What is Informal Learning

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?

13 thoughts on “What is Informal Learning

  1. Hi Gina,
    Like you, I have an interest in the the learning continuum and the domains of informal, non-formal, and formal learning.

    I’d be like to hear your views on my interpretation I undertook for my MSc Ed. (my proposal concerned the role of non-formal learning in the workplace).

    I’ve posted excerpts from my thesis on my blog, the E-Learning Curve – this link will take you to the appropriate post if you’d like to take a look:


    Best regards,
    Michael Hanley

  2. We just happen to be on a discussion on this today on Twitter @slqotd. Very timely. Great questions. Maybe you could chime in with your thoughts as well?

    Overall, informal learning to me just happens. Might be intentionally, but not structured. Social learning has a scaffold that is structured, but the content may not be. Formal learning has a structured scaffold and content.

    All three may be used. The organization has the most impact in the Formal, least in the informal, but can still create an ecosystem of learning around the employees / students to help foster the informal.

    My two cents…

  3. HUGE difference. One major one I didn’t realize (although it was too obvious) until today. Informal learning doesn’t require anyone else besides the learner. As Jane Bozarth said on the @slqotd today, “Like last night I informally learned that if I catch my finger against the wheel of a can opener, it will cut me…ow.”

    Social learning requires interaction with others and, more often than not, it has some structure as I stated before.

    Yesterday I wrote a post on learning like breathing (http://tr.im/gA4r). I see informal learning more like this.

  4. This might be a little provocative, but I’ll argue that the education industry defines formal learning as that which cariies the logo or brand of an institution and is paid for. Informal learning is that which you didn’t pay for.

    For example, I can study the MIT Open Courseware and that is called informal learning. If I do it with a group of friends, we call it social as well as informal learning. If I pay for the same courseware as part of an MIT branded degree we call it formal learning.

  5. Interesting posts. I agree that with informal learning, learning just happens. And I like where the discussion is going – in any situation learning just happens. And then the big question: what are you learning?

    In the late 1960’s, a sociologist went into the school systems to study the daily life of students. He found that the defining characteristic of the classrooms that he researched was a pervasive sense of boredom (Duh!) Additionally, there was a set of rules, some of which were never explicitly discussed, that governed the organization of the classroom. The rules are familiar ones to many of us: the teacher taught and the students listened. The teacher determined what took place in the classroom and distributed rewards and punishments. If you talked without permission you might get scolded or worse. Etc. Phillip Jackson, the researcher, called these rules the “hidden curriculum” because they were never written out somewhere, they were just the way things worked, unnoticed and unchallenged (like the air we breathe!). The hidden curriculum suggests in any learning situation (formal or informal) there’s a layering of rights and responsibilities, deep and surface learning, what’s permitted and what isn’t. Learning is complex

    If all organizations have a hidden curriculum that defines the meaning, scope, depth, expectation and impact of formal and informal learning it’s important that we dig into what it is and a strategy to deal with it. Maybe having clear distinctions between formal and informal learning (given the definition Gina uses) means there’s a problem for your learning organization i.e. a hidden curriculum that serves to compartmentalize learning..

  6. @Peter Quirk, I think you & Ernie may think along the same lines, but I disagree that MIT Open Courseware is informal learning. You may consume it in an informal manner, but those courses were designed by one entity trying to get a set of learning objectives across to the learner.

  7. @gminks, I would have to agree with you. The way in which it is delivered is very formal, structured. Even the way it is consumed it is structured. You may do it whenever you feel like it and maybe not with a specific purpose but the way you learn it is still structured by the person / group who created it.

    But this does open the question… Is the definition of “informal learning” from the learner’s perspective or those that create the content?

  8. Pingback: Unpacking the Informal Learning definition | Adventures in Corporate Education

  9. Gina, because of the great discussion here and on @slqotd on Twitter, this became our topic for the next episode of the Social Learning podcast. Dave & I just recorded it and it should be out on Tuesday next week. I mentioned your blog and some of the stuff we talked about in the comments on your blog.

    The podcast will be available on iTunes and at http://www.box.net/shared/anl7j5g4nc

    Hopefully that will get more people coming to your blog and talking about it!

  10. “Isn’t it important to help facilitate informal learning so learners continue to learn even after they have attended a class?”

    I strongly agree.. plus, informal learning would enhance creativity

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