Informal learning is the process by which we learn freely, creatively and passionately. Unlike a structured and defined four-year university program, for example, it is a natural exercise through which we gain an even deeper understanding of our subject matter. But what are the key concepts of informal learning that distinguish it from formal learning? Isn’t knowledge just knowledge, after all?
There are four key concepts that make informal learning unique:
In an article called “At the Water Cooler of Learning,” David Grebow, describes it as a kind of “real learning” that involves our brain connecting all the dots in an amazing experience that includes our memory, synapses, endorphins and encoding. Real learning, which he describes as the kind that sticks to our brain, is almost always informal and it happens all around our formal learning process. It can also make a huge difference in our lives and in our businesses.
Frank Coffield, author of The Necessity of Informal Learning, insists that informal learning should never be considered inferior to formal learning.He suggests instead that it needs to be seen as essential, fundamental and valuable in its own right whether it happens in our workplaces or within the rest of our lives.
Education consultant Charles Leadbeater also writes that more informal learning needs to be accomplished at home and in offices and factories and other places where the knowledge is put to immediate use to solve problems and create value in peoples’ lives. Leadbeater, author of Living on Thin Air. The New Economy, believes that our most important capability in life, and the one which traditional, formal education is worst at delivering, is “the ability and yearning to carry on learning.”
He encourages schools and universities to become more like hubs of learning capable of branching out into the community.
Grebow comes to the same conclusion which he expresses as a 75/25 Rule of Learning. He suggests that we get 25 percent of what we need to know in our jobs through formal learning and the rest from informal learning. However, his point is that corporations tend to invest much more in formal training, a habit that is not serving us well if we want to be an innovative nation.
If you think Facebook is a waste of time and LinkedIn is only for selling your products, you may have it all wrong. In fact, all forms of social media can be the most amazingly effective venue for informal learning to come along in many generations. As more and more people exchange tips and tricks and watch the borders of geography crumble to a global conversation, the impact can be far-reaching and significant.
Just participating in sites like Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram help people learn basic technological and social skills outside of a formal classroom environment. Both of these skill areas are useful in helping people gain jobs and participate fully in a productive life. When people get involved in discussion groups on line, they have access to a great deal of information that would normally be beyond their reach.
In fact, one study at the University of Central Florida suggests social media avenues that allow students to connect to educational information in new ways outside of the traditional classroom bring society closer to erasing the barrier between formal and informal learning.
Baiyun Chen and Thomas Bryer’s study, “Investigating instructional strategies for using social media in formal and informal learning”1 noted that third-party social media tools like LinkedIn, Wikipedia and WordPress manage to include members from outside the class and beyond a one-semester time duration. Because of that, they connect learners with broader communities including experts in a field and peers from throughout the world.
Because social media by its nature encourages people to be involved and to create content, they end up being more involved in the learning process that comes via this avenue. People are encouraged to work on real-life situations through an informal sharing process on social media sites.
Social media sites also give students access to more information and experiences than would not be possible if their learning experience was restricted to a formal closed classroom environment.
In a second study, “Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of findings from the Digital Youth Project,” author Ito Mizuko, Heather Horst et al praised the value of using social media as a tool to facilitate informal discussions that promote informal learning. Mizuko and Horst explain that it works because the focus of social media postings is on what the learner is particularly interested in or prefers, not on what is dictated by an instructor as it is in a formal learning environment.
What other ways can we use social media to create informal learning environments?
Saul Carliner, director of the Education Doctoral Program and an associate professor at Concordia University in Montreal, suggests in a blog posting that one way is to use tools like LinkedIn and Facebook to pump up your content development. Use designated “volunteers” who are well-versed on certain topics to share that knowledge with others. Carliner wrote that the volunteers can answer questions posed to a group, supply articles for online encyclopedias or just informally share their knowledge and insight when topics arise.
Some training and development professionals believe that social media is the future of informal learning. No trend comes completely recommended however. There is always an issue that content created and made available to others via social media has not be reviewed by others or it may not be based on fact. If we continue to use social media avenues to promote informal learning, we must find ways to ensure that the learners are aware of this weakness and able to discern the difference between opinion and fact.
But then, hasn’t that always been the issue at the water cooler?
1. Chen, Baiyun and Bryer, Thomas. Investigating instructional strategies for using social media in formal and informal learning, January, 2012. http://www.irrodl.org/index/php/irrodl/article/view/1027/2073
2. Ito, Mizuka, Horst, Heather et all. Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project. http://digitalyouth.ischool.berkeley-edu/files/report/digitalyouth-WhitePaper.pdf
3. Hommes, J., Rienties, B., de Grave, W., Bos, G., Schuwirth, L., & Scherpbier, A. (2012). Visualising the invisible: a network approach to reveal the informal social side of student learning. Advances in Health Sciences Education, 17(5), 743-757. doi: 10.1007/s10459-012-9349-0
4. Carliner, Saul. “Social Media for Informal Learning, Part 3. https://www.td.org/Publications/Blogs/Learning-Technologies-Blog/2012/12/Social-Media-for-Informal-Learning-Part-3
Even though participants of informal learning programs may not be aware they are engaged in a learning activity, they nonetheless emerge with a renewed sense of confidence and self that translates into community engagement and renewal.
According to The Crick Report, informal learners become more politically aware, develop more respect for the law and experience a heightened sense of morality.
In the months that follow informal learning experiences, people tend to become more involved at practical levels in their communities. They sit on tenant’s boards, become education council members or take on volunteer work. They become more engaged citizens and this in turn, enhances their communities, giving them a sense of rejuvenation.
Informal learners also tend to experience a sense of group empowerment and increased mobilization and are more able to challenge wider social issues, observers at the Manchester Centre for Development recount
Informal learning, as defined by Veronica McGivney, means learning that takes place outside a dedicated learning environment (such as a classroom) and which arises from the activities and interests of individuals and groups.
Examples of informal learning opportunities could vary from a theatre troupe in a troubled American neighborhood to a UNESCO-supported program in Sri Lanka that brings e-learning to village people through a community radio’s ICT-equipped eTuktuk. It could be a program that helps farmers in small villages add value to their farms and use their natural resources sustainably.
What kinds of informal learning most impact communities?
Snyder, Wender and McDermott, in their book Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge, suggest that to be effective, informal learning efforts should be designed for evolution, invite different levels of participation, and open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives. They should also combine familiarity and excitement and create a rhythm for the community, among other things.
Technology plays a key role in the delivery of informal learning opportunities as well. That is significant given the average 8-18 year old in the United States spends more than seven hours a day using digital devices or watching television, the equivalent of the time they spend in formal learning at school.
One thing is clear: informal learning is vital in building an engaged citizenship that will use its power to rejuvenate its community. As Colin Latchem, president of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia explained it in a recent article, informal learning and non-formal education have a great potential for helping a wide range of learners achieve more desirable and rewarding circumstances for themselves and their communities.
The idea that communities can be rejuvenated and renewed through informal-learning inspired citizens is relatively new. But it is extremely important given that 85.4 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where millions of children have no access to formal schooling.
As early as 2000, the Council for Europe acknowledged that formal education systems cannot meet all the learning challenges of modern society. Increasingly, a partnership is needed between formal and non-formal learning to create life-long processes for self and then community development.
Change the people, it seems, and the community itself will change.
1. Crick, B. (2000) Essays on Citizenship, London, Continuum
2. Foster (2011) ICTs and Informal Learning in Developing Countries
3. McGivney, Veronica (1999) Informal Learning in the Community: A Trigger for Change and Development, National Institute of Adult Continuing Education
4. Wenger, Etienne, McDermott, Richard, and Snyder, William M. (2002) Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge.
5. Latchem, Colin. Informal Learning and Non-Formal Education for Development. Journal for Learning and Development
The spontaneous learning that takes place between groups of people that is known as “informal education” has many benefits for the adult learner.
Malcolm Knowles, a pioneer in the field who outlined some of these benefits in his 1950 book Informal Adult Education described the flexibility of the learning process, the use of real-life experience and the enthusiasm and commitment of participants as significant elements for the gratification of the adult student.
Almost 65 years later, with the introduction of widespread use of social media and an enhanced global awareness, we at the Center for Active Learning can add another six distinct benefits to his observations.