Saturday, 8 August 2009

Trendy Terms Alert (3)

Here is my third L&D ‘Trendy Term’ alert. Each Trendy Term Alert (TTA) will consider whether the term has any mileage or whether it should be consigned to the trash can.

TTA: Informal Learning

Jay Cross has largely been accredited with coining the term ‘Informal Learning’. However, at the moment there doesn’t appear to be any agreement about what activities actually constitute informal learning and in what circumstances it takes place. The only agreement seems to be that informal learning is everything that isn’t formal learning! So, at the moment people appear to be defining it in terms of what it is not. Interesting?

Different things to different folks

It would seem that informal learning means different things to different people, for example, whilst to most it means learning which is not structured or organised, some people see it as learning which takes place outside of a dedicated learning environment, and others as learning which is not formally organised into a programme, course, event, or curriculum.

Absurd claims?

“20% of learning is formal and 80% is informal”! Now, where on earth did this myth come from? Certainly not from empirical research I can assure you. I also very much doubt whether such a claim could ever be quantified so accurately and so consistently, simply because there is not, as yet, a clear, standard, and working definition of ‘informal learning’.

“Informal learning is only possible through the use of Social Media”! Complete rubbish, as long before educational and training institutions were established most people learned informally. Indeed, ask any enlightened teacher or trainer and they will tell you that there has always been informal learning and that for time immemorial it has contributed to how all us learn each and every day of our lives.

Much ado about nothing?

No, not really, because in many ways I believe that technological advances in recent years have been a catalyst for this apparently new found interest in informal learning. In most of its guises, informal learning requires a considerable degree of self-direction on behalf of the learner. In addition to this, the informal learner also needs access to appropriate resources. Technology in the form of networks and computers have opened up access to a vast range of learning resources including knowledge, materials, and people.

Technology, in the form of television, computers, mobile ‘phones, PDAs, iPods, and so on, now lets millions of us to communicate (eg via e-mail), to exchange information and knowledge (eg via Blogs and Wikis), to access learning materials (eg e-Learning modules). If any of these activities result in unplanned, unstructured, and unorganised learning then in my book they can be described as informal learning.


The first implication for organisations, and in particular their learning and development functions, to realise is that informal learning exists and that probably a lot more could be done to encourage and support this type of learning. One way of doing this is to provide access to informal learning resources, such as technology, materials, and people. Another way is to encourage the use of informal learning activities as part of formal learning programmes and to foster and to support environments which are conducive to informal learning.

The second implication is for organisations to realise that there is a very fine dividing line between formal and informal learning. Informal learning, by its very nature of what it isn’t, is something of an untamed beast. Like Aslan, in the Chronicles of Narnia, informal learning will come and go as and when it chooses, it will be there when it is needed, it will always result in a positive experience for the person concerned (as negative learning is not a meaningful concept), and above all it cannot, by its very nature, be controlled, managed, or quantified.


with a dose of caution though!

N.B. This blog is based on an article I wrote for Croner’s Training Briefing, January 2007.

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