Learning Classifications


Informal learning is a theme of this blog and has been an area of professional interest for the past couple of years. There is a link between informal learning and collaborative work; the latter is a key focus of my consulting. This link was highlighted by Teemu Leinonen in a recent post on networked learning, starting with a definition of informal learning:

Informal learning means learning that is taking place in every day life situation when we are interacting with the outside world or with our own inside world. Most of the learning is informal and purely accidental and random.

This is an adequate working definition, in my mind, but what I find most interesting is Teemu’s definition of non-formal learning, a term that I haven’t used much or really noted:

Networked learning can also be non-formal. Non-formal means that it is informal but with objectives. If a group of criminals are organizing a discussion group in a bar to share ideas about latest burglary techniques they are having a non-formal learning session. It is informal but with an objective.

Given these definitions, I would say that much learning in intentional online communities (such as a community of practice around knowledge management) is non-formal, whereas it is more informal in looser social networks like Facebook. My sense of this is that non-formal learning would involve mostly self-generated objectives though objectives could also evolve from the group. Formal learning would differ from these in that most, if not all, objectives would be externally directed.

These three working definitions may help in defining and explaining different approaches or strategies when working with communities of practice, work groups, professional networks or even classes.

6 Responses to “Learning Classifications”

  1. Gilbert

    These are very poor choices of words. Learning is an internal function.
    Informal and non-formal are terms that mainly describe the external actions such as teaching, training, studying,mentoring, etc.
    Note that self-teaching is not synonymous to learning.

    We are going to run into the same problems we had with the word E-Learning.

    1,2,3,infinity… for those who have read this book.

  2. Harold

    Good point, Gilbert. Even I use the term learning, when I should be using training, instruction or education; and I know better 😉

    However, I think that you could add the term “environment” to each of these terms and they could describe a continuum that might be useful for design considerations. A formal learning environment might be a course, while informal learning environments are all around us. A non-formal learning environment would be an intentional grouping of people who have some learning objective(s) in mind.

  3. Gilbert

    Learning environment are not either formal or informal. There is a continuum. Objectives also exist in a continuum.

    Defining “Non-formal” as “informal but with objectives” wouldn’t be very useful on the long run.

    Formalism and objectives, although related, are two concepts that shouldn’t be bundled. Let keep things simple for a change.

  4. Jennifer Nicol

    It’s so easy to think of exceptions to these definitions that the definitions start to hurt my brain.

    I don’t think who sets the objectives is the defining element in the three categories. If I make up an objective for myself and actively pursue it through a book but don’t have the self-discipline to work through the book and then sign up for and complete a university course on the subject, what is that? Surely it is all three. If I am forced to take a course but am surprised to discover a deep and active interest in its goals, is it still just formal? Does only accidental learning (ouch, that frying pan was hot) count as informal?

    In that sense, these categories are no more useful than saying “a course”, “a book”, and “a hot frying pan.” (Forty years later, my mother loves to tell the story of how I learned not to touch frying pans… hmmmm… maybe that unfortunate day was a non-formal situation engineered to achieve her health and safey objectives for the family…?)

    In my opinion, the difference between the three categories is simply the adminstrative effort involved in each, and the fact that somebody in addition to the learner cares about the learning. The learner may share these goals or may not… but it is the presence of the other (person or organization) that makes it formal or not formal.

    As a sometime instructional designer, I find it most useful to think about how much work and mental effort I suspect the learner will devote to the subject. Here, the categories of formal, non-formal, and informal do indeed help.

  5. Harold

    I was looking for something beyond the dichotomy of informal vs formal learning, and thought non-formal might provide a practical term for some of the environments and tools that I set up for my clients. Obviously, I need to keep working on this. Thanks Gilbert and Jennifer.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)