Learning: communities vs. courses
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.