The Nexus of Learning: The Intersection of Formal and Informal Education

In the beginning, there was learning, and it was unstructured. From the primordial ooze of early man’s brain came the concept of on-the-job training.

In the beginning, there was learning, and it was unstructured. From the primordial ooze of early man’s brain came the concept of on-the-job training. One caveman would pummel an unsuspecting woolly mammoth, and then miraculously, others would follow suit. When fire was invented, Neanderthals learned quickly not to touch it, and of course, modern man quickly realized that Advil works much better for a headache than power tools. The point is, early learning was unstructured and experience-driven.

Somewhere down the line, chaos gave way to form and function—structured learning was born. Then structured learning begat the classroom, which has been with us for centuries. When the Internet came along, new learning paradigms evolved. From this 20th century gene pool, e-learning was born. Students flocked to e-learning to escape the boring classroom. In response, the classroom gave way to the virtual classroom.

Over time, e-learning evolved further and begat blended and prescriptive programs. Blended learning is multi-modal and tailored to each user’s strengths. We all learn in different ways: some auditory, others visual, and most of us, kinesthetically or hands-on. Prescriptive learning has further enhanced this model by narrowing the scope of content to the needs of each individual learner.

Today, structured learning is effective and organized, but it doesn’t provide much experience. It seems detached from the real world. So where do we go from here?

Crossing the Chasm
The nirvana of learning is at the nexus of unstructured and structured learning. Unfortunately, these two parabolic continuums will never meet. The structured continuum travels from the passive classroom to the much more active blended solution. Similarly, the unstructured spectrum travels from passive observation to interactive experience. The bottom line is that structured learning is taught just-in-case, and unstructured learning is taught on-the-job. Both of these terms represent the apex of each continuum.

Just-in-case learning happens before it is needed. This is a proactive approach to skills learners may need in the future. Typically, just-in-case learning is managed at the organizational level. But what if you are wrong?

On-the-job learning happens exactly when it is needed. This is a reactive approach to skills needed now. Typically, on-the-job learning is managed at the individual level. Individual employees get the skills immediately because they need them to survive. This is Darwinism in the workplace, and it’s a little risky, to say the least—what if they fail?  So, how do we bridge the gap between just-in-case and on-the-job learning?

Just-in-Case Versus On-the-Job Learning
First, we must understand the two paths. What are the pros of on-the-job training, and how do they overcome the cons of just-in-case learning?

  • Just in time: First and foremost, on-the-job training is timely. This approach provides what learners need, when they need it—just in time. On the other hand, just-in-case training is typically presented in an experiential vacuum—just in case it might be needed. Furthermore, there can be a long gap of time between the training event and the actual point of execution.

  • Immediate results: Because on-the-job training is timely, it provides immediate results. This means that learners get instant feedback and gratification. On the other side of the fence, just-in-case training provides delayed results.

  • “Real”: In on-the-job training, learners solve real problems with real systems in real production environments. Just-in-case training is fake. Most structured environments employ “what if” scenarios and artificial simulations to give learners a sense of reality. But like most video games, this reality is virtual.

  • More engaging: Because on-the-job training is real, it creates a strong connection with the learner. Real experiences are engaging, and with engagement comes retention.

  • Individual view: Finally, on-the-job training approaches learning from the individual’s point of view. Each student learns what he or she needs when it is needed. On the other hand, just-in-case learning approaches learning from the organization’s viewpoint. The organization decides what skills it needs to meet the organization’s goals. Then the organization distributes proactive learning to the right people within the organization to get these skills. While both of these approaches are important, you have to achieve mutually beneficial synergy in order to be successful.

What are the pros of just-in-case training, and how do they overcome the cons of on-the-job learning?

  • Linear: First and foremost, just-in-case learning is linear. This structured approach fosters continuity among related skills and a broad portfolio of knowledge. On-the-job training, on the other hand, is dominated by chaos theory: Learners never know what topic they might be learning next, and even worse, they never get to build a portfolio of related skills.

  • Broad range of skills: Because just-in-case learning is structured and linear, it promotes a broad range of skills. Also, learning events are typically longer and more relaxed than the “fire drills” learners experience on the job. On-the-job learning’s unstructured, chaotic approach fosters silos of narrow skills.

  • Skills cataloging: With a broad range of skills comes the organizational value of skills cataloging. This is a vitally important benefit of the planned, just-in-case approach. Almost every organization benefits from having a skills-based human resources deployment model. On the other hand, on-the-job training provides no skills catalog.

‘In-the-Job’ Experiential Learning
Using the benefits of both on-the-job and just-in-case learning, the nexus of learning can be defined as a just-in-time linear learning program with real, engaging content tailored for the individual learner that fosters a broad range of relevant skills for the benefit of the organization.

How can we bring all of the benefits of on-the-job experience into the realm of structured learning technologies? Simple: on-the-job experience plus learning technologies equal experiential learning. Experiential learning is the bridge between on-the-job and just-in-case training. This engaging, real-life approach to structured laboratory environments marries all of the benefits of on-the-job training without any of the scary consequences. Furthermore, experiential learning can be organized into discrete learning objects and tracked by any of today’s learning management systems.

Where does the experiential learning bridge take us?
The nexus of learning is in-the-job, not on-the-job. In-the-job learning is where experience meets the “classroom.” It is a utopian state of being where learning is not learning. It is seamlessly integrated into everyday, ordinary experiences.

Unfortunately, we are not there yet. However, we are getting closer. Experiential learning provides a bridge to in-the-job utopia, and there are many examples of experiential learning in today’s learning ecosystem.

Experiential Learning in the Real World
Electronic Data Systems (EDS) is one of the world’s largest consulting and IT outsourcing organizations. With EDS, people are the product, and the company approaches training as a way of differentiating itself in the marketplace. One example of in-the-job learning is the Technical Excellence Program (TEP). The TEP is a two-phase re-skilling initiative for 85,000 technical employees.

In the first phase, participants choose a “coach” who mentors them through the program. Together, the student and the coach develop a personalized learning program from a large library of IT-related Skill Enhancement Fast Tracks, such as Cisco, Microsoft .NET and Sun. Each Fast Track includes Web-based training courses, online books and experiential labs. In the second phase, learners participate in a two-week on-site TEP Immersion Workshop, which focuses on the technical direction of EDS as it applies to the agile enterprise platform.

At Thomson NETg, experiential learning drives a better life for job changers. In the consumer side of IT training, experience equals a new career and a better life. In this example, we transform taxi drivers into network engineers using experiential learning as a catalyst. During training, NETg students get a chance to experiment with live equipment in pre-built production environments. This is critical, so when interviewers ask, “Do you have experience on live networks?” the answer is, “Yes, I have had experiential learning.”

At British Telecom, experiential learning enables business transformation. British Telecom is a perfect example of a company pushing the envelope of technical innovation. It is revolutionizing the traditional telecommunications industry and re-building the entire British communications infrastructure. To accomplish this, the company must re-wire the skills of thousands of engineers. Its answer: experiential sandpits (aka, sandboxes). British Telecom is giving its engineers access to live experiential networks so they can practice, practice and practice before they visit customer sites.

A perfect illustration of experiential learning in the real world is the Chinese symbol for crisis. It is made up of two characters: one for “danger” and one for “opportunity.” The danger of failure in today’s competitive environment grows dramatically if you stand still. Of course, the opportunities are tremendous if you can find a way to innovate and stay ahead of oncoming technological advancements. EDS, Thomson NETg and British Telecom all believe that experiential learning will allow them to turn crisis into opportunity.

Getting to the Nexus
How do we get to the nexus of learning? Experiential learning is the bridge between structured, just-in-case training and unstructured on-the-job learning. Experiential learning allows you to take a structured linear training program and apply it to real engaging just-in-time tasks. The magic is in combining the two.

The next obvious question is, how do I build an experiential learning bridge? Here are some ideas to point you in the right direction:

  • Today’s students demand relevant, in-the-job learning programs. There are three major causes: students are more sophisticated, the pace of change is accelerating, and the world is smaller and much more competitive.

  • There are two main approaches to building an experiential learning bridge: leveraging technology (as Thomson NETg does with its pre-configured live network environments) and leveraging learning policies (as EDS does with its TEP coaching and immersion workshops).

As Confucius said, “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.”

As Toolwire’s co-founder and chief evangelist, David James Clarke IV brings more than 20 yearsof industry passion and entrepreneurial spirit to his e-learning architecture, publishing and speaking projects. He can be reached at