’t use it.’

Dutton was ably supported by Jay Cross, who is Chair of the Internet Time Alliance. He highlighted that times change rapidly, and we need to change with them. He referred back to his time at IBM when their competitors were known as the BUNCH (Burroughs, Univac, NCR, CDC and Honeywell), and guess what - they hardly exist any more.

He continued that Twitter and Facebook were where people go now to meet their friends - and yet, they’ll be totally different in a few years time; ‘even Google could decline in the future, although we’ll still need search technology.’ At this point, Cross was in danger of arguing against himself: if it’s all changing so rapidly, perhaps it is more style than substance. But he summed it up elegantly by arguing that informal learning ‘brought knowledge from the cloud to the place of work at the point of need’.

The case against was concluded by David Wilson, Managing Director of Elearnity, who presented a strong case for informal learning, but also asked ‘why does L&D need to put a label on it; they should stay away.’ He argued that informal learning is happening every day at most levels of the enterprise and that it builds ‘real capability and real performance’.

He said that ‘it’s not controlled, but it is information-led; it’s not measured, but it does have substance; it’s not in frameworks, but it is appropriate.’ His penultimate point was that learning is part of work and needs to be integrated into work - we don’t need an incremental layer. And he concluded with what many believed was a devil’s advocate argument: ‘If we view informal learning as something that has to be managed by L&D, then we’re on the wrong path.’

The debate was ably chaired by Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s Technology Correspondent. And there was plenty of interaction from the floor - or at least on every second opportunity as contributions from the floor were sought alternatively from supporters of the motion and those planning to vote against. This was definitely a night at which supporters of informal learning were in the majority.