Informal Learning

Learning everyday

In a rapidly changing world, it seems like we are learning all of the time. We are constantly bombarded with technologies which require us to learn new ways to communicate, new ways to work and even to new ways to learn. Using the internet to learn has for many of us become second nature; how often has the conversation paused while someone Googles just who did sing that song, or exactly how to travel to a restaurant?

Learning is no longer limited to the first part of our lives, when our days were filled with teachers and textbooks (Claxton, 1996). Increasingly ongoing learning is required to remain up to date in almost every field of employment, and a renewed focus has taken place in the research literature on just how that might happen for adults with already busy schedules.

Technology enables learning

Web 2.0 technologies encourage people to pursue informal learning (Bonk, 2009), as technology has enabled learning to become very much under the control of the learner (Haythornthwaite, 2015). Australian data reveals that approximately three quarters of the population participated in informal learning during the 12 months prior to interview in 2006 (Cameron & Harrison, 2012). Who knew that so many of us are going home after a hard day’s work and continuing our learning!

While some of this learning is devoted to personal interests, for quite a few, this learning is work related. For some of us, our work life and general interests blur into one space; in fact, as we use social technologies  in many parts of our lives, this bleeding of the different aspects of our life into one is becoming more common, as we socialise, learn and work in the same spaces. Sometimes we make conscious decisions to separate these parts of our lives (see my previous blog post on digital identity), however often our work colleagues are also our friends, and our professional discussions are peppered with personal asides and anecdotes. This makes professional learning more engaging and could be one of the reasons informal learning, (an evening spent sitting on the couch and participating in a tweet-meet, for example), is on the rise.

Where does learning happen?

In general, learning occurs in three basic sites – formal schooling, further education and informal learning (Livingstone, 2000). Formal schooling and further education are characterised by a set curriculum, through which learners must pass. In Australia, almost all of us attend formal schooling to at least Year 10, most to Year 12, and the majority on to further study at TAFE, University or through work-based training. Further education also features a set curriculum, but this time it is usually chosen by the learner; for example taking up driving lessons, or participating in cooking or art lessons.

Any other learning is  classified as informal learning; from learning to brush your teeth as a toddler to teaching yourself how to navigate the latest Facebook update, we are all engaged in informal learning a lot of the time. This learning can happen anywhere, and at any time. Defining informal learning is challenging. Cameron & Harrison find research that describes the process as problematic, blurred, competing, contested and contradictory (2012). It is possible that this difficulty in defining informal learning is derived from the fact that a definition attempts to locate a concept inside a box, while the various research draws the conclusion that pinning down such a fluid and individual process such as informal learning is almost impossible. This type of learning spans so much of how we gain knowledge, and therefore trying to describe such an individual process is hard! This does not mean that many have not tried!  Informal learning has been described as free choice learning (Dierking & Falk, 2003), self-directed learning (Mocker & Spear, 1982) or independent learning (Jones & Dexter, 2014). All of these terms describe learning that is guided by the needs and interests of the learner, who is largely in control of what, where, when and with whom they learn. In each case, the learner is very much aware of the fact that they are seeking out learning as an outcome of their activities.

That’s not all!

What about learning that occurs when it wasn’t planned? Schugurensky comes to the rescue with three forms of informal learning: self-directed, incidental and socialization (2000). These three forms are dependent upon the intentionality of the learner and their awareness of the process at the time the learning took place. Self directed learning is when you sit down, determined to teach yourself X. It is when the learning is chosen by the individual, planned and undertaken by the individual in a conscious way.  Incidental learning is the learning that occurs when you are ‘doing something else’ – i.e. when you learn something new through chatting to a friend at a party; the action was having a conversation, but the incidental outcome was that you learned something new. Socialization is the learning that occurs simply by being with others, which you did not plan and did not even realize you were doing; for example the way you begin to learn basics of a new language while holidaying in a foreign country – the action was to holiday, and you probably didn’t even notice all the different words you ‘picked up’.

informal learning

All three of these types of learning occur when you learn online using social media. When you consciously seek out some new information or an answer to a question by jumping online, you are participating in self-directed learning. Teachers do this all the time, when they search for effective learning resources, seek opinions on forums or through Twitter or Facebook on how to manage a particular process (e.g. homework reading) or read blogs or articles on professional topics. When participating in self-directed learning online, incidental learning occurs as well; this is the website resource that is discovered while searching for something else, or the comment someone posts on a blog that prompts a new way of thinking. Socialization is the learning that occurs which you don’t even notice; your growing confidence in navigating different websites, the increased effectiveness of your searches or your online reputation as an expert in a particular area, that represents a new part of your identity.

The challenge…

Informal learning, particularly online in this way,  is certainly difficult to capture and measure; and this may be why so little of it is recognized by formal learning institutions! Now that we can access a huge range of quality learning resources and expertise which were previously locked down to formal educational institutions, many are making the decision to pursue informal learning in areas that were once only accessible through formal schooling.This is a major challenge for educational institutions; models and structures that have existed for a long time are now facing change. This is why an investigation into informal learning for teachers and students is vital – we need to find ways to blend both formal and informal, to recognise that the learning that occurs out of school may be just as, or more valuable in some cases, than formal curriculum. There is a growing push for some of this learning to be identified by digital badging; which I have written about previously on the blog I authored in my previous role, ResourceLink. Here, Joi Ito sums up the changing relationships between informal and formal learning, the role of technology in these changes and why it is important to talk about it now:

Back to the PLE vs PLN debate!

Those who learn online regularly probably find that they use a range of tools to meet certain needs. They might go to Twitter to discover new resources and ask questions, save their favourite teaching YouTube videos to Diigo or Pinterest, and keep a blog where they write their reflections on their role at work. This combination of tools is what I consider to be the Personal Learning Environment (PLE); something that I will explore further on this blog in the coming weeks. In this PLE, exists one’s network – the people and resources housed in the environment. The network is your Personal Learning Network (PLN). Some people treat these terms as synonymous; but I see a (slightly blurred) distinction between the two. You could have signed up to lots of tools and spaces (the PLE) but it is not until you begin interacting and connecting with others (your PLN) that it all comes alive.

My attempt at capturing the moving feast that is my PLE. Many of these tools move around the axis as I use them in different ways; this is a static rendition!
My attempt at capturing the moving feast that is my PLE. Many of these tools move around the axis as I use them in different ways; this is a static rendition!

In closing

So informal learning – who knew it was so complex?! This very brief overview is just a skim off the surface of a huge area of research. This cute infographic adds some more handy information about informal learning – some interesting facts, and models to investigate.

Decoding the Myths and Mysteries of Informal Learning Infographic
Find more education infographics on e-Learning Infographics


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