Informal learning constitutes a hot topic these days. Informal learning can be seen as a process of knowledge acquisition that does not follow any one structured learning methodology. Some of the established informal learning structures are: observation, questioning, testing theoretical knowledge in real life contexts, and studying materials that fall outside mandatory learning commitments. Experimental informal learning structures include: social learning, activity threads, or online informal learning communities.
Informal learning is getting a lot of attention as of late, and has spring up as a topic on forums about everything from developing creative thinking to higher education and enterprise training. Why the hype? Informal learning is not a recent phenomenon. However, recent mobile, social, and cloud technologies have triggered an interest in and unveiled the pervasiveness of informal learning in people’s lives. Also, Generation Y’s eagerness to share and exchange facts and opinions has also helped generate the informal learning hype.
But the danger with informal learning is that the benefits of more structured learning experiences might be disregarded, and thus valuable lessons lost. I cannot imagine anyone performing brain surgery after their sole form of training had been shadowing an experienced neurosurgeon, even if it had been for a long period of time like three or four years. This does not mean that shadowing an experienced professional is not essential in the training and education of a neurosurgeon. But skipping medical school altogether might result in disaster in this case of eschewing formal learning!
Useful applications of informal learning
In our daily work routines we develop personal methods or tricks to tackle certain challenges, or find workarounds when using imperfect tools. For example, skipping parts of a habitual task that aren’t crucial but if completed would improve the process and end result, such as figuring out a trick to manipulate a large Excel file that keeps crashing but never solving the problem that causes the crash in the first place. Often times this knowledge is tacit, as the effort of recording it would be unjustifiably large. In fact, tacit information can become obsolete very fast, as certain tasks evolve or disappear over short periods of time. This is where informal learning works best: transmitting tips and tricks about how to achieve certain tasks.
Joining a new work community means learning about people: the centers of power they form, their agendas, and their talents. Informal learning is in fact the only way to achieve such knowledge, as companies will not publicize who’s really the boss, or who’s pulling the strings. Along the same lines, company culture is another aspect that cannot be grasped in a formal manner. The unspoken code of conduct cannot be locked in a collectively shared PDF document. As a result the skill of reading between the lines must be developed.
Informal learning is also a very good vehicle for acquiring knowledge about what is new in a field of expertise. Reading the news, chatting with colleagues, and following pundits are effective ways of learning the latest developments in most sectors.
Similarly, informal learning can validate the accuracy of information. Information overload and the multi-channel delivery of information might create confusion regarding what is a credible source of information. Through informal online or live communication with others some clarification can be achieved.
Drawbacks of informal learning
One drawback of informal learning is the difficulty of monitoring its effectiveness. Informal learning taking place in physical environments such as the workplace or at home is almost impossible to trace and evaluate, and online informal learning is just as challenging to track. Although the activity taking place on virtual online platforms can be analyzed to a certain degree, measuring the efficiency of online informal learning is still a very difficult task. Analytics tools cannot perform a refined discrimination between what was formally and informally learned. At least, not yet.
Another disadvantage of informal learning in the workplace is the lack of supervision of informal learning events. Some employees tend to cut corners, which is not necessarily the best way to deliver a quality service or product. These habits can be passed on from senior staff to juniors staff and can lead to a decrease in product or service value, and thus a decrease in customer satisfaction.
In conclusion, with informal education you can tap into tacit knowledge about your day-to-day tasks, field of expertise, or work environment. I suggest we leave the rest in the hands of formal learning, which has proved its beneficial role in helping people initiate, test and produce precise outcomes.
I am very interested by the topic of Social Learning. I am looking forward to research on the topic at Phd level.