Is it informal learning if …

What makes informal learning “informal”?

  • Is it the lack of a certificate of completion?
  • Is it the lack of an instructor?
  • Is it the lack of learner evaluation?
  • Is it the lack of a “formal” motivator?

I can think of examples for each of these that would qualify as “informal” learning. I can’t think of a single characteristic of learning that could not be informal for one person and formal for another.

For example:

  • When I wanted to learn about SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model), I searched the Internet and found a web-based tutorial on SCORM. The tutorial tracked my progress and when I completed the tutorial I was presented with a certificate (on the screen) that I could print. Would this be “formal” learning because I received a certificate? I would not call it such. To me, this was also informal learning. However, if I needed a SCORM certification, then the certificate of completion could be considered formal training. This also serves as an example of learning without an instructor. The course did not even have an associated email address for learner questions. The learners were completely on their own.
  • Currently, I am auditing a couple of sociology courses at the University of Ottawa. I attend the “formal” lectures, but do not write tests or papers, and I am not graded. From my perspective, this is an informal learning opportunity for me. I am not part of any formal process, I simply attend the lectures I chose to attend and I learn (I think I learn a lot more than those who attend the course formally, since I am not concerned about how I will be graded). But for the majority of folks in the class, this is a formal learning opportunity. Their learning is measured and they received “credit” for the learning that they demonstrate. For the other students, the credit provides an external motivator. My motivation for attending is strictly personal interest.

So, is “informal” just a context?

2 responses

  1. Becky Avatar

    So, if an e-learning developer or tool creates a means to make your informal conversation organized, then does that make the learning now formal? (I’m thinking of communities of practice, and their attempt at moderating informal conversation).

    Or is it all about learner control? But if it is control, then PLE’s would then be informal?

  2. Brent Schlenker Avatar

    Hi Becky! This is a great question. And not something I’ve stopped and thought about too much. I’ve had an assumption of the difference between formal and informal but I’ve never tried to define it.
    As I read your examples however, I would argue that both are formal…at least as I see formal.

    In the first case you discovered a course because of personal need and engaging in online search. But its still a formalized course that was defined by someone and you were walked through the material in a formal way that was designed by someone. The experience you defined is formal. Now perhaps you want to talk to someone about what you learned in that little online course and you search for experts in the area and comment on their blog or simply send an email and start a discussion. That is informal.
    In the second case you are still participating in a course that has been designed and has structure of which you have not control. You cannot ask the instructor to talk about something different than what he has planned for example. You also still need to attend the course at a specific time and in a specific location. The informal in this situation would be any discussions you have with the instructor and other students outside the traditional, formal, structure that is pre-defined by someone other than yourself.

    I believe formal and informal will coexist as it has since the creation of formalized education. The eLearning community and the technologies are simply finally catching up and supporting those informal conversations via the internet, mobile devices, and new technologies. Our models and methods for learning are simply acknowledging the fact that not all learning actually occurs in a structured classroom environment.
    Can I get an Amen!? 😉

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