Formal vs. Informal Learning Explained

Most training events and elearning initiatives that I have come across would be considered “formal “learning.

There is are specific needs that need to be met and the training program is created around satisfying those needs.

Ironically, despite formal learning being the primary method for elearning, live-training, and virtual training events, it only accounts for roughly 10% of what we learn on a day-to-day basis.

Organizations across the world are spending a lot of money for only 10%.

The opportunity for higher quality gains is in informal learning.

I have touched on informal learning before as we are seeing it grow in popularity in modern organizations.

For instance, informal learning may be the method of choice for startups as they don’t have the funds necessary to implement a full-blown learning & development program.

However, this begs the question: when you start to ‘formalize’ informal learning… doesn’t it become formal learning?

There seems to be some gray area here. In general, informal learning refers to things like:

  • Asking colleagues how to do something
  • Watching a ‘how-to’ video on YouTube
  • Using Google to search for a solution

It is kind of hard to formalize these things but they can be encouraged.

If your organization is putting a focus on informal learning then it is very much related to the employee culture. This means fostering an environment that is conducive to informal learning methods.

For example, many organizations put very harsh restrictions on what websites an employee can access on the company internet. If you are in support of informal learning then you would consider loosening those restrictions a bit.

My personal view on formal learning versus informal learning is that it’s best to leverage both as they each have an important role in the way we learn and teach.

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About the Author:

Justin Ferriman is the co-founder and CEO of LearnDash, the WordPress LMS trusted by the world's leading organizations, such as the University of Michigan, Digital Marketer, WPEngine, and Infusionsoft. Justin has made a career as an elearning consultant where he has implemented large-scale training programs for Fortune 500 companies. Twitter | LinkedIn

One Comment
  1. Chris Jeffries

    I think that one of the key factors in embedding the learning we do is having a sense of ownership and relevance. Informal learning wins in both areas.

    First, ownership: If I found it myself, then somehow it is MY knowledge, whereas if it is handed to me on a plate, I will start by questioning the motives of those who served it up.

    Second, relevance: Informal learning, research if you like, is something I do at the time I actually need the knowledge, so I start to apply it as soon as I acquired it. This is a strong factor in embedding new learning.

    The downside of informal learning is that unless you have a realisation that you need the knowledge, it doesn’t happen at all.

    In this area, let’s call it education rather than training, formal learning has the upper hand. It can lead the learner into new, exciting and unanticipated areas of knowledge and help the learner to re-evaluate at more fundamental levels

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