Friday, August 14, 2009

Formal vs. Informal Learning: Gathering My Thoughts Post Learnchat Session Today


Today's #learnchat question revolved around formal and informal learning. The initial part of the session was spent on trying to pin down the meanings—denotation as well as connotation—of formal and informal. This led to some interesting Derridean debate bordering on Deconstruction in a bid to unravel the layers of meanings and possibilities encompassed by the two words.

One point that struck me was the use of the word social:

Social = culture; Social = Group

All learning need not be group driven or take place in groups. However, all learning, and I am not talking of education or training here, i.e., the interpretation and internalization of what comes our way are inherently social where “social” signifies culture. The way we learn is thus a manifestation of our culture, worldviews, and upbringing. However, we need to be careful to not conflate social with sociable or collectivist here. That is a different point altogether. (Interesting, provocative post from Venkatesh Rao on this point:

Wikipedia has an interesting definition for the word “social.”

The term Social refers to a characteristic of living organisms (humans in particular, though biologists also apply the term to populations of animals and insects). It always refers to the interaction of organisms with other organisms and to their collective co-existence, irrespective of whether they are aware of it or not, and irrespective of whether the interaction is voluntary or involuntary.

I think, when it comes to learning, the last sentence in the definition above is of importance. Whether we are conscious of it or not, our learning and what we seek to learn and from whom (especially, if it’s informal learning) is driven by our instinct of co-existence. Hence I believe Homophily plays such an important role in our interactions, especially in informal social learning.

A snapshot of formal vs. informal learning:

Formal Learning:

1. Structure driven—usually decided by a figure of authority who takes the call on what needs to be learned
2. Fixed objective-oriented
3. Scheduled
4. Most often top down
5. Typically followed by evaluations and grades and certificates = proofs of apparent success (presumably of the training program)
6. The solitary aspect of this is more individualistic because we typically select to opt for these programs/courses
7. Solitary formal learning is more self driven than formal social learning like classroom trainings that typically take place in organizations

Informal Learning:

1. Serenditpitous and incidental
2. Structureless and unscheduled
3. Lifelong = there’s no beginning or end
4. No course-end certification as learning does not end
5. Without any measurement or performance matrix
6. Self-paced = individual or the group sets their own pace; occurs out of a refusal to have an authority figure set the pace and impose rules
7. Personalized = “Outcome is what the learner desires”
8. Learner empowered = requires effective “self learners” and good knowledge networkers since it involves connecting with and finding expertise
9. Pull learning= just in time, just the right amount
10. Meaning formed via social interaction since no learning can happen in a vacuum
11. Can happen as a follow up to formal learning when the latter has been inspiring enough to drive learners to explore further
12. Can take place through one or more of the following means: discussions, observation, experience, traveling, reflecting, and anything and everything we do throughout our lifetime
13. Requires being able to learn across and bind different learning ecologies

As Roger Schank points out, “People who learn on their own learn exactly what they find interesting and potentially useful.”

LCB’s blog post “Characteristics of Formal and Informal Learning Episodes“ lists 10 reasons why learners prefer to learn on their own based on an initial survey done in the 1970’s:
1. Desire to set my own learning pace.
2. Desire to use my own style of learning.
3. I wanted to keep the learning strategy flexible and easy to change.
4. Desire to put my own structure on the learning project.
5. I didn't know of any class that taught what I wanted to know.
6. I wanted to learn this right away and couldn't wait until a class might start.
7. Lack of time to engage in a group learning program.
8. I don't like a formal classroom situation with a teacher.
9. I don't have enough money for a course or class.
10. Transportation to a class is too hard or expensive.

Some pertinent questions that can be applied in the current situation of corporate training and learning are the following that I came across in one of the comments to the post:

1. Can formal learning lay a foundation that will support the informal learning process?
2. Can we provide tools and systems (e.g. Subject Matter Expert Location Programs, Knowledge Repositories, etc. ) that enable the informal process to be more efficient and effective. Reduce the 15 hours a week to 10?
3. What can we learn from the informal process that may - or may not - inform a somewhat more formal approach?
4. How can we figure out when any learning - formal or informal - is not even needed? Where does 'just doing it' and moving on without ever learning a thing, become acceptable in terms of performance?
5. Can we discern where a more formal approach is really useful? Where does it realy help someone learn to begin to know and/or do something?

What could then be the points of leverage that will encourage informal learning in an organization?


  1. Fantastic way to start my Friday morning. My wheels are turning. I was @ #lrnchat last night as well and pondered the many thoughts but really looked deeper into a suggestion that in an organization: Social Learning should come first in a formal structure as it can elude to and then strengthen the efforts to promote informal learning channels to be embraced.

    Thanks for a great recap

  2. Thank you for the encouraging words. There was so much information flying around at so many levels that it was intially overwhelming.

    Trying to capture everything at a high level without deep diving into any one aspect was of course the next challenge...:)

  3. Nice post, Sahana. It's gotten me thinking about the difference between social vs. sociable. If all learning is social because we are creatures of our culture, then even informal learning by an individual (self-paced, yadda yadda) is social.

    But it's not necessarily sociable in the meaning of, "I sit down and chat with my peers about this topic and chew things over while having a good laugh and a cup of coffee."

    But I'm a sociable person and I do like to chat things over and talk out loud and write comments on people's blog posts. That's how I learn best...

  4. Thank you so much for the kind words, Cammy. Coming from you, they mean a lot. :)

    I have been thinking about these two words in relation to informal learning for a long time...especially so after reading Venkatesh Rao's post.

    I think most learning is a mix of "social" and "sociable". At least, that's the way it is for me.

    My interpretations are based on my worldview and education and beliefs...

    Then, my interactions with others (my sociable side) help me to reinforce/reinstate my understanding or even discard them depending on the discussions I have had.

    The former I guess falls in the realm of Homophily...:)and keeps us happy. The latter is tougher unless we are really really open to learning...

    How would we define learning happening via the social networking sites? Informal social learning or informal sociable learning or a blend?

  5. Under Informal Learning, point #5 refers to "Without measurement or performance matrix" It is not entirely true.

    If say, organization has to realize the measurement value or performance matrix, it should not be controlled by timelines or management.

    For example: It is a fact that many of us improved our typing speed and if I could be the case, enhanced my writing skills only through chats. There was no measurement then. But if you put in measurements, it could be the quality of writing, improvements in time to delivery cycle, number of ideas and literature created and their value contributed to the organization. Sadly though, these are neither learning measurements nor in HR radar.

    Thus informal learning suffers from perception error.

  6. Heya¡­my very first comment on your site. ,I have been reading your blog for a while and thought I would completely pop in and drop a friendly note. . It is great stuff indeed. I also wanted to there a way to subscribe to your site via email?

    Social Learning


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