Learning communities (again).
There is an interesting post by George Siemens and follow-up discussion on learning communities vs. courses. I guess it reflects well educator's frustrations about courses and fascination by communities.
Why communities are not good? Communities are nightmares for novices: lack of clear roles or structures, overflow of information, discussions that you join in a middle, strange language... Communities could be good to stay updated in the field or get specific questions answered, but they are hell if you want to get solid understanding of the domain. Communities are difficult for those who are not self-directed learners yet or choose not to be self-directed in specific context (I believe in the right to choose not to be self-directed :) And finally, to learn in a community, you have to be open for unexpected opportunities to learn (see related thoughts about not learning in a community).
Why courses are good? Good course instructors take into account learners needs and level of being (choosing to be) self-directed and provide guidance that makes our path through learning exciting and efficient. Courses provide context that makes us more 'disciplined' then we would be by ourselves: pushing to learn things we would never consider important, doing assignments to articulate silent ideas or connect loose ends, initiating brainstormings that should lead to some tangible results and not only random thoughts. Courses provide structure to make learning about complex things easier. Finally, good courses develop our abilities to become self-directed learners.
I believe that both courses and communities (and other forms to support learning) provide good conditions for learning in some cases. The problem is that we don't know much what are those cases and how learners and those who facilitate learning can make good choices for combining different environments for learning. Effective learners are developing their own (often unconscious) strategies to make these choices, but I haven't seen much research on it.
I would explain lack of research in this area by two factors. First, the scale and importance of informal learning are quite recent discoveries (as far as I know from 1979 study of Allen Tough on personal learning projects). Second, the focus of most thinking about learning: educational institutions and companies think in terms of activities or environments that support learning of many. In this case even when learners' needs and preferences are taken into account they result in events and programs optimised to help learning of many at the same time, rather than to optimise learning of one person across different contexts.
Related reading: Jay Cross: The Other 80% for an overview on informal learning.
Some of my posts: formal vs. informal learning, Supporting informal learning, Virtual communities as learning networks, Bricolage learning and longer story on synergies between formal and informal learning.
Problems with learning communities: 1. Accountability: with formal instruction, someone is accountable for results; and 2. Bad information drives out good.
In this week's article in The eLearning Developers' Journal, I point out the problems with the default learning progression that learning communities support (as well as subject matter experts, schools, and traditional learning designers). It comes down to this -- what everyone thinks is the only way to learn often is the worst way to learn.
I'm not against the idea of learning communities, and I do agree that a lot of learning is done informally. But I also point out the validity of Sturgeon's Law: "90% of everything is crud." Much of what is learned informally is wrong, and there is no easy way to correct it. If the Internet and the Web are an example of a very large learning community, take a look at Snopes to get an idea of the huge amount of mis-information that people in the community are learning (if they believe it and act on it, they have learned it). And no one is accountable for the mistakes and their cost.
Sorry, this is a sketchy reaction, and is bound to be misunderstood. I'm just terribly distracted by having to deal with my father's health problems. I'll try to come back later and clarify my horribly negative remarks.