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What is the Difference Between Formal and Informal Learning?

In comparison to formal learning, which occurs in a training-based organization, workplace, mobile devices, classrooms, online over the Internet, and through e-learning portals, informal learning is based on practical and lifelong learning. Informal learning is an important concept, especially for people who must keep up with rapid technological and economic changes. While informal learning represents a key to entering the world of work, it also represents the steps toward a successful career.

  • Informal Learning
  • Formal Learning
Nastiia Dyshkant

In comparison to formal learning, which occurs in a training-based organization, workplace, mobile devices, classrooms, online over the internet, and through e-learning portals, informal learning is based on practical and lifelong learning. Informal learning is an important concept, especially for people who must keep up with rapid technological and economic changes. While informal learning represents a key to entering the world of work, it also represents the steps toward a successful career.

What is formal and informal learning?

Formal learning is defined as learning that is delivered "in a systematic and intentional manner." It is planned and guided by an instructor and usually takes place in a face-to-face setting or via an online learning platform, such as an LMS. Consider formal training in the context of compliance training or new hire onboarding in the workplace. These are the types of training that require structure, deadlines, and a clear goal.

On the other end of the spectrum is informal learning. It is unstructured, often unintentional, and takes place outside of a traditional learning setting. It's important to note that it's self-directed, asynchronous, and has no real goals; rather, it just happens naturally. It can happen at any time and in any place within your company. For example, you may be chatting with a coworker when she mentions that she discovered a more efficient way to automate a manual process that you can use as well. Even if it wasn't on purpose, you've learned something.

Formal and informal learning methods

informal vs formal learning

When formal and informal learning are compared, the methods of delivery are significantly different. Here are the most common applications for each in the workplace:

Formal learning methods

1. Face-to-face

Formal learning is a more traditional delivery method that takes place face-to-face or in a classroom-like setting. Face-to-face training, such as seminars, coaching, and on-the-job training, is popular because it adds a level of immediate interactivity. It's costly and time-consuming to run, and your learners frequently have to miss entire days of work to complete the training.

2. Online training

Online training delivery, done with the assistance of a learning management system, has become the new norm for businesses looking to deliver a formalized learning strategy. The main advantage is that it is quick and simple. Learners simply log in to the LMS and complete their training as needed. There will be no missed work or travel. You can also offer a blended learning model with ILTs and webinars, as well as use social learning through forums, with online training. The holy grail functionality of an LMS is the ability to easily measure training. For example, if your company provides compliance training, that is formalized learning.

Informal learning methods

Because informal learning is organic and unplanned, identifying tangible ways it is used within your organization is more difficult. However, it is important to note that informal learning is already taking place in your organization. You may be completely unaware of it. Learning occurs whenever an employee decides to Google ways to improve a process or when coworkers discuss a task. However, there are some ways to foster informal learning within your organization. To begin, creating a well of resources for your employees to dip into as needed encourages casual learning. Then there's social learning. Whether it's through face-to-face chats, a messaging app like Slack, or a forum in your LMS, encouraging your employees to communicate increases their chances of learning.

How to Settle on a Formal and Informal Learning Approach?

formal vs informal learning

As previously stated, the choice between formal and informal learning approaches is based on the learner's intention, objective, challenges, and how any of these learning patterns assist the learner in developing a successful career path and performing to their full potential.

There are three major areas in which either of these learning approaches can be tested from the perspectives of both the learner and the instructor, which are as follows:

  • Content development

  • Targeted audience

  • Tracking of performance

Furthermore, each learning pattern provides different values in the lives of the learners. The choice between the two is determined by the learners' objectives and intent. When it comes to learning fundamentals, formal and informal learning approaches differ just like any other methodology.

Organize learning environment

Formal learning entails following a planned and structured course outline. This educational strategy has been developed, is pre-defined, and has a deadline. It is limited and best suited to individuals who have just begun their basic learning or who are required to acquire a specific set of skills within a specific timeframe. Informal learning does not imply unplanned or disorganized learning. It's not about following rigid rules or formulas. It can happen anywhere, at any time, and in various contexts such as internet browsing, work, or leisure activities. It is not about communicating the learning outcomes right away, but about balancing a clear learning path with informality.

Eager and self-motivated Learners

In the early stages of a learning course, learners in a formal learning environment are usually motivated and eager to learn. However, in the absence of any specific activities to keep the audience engaged, the learners gradually lose their desire to excel. In other words, formal learning requires strategically engaging content to keep learners motivated throughout the course.

Informal learners, as opposed to formal learners, are always motivated, more attentive, and eager to learn the skill. They are not only interested in gaining deeper knowledge, but they also gain a better understanding of the subject under discussion because they learn in a contextual environment and through experiences.

Spontaneous Learning

Informal learning is imprecise and occurs at any time and in any place. The learner is self-motivated and eager to gain knowledge about any specific topic, or he or she may feel compelled to become acquainted with a new topic. From the perspective of an instructor, informal learning is conscious of the need to share the skill or knowledge with the learner in a specific context.

For example, if a new employee has no idea how to operate a copy machine, another colleague may immediately demonstrate how to do so in practice. This informal method of acquiring knowledge provides immediate assistance to new employees and is an excellent example of a spontaneous and informal learning context.

However, learning in a formal learning situation is planned, direct, noncontextual, and formulated. The instructor and learners enroll in the learning course on purpose and with a specific goal in mind. Learning is time-bound and has boundaries, making complete control over the learning framework impossible.

Lifelong learning process

Formal learning is not a life-long process; rather, it produces results in a specific time frame. For example, students enrolled in a specific certification course for two months. This is not a learning process that will last a lifetime. The program is designed for a specific time period and with specific guidelines to follow in order to achieve the desired outcome.

Informal learning is a type of spontaneous and lifelong learning. Our parents teach us as children when we are young. As we get older, we learn from our peers, friends, jobs, and coworkers. As you get older, the learning process continues, and you continue to learn from younger people, for example, about how to use new technology.

Informal learning is said to keep people vibrant, interested, and mentally active in their surroundings. Nonetheless, it is extremely important for intellectual self-development.

Quantifiable Learning

Formal learning is always measurable. It is measurable and formulated. It is a learning or knowledge transfer in a proper university or classroom setting, provided by skilled instructors and up to a certain degree. For example, if you need to take a specific course, you must first take beginner, advanced, or master-level courses. The results are measurable, and you know what skill set you can attain after completing a certain level of formal education.

Informal learning, on the other hand, is extremely difficult to quantify. It is not measurable or pre-planned to achieve a specific set of skills in a specific time frame. Because it is not a tangible learning approach, there are no tracking or exams to gauge skill set, as there are with certifications or degree courses. The results are difficult to quantify. This is one of the most difficult challenges of informal learning: validating and recognizing informally acquired knowledge in order to make it valid, valuable, and visible to others for proper utilization.

When to Choose: Formal vs. Informal Learning

formal vs informal learning

Knowing that you can foster a culture of both formal and informal training, your next question may be: when should I offer formal training and when should I encourage more informal training?

The best way to answer this question is to consider the requirements of various training situations. Do you require a measurement of time spent or knowledge gained? For example, if you are providing safety training that must be reported to a compliance board, you will require exact numbers on training time and possibly even official test results. You should provide formal training with a certified instructor in this case.

Another area where formal training is beneficial is onboarding. You may not need a record of time spent, but you do want to ensure that all new hires receive the same information. This ensures that everyone in your organization understands the same processes and brand voice.

Product training could be another area where formal training is provided. But what about on-the-job training? This type of unstructured learning may be best suited for developing deeper expertise in technical skills while on the job. Soft skill training, in which the goal is to gain actionable knowledge rather than to meet specific needs, is another excellent area to promote informal training.

The Final Word

We can conclude that when learners' interests and needs are taken into account, they will be more willing and interested in participating in learning activities. The primary reason that institutes and organizations are now adopting informal learning approaches is that formal learning is perceived as an obedient and punitive learning method.

It is based on the institutions' pre-defined norms, while the learners' interests and needs fade away. In contrast, an informal learning approach is successful in converting learners' needs and interests into a more adaptive and flexible formation.

In course design, content developers must recognize and consider the variety of learning opportunities. They must first determine the learners' objectives and needs before designing a custom eLearning solution that makes the most sense for the learners. In this way, they can find the best-blended learning approach that incorporates both formal and informal learning methods. 

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