This question “what IS informal learning?” came up in a meeting the other day. The answer that was given was interesting – but it focused on educational technology. Today’s post will attempt to define informal, and in another post I’ll tackle some technologies that can be used to enhance informal learning.
First, a textbook definition:
a type of education or training program in which learners define what they want to learn and learning is considered successful when learners feel that they are able to master their intended objectives (whether or not the course designers believe that the learners have or have not demonstrated mastery) [Carliner, 2004] (all emphasis mine).
Driscoll, M., & Carliner, S. (2005). Advanced Web-Based Training Strategies: Unlocking Instructionally Sound Online Learning (p. 118). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.
If I think about how I learn, I use a mix of formal and informal learning methods. I am in grad school, so obviously that is formal learning. There is a curriculum, there are classes with learning objectives that have been set by the instructor, there are activities I must complete successfully in order to get credit for the class. It has been decided for me what I will learn, how I will learn it, and how I will prove that I have mastered that topic.
But here’s the problem: I don’t always learn in the way the instructors have decided I should learn. I have to set up my own personal learning environment to augment what the course designer created. My PLE includes talking to other experts, reading blogs, googling, tweeting for help, and blogging.
Additionally, I don’t stop learning about that topic once the semester is over. I continue to use my informal methods to expand what I learned during class.
And that is just my graduate work. I’m a techie, and I write technical training for other techies. There is so much informal learning that goes on in the technical world, mostly because our field changes so rapidly! For instance, I am working on sharing a VMware virtual machine with some students, and I’m having a hard time figuring out how to get the job done. I googled. I asked for help on Twitter. I consulted with other experts in my department. I just try different options. (I’m leaving out lots of detail here, there are some underlying issues making this a very complex problem).
I can tell you, it has taken me all week to get to the point where I have one or two solid options to solve my vm problem. This is partially due to the way I learn – I am easily distracted with shiny, interesting, technical things. Sometimes I don’t realize my search for answers has gone off topic until I have been playing with the shiny new idea for an hour or so.
I can also tell you that I wouldn’t have the means to do an intelligent search for information to solve my problem if I didn’t have the base technical knowledge I’ve received from formal learning. That formal learning came from my undergraduate education and technical classes I’ve attended. The designed, focused attention to specific learning objectives have helped me build a strong technical foundation. That foundation is what enables me to understand how to informally search for information to solve my complex technical problem.
I’m left with more questions than answers:
- Can informal learning be loosely designed to augment formal learning?
Jay Cross believes that it can – he says informal does not mean unintentional
- Can formal learning be designed to facilitate learner creation of PLEs which in turn will enhance informal learning?
- Isn’t it important to help facilitate informal learning so learners continue to learn even after they have attended a class?