Informal Learning And The ‘Social’ Web

In the first of two articles, Neil Ballantyne and Keith Quinn (writing in a personal capacity), reflect on the case for informal learning in the workplace; and the role that newly emerging, participatory, web-based services might play in supporting it.

More than ever before, staff in social services are being urged to maintain the currency of their knowledge and skills. Government policy, enquiry reports and the requirements of workforce regulation all emphasise the importance of continuing professional development.

For the first time, via the Scottish Social Services Council’s (SSSC) Post Registration Training & Learning (PRTL) requirements, there are clear, measurable expectations regarding ongoing learning & development for social services staff . In addition to general requirements for all registered staff the PRTL requirements published by the SSSC also set additional expectations for newly qualified social workers. The Code of Practice for Employers of Social Service Workers further emphasises the importance of ongoing learning and development, stating that employers must “Provide training and development opportunities to enable social service workers to strengthen and develop their skills and knowledge”.

Further drivers from government policy support this. The National Strategy for the Development of the Social Services Workforce in Scotland  states “It’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure that employee development happens” and specifies expected action from employers to “…identify and develop … systems and structures … to support employee development for all staff”.

However, alongside these drivers to support ongoing learning and development, we also have pressures inhibiting the process: difficulties associated with recruitment and retention; staff release for training etc. These difficulties are recognised and the National Strategy highlights, as one of its key messages, the need to “…create opportunities for learning and development that allow people to learn in more flexible ways”.

One approach to learning in more flexible ways would be to take the learning to the learner. Addressing what they need to know at the point at which they need to know it. Jay Cross  highlights that, of all the learning we acquire as individuals, only 20% is formal learning (i.e. seminars, classes or courses) and the other 80% is informal (e.g. learning through observing, trial-and-error, asking a colleague, reading a magazine/book, conversing with others, taking part in a community, reflecting on the day’s events, raising a child, pursuing a hobby etc.).

If employers wanted to support the informal learning of the workforce it would require a shift from the current emphasis on formal structured, scheduled calendars of courses, to a more personalised, focussed means of addressing specific needs at the time the individual needs it. Rather than attending traditional tutor-lead classroom training, a “just-in-time” approach delivers learning to workers when and where they need it. In part this approach can be encouraged by providing access to well organized, bite sized chunks of information available from the organisation’s intranet. The Learning Exchange  service managed by the Scottish Instititute for Excellence in Social Work Education is designed to contribute to this personalised approach to learning. The content of the Learning Exchange (a web based library of learning resources) is – for the most part- offered in small discrete chunks (or learning objects) and Learning Exchange users can use a powerful search engine to locate exactly what they are looking for.

However, learning is about more than accessing explicit content. As indicated in our discussion of informal learning above, a lot of learning occurs naturally in the workplace whilst going about our day to day business. There is more to learning than the absorption of ‘explicit’ knowledge codified in texts and delivered during formal off-site training courses. It also, crucially, consists of access to ‘tacit’ or implicit knowledge in the heads of skilled and experienced staff. The difference between explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge has sometimes been compared to the difference between the explicit knowledge represented in an A to Z street map; and the tacit knowledge in the head of an experienced taxi driver.

We know that e-learning and technology supported learning can help learners access explicit knowledge, but can it also support the sharing of tacit knowledge? There is a growing interest in a number of emerging web-based services that might be harnessed to support these very purposes. In the remainder of this article we describe some of these services and the ways in which they are being used to support the sharing of knowledge and expertise within particular communities of interest. In part two we’ll explore their potential application in a workplace context.

The Web Gets Social

Over the last few years there have been significant shifts in the way people are using the web and the kinds of services that are emerging in response to the way people want to use the web. A number of factors are associated with this shift but amongst them are web-based technologies that make it almost effortless for individuals to contribute to web based discussion; the spread of broadband services enabling the sharing of multimedia files; and the growth in web-services that support social interaction and exchange in one form or another. Whether it’s sharing bookmarks in; photos in; videos in; opinions in; knowledge in; or friendship in the web has become much more social in nature and much (though not all) of this web based interaction is used for informal learning about hobbies, passions, and obsessions.

For many thousands of people the social web – or web 2.0 as it has been labeled – is a place for networking, community building and sharing collective experience: leading some to describe this new phenomenon of massively distributed collective intelligence as “the wisdom of crowds”. Some of the technologies and techniques used to support informal learning on a massive scale will be familiar to you, others less so: we describe five of them below: blogs; wikis; podcasts; social bookmarking; and RSS.

Blogs And Blogging

A weblog (usually shortened to blog) is a web-based journal consisting of a series of short articles (normally appearing in reverse chronological order) that gives the appearance of a diary.  Blogs are usually maintained by an individual (or small group) and usually focus on a particular subject or topic. Readers of blogs can normally add comments at the foot of each article agreeing, disagreeing, or developing the original article. Bloggers frequently reference other articles and web pages on the Internet building up a rich seam of interconnected articles related to the topic under discussion.
Blogging is a relatively recent phenomenon but one that has experienced an exponential growth from twenty three known blogs in 1999 to an estimated 53.4 million blogs by the end of 2005. There is now a myriad of different types of blogs: personal blogs, academic blogs, journalist blogs, Chief Executive Officer blogs, student blogs, and are even blogs run by companies set up to advise business about the use of blog.

Not surprisingly, given their open and accessible nature, blogs are also being used by service users to share experience and for campaigning purposes (e.g. the recent “Blogging against disablism day”).


If blogs are fundamentally a way of presenting a particular point of view, or thinking aloud and sharing your news and views with the wider community; a wiki (from the Hawaiian word for ‘quick’) is a quick and easy way of working together with others to write a book, an article, or a series of articles. A wiki is a website that allows its users to contribute, edit, structure and store content (in the form of text and/or images) and to save it to the web.

Perhaps the best example of the potential of a wiki – and the grandaddy of all wikis – is Wikipedia : the strapline for which is “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”. Since its inception in 2001 the volunteer content providers and editors that contribute to Wikipedia have produced almost 4 million individual articles in many different languages. Although it has been criticised for the inconsistency of the quality of its content, Wikipedia is an astonishing achievement. It also provides support for the use of wikis to harness collective intelligence: even if professional organisations may have to exert a little more editorial control than Wikipedia.

Like the other web 2.0 tools the software to set up a wiki is often available free on the open Internet  or in the form open source software .

Podcasts And Podcasting

Most people have probably heard of podcasting by now if only in relation to Apple’s ubiquitous iPod MP3 players that gave the technique its name. However you don’t need an iPod to listen to podcasts any more than you need a bona fide Hoover to hoover; and podcasting is about much more than the latest release from the Artic Monkeys.

Podcasting is simply a method of distributing audio files (of spoken word or music) over the Internet for playback on MP3 players and personal computers. Podcasting is now used routinely by BBC radio to timeshift programmes, and is beginning to be used in education.

Earlier this year the Economic and Social Science Research Council produced a series of podcasts called Social Science Voices  where they describe the potential use of podcasting in education, research and marketing.

Social Bookmarking And Tagging

Anyone who has ever used the favourites item in a web browser to save and organise favourite web sites can grasp the value of bookmarking. Of course, if you use more than one PC you may have to build up your favourites in two places (or know how to export the favourites file from one browser to another). And while it’s possible to email favourite sites to a work colleague or friend, it’s not easy to allow a colleague to browse all of your favourites.

Enter the bizarrely named, incredibly useful, and absolutely free social bookmarking service. Users visit to create an account, download the bookmarklet to their toolbar and then save any website of interest to their account on the web. But the real magic of, and similar social bookmarking  services, is that when a user saves a web page to their account they are also invited to ‘tag’ it with a key word or words of their choosing.

A user’s collection of sites is then searchable by its ‘tags’. In addition, users can view how many other users have bookmarked the same websites, and can review the collections of other users: it’s like looking over the shoulder of a fellow researcher and benefiting from their efforts. This simple service works because it provides an incentive for individuals to put effort into contributing their own content and at the same time adding value by enabling them to share the fruits of the efforts of others.

The same approach is used in CiteULike , a service specializing in storing and sharing information about published academic journal article;and LibraryThing , a service for collating information about book collections. The idea of social bookmarking is a powerful one and the same principle of tagging and searching by tags has also been applied to the incredibly successful Flickr  site for storing and sharing and managing photos.


Perhaps one of the geekiest sounding of the new technologies and yet one of the biggest enablers of all things web 2.0 is RSS or Really Simple Syndication. When you see the abbreviation RSS on a blog, or a podcast, or a wiki page it indicates that it’s possible for a user to subscribe to the site and to be automatically informed of any changes or updates. RSS is the glue that holds the entire social web together. It enables users to build their own personal collection of significant information sources (blogs, wikis, podcasts weather reports, photo feeds and others) and to be alerted to any changes as and when they occur. And there are now special web 2.0 type services to enable you to collect the resources quickly and easily onto a single web page .


All of these techniques and technologies are being combined in new and exciting ways to make the web more dynamic and interactive. Web 2.0 is at one and the same time more personalized and more social. That’s exciting news for individual web users, but we also believe that the same techniques and technologies can be harnessed for the serious business purposes and, in particular, to support informal learning in the workplace. Next month we’ll explore the potential uses of the social web inside the organisation’s firewall.

Sources and Information