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Feature: The Future for Informal Learning


Ufi Board Member Donald Clark looks at the future for informal learning.

Informal, casual, instant, spot, embedded or workflow learning is now recognised as perhaps the most important form of adult learning, quantifiably more important than formal learning interventions. We all know that over a lifetime, most of what we learn is not within the context of a college, classroom or course. We develop daily through natural exploration, exposure and encounters with knowledge and people.

Let’s reflect on what we mean by informal learning. In a simple sense it is everything that lies outside of ‘formal’ learning. In this sense it is easier to define it by what it is not. It is learning that is free from learning events, learning professionals and learning institutions.

One of the most famous pieces of research in informal learning was produced by the Education Development Center (EDC) in 1997. This was a comprehensive two-year study funded by the US Department of Labour and found that for every one hour of formal training there are four hours of informal learning

It seems intuitively clear that informal learning is quantifiably larger than formal learning. What is less clear is how organisations formally support informal learning.

Spending paradox
Jay Cross points out the obvious paradox.

Why spend so much on formal learning when we know that most learning is informal? This is topsy-turvy.

Learning 2.0
Web 2.0, the new breed of web services, easy to use, often cheap and free, will result in Learning 2.0, a paradigm shift that is already well underway. Google is now the primary interface for knowledge acquisition, and this process continues to accelerate. Blogs, wikis, podcasting, videocasting, feeds, online games, online simulations, messaging are all contributing to a revolution that makes the creation and sharing of knowledge cheap and easy. Every person can be a portal, every person a teacher and every person a learner. The old distinctions are fading fast.

One of the problems with informal learning is that it is difficult to pin down. It evades capture because it is a fluid process and is easier to define by what it is not, namely formal courses. However, the advantages are clear and technology is making it possible to rely more and more on this type of learning.

Learning activity has already blended or smeared out into e-learning and knowledge management. It will continue to smear and tail out into workflow, invisible and viral learning. Event-based learning will not disappear but time taken by learners to learn will be spread much more evenly across a range of formal and informal activities.
E-learning is already being delivered in smaller, simpler, more focused packages. It is fragmenting further through knowledge management, EPSS (Electronic Performance Support Systems) and workflow learning, where the task, not the course, drives the learning.

Viral learning
Further changes can be expected as the technology makes learning part of the task. Invisible learning will discard the traditional language and structure of formal learning in favour of newer techniques around capture, search, retrieval and sharing. This in turn will lead to viral techniques accelerating learning through populations of learners. These viral techniques will be both psychological and physical.

All of this will require better, faster and cheaper technology but that is the easy part. What will be difficult is getting people to discard the old ways of thinking, to wean themselves off a culture of dependency on spoon-feeding methods of learning. We are moving so fast that discarding the past is now harder than creating the future.

* Ufi Board member Donald Clark, founder and former CEO of e-learning company Epic, will be speaking on When informal learning works – and when it doesn't at the Learning Technologies Conference. For more information on the conference click here.


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