Whereas formal learning happens 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. The informal learning is a crucial concept, especially for individuals who must stay abreast with rapid technological and economic changes. While informal learning symbolizes a key to enter the world of employment, it also represents the steps in building a successful career.
A Closer Look at the Formal and Informal Learning
Formal learning occurs in a structured and organized environment like training/education institution or on the job. It is explicitly designed as education in terms of time, objectives and resources. It is an intentional learning from the learner’s perspective, leading to degrees and certifications. Formal learning is a structured model that presents a rigid curriculum, corresponding to laws and norms. It is rather presentational education.
On the other hand:
Informal learning is the education that is beyond limitations and goes on outside of a traditional formal learning environment like university, school or college. It is an education that is seen as a learning which goes on in our daily life or learning projects undertaken by us to teach ourselves.
This learning is based on the daily life experiences like peer groups, family, media or any other influence in the learner’s surrounding. This learning platform encompasses a range of activities; it could be researching the International Gallery collection, learning cookery skills in a community center, taking part in a project voluntarily or others.
In other words, oftentimes informal learning involves learning things without realizing the learning process. This may include picking up information from TV, over the internet, films, direct interaction with individuals or any other informal way.
To understand the difference between the formal and informal learning approaches, think of these two approaches as riding a bike vs. riding on a bus.
- If you are on a formal learning bus, the bus driver decides the destination of the bus or where it is going. However, the passengers are just along for the ride.
- If you are on a bike of informal learning, the rider decided the destination, the route, and the speed.
In other words, if you have to make a choice between the informal and formal learning, it is valuable to make a distinction between what is learned intentionally and what is learned by accident.
The most explicit distinction between both of these learning approaches boils down to the fact; if it is unexpected or intentional learning.
Unexpected learning occurs when a learner learns something, during everyday life activities, something they never expected. Instead, intentional learning is the approach where learners aim to learn a particular thing and goes about successfully achieving that objective.
How to Settle on a Formal and Informal Learning Approach?
As stated earlier, the choice between the formal and informal learning approach comes down to the intention, objective, challenges and how any of these learning patterns facilitates the learner in developing a successful career path and to perform at their full potential.
There are three major areas on which either of these learning approaches can be tested from both the learner and instructor’s point of view, including;
- Content development
- Targeted audience
- Tracking of performance
In addition, each of these learning patterns offers different values in the lives of the learners. Again, the choice between the two comes down to the objectives and intent of the learners.
As with just about every other methodology, formal and informal learning approaches also have differences when it comes to learning basics. Let’s discuss these basic differences separately.
Organized learning environment
Formal learning is about having a designed and structured course outline. This educational approach is formulated, pre-defined and has a deadline. It is limited and best for the individuals who have just started with their basic learning or are required to acquire a certain set of skills in a definite timeframe. Informal learning does not mean undesigned or disorganized. It is just not about having set guidelines or formulas. It can be occurring anywhere, anytime and in different contexts including surfing the internet, work or leisure activities. It is not about communicating the learning results upfront but balancing the clear learning path with informality.
Eager and self-motivated Learners
In the formal learning environment, the learners are usually motivated and eager to learn in the initial stages of the learning course. However, gradually and in the absence of any specific activities to keep the audience engaged, the learners start losing the eagerness to excel. In other words, formal learning requires a strategically engaging content to maintain the motivation level of the learners throughout the course
Unlike formal learning, informal learners are always motivated, more attentive and eager to learn the skill. Since they learn in a contextual environment and from experiences, they are not only interested in gaining deeper knowledge but they get a better understanding of the subject under discussion.
Informal learning is spontaneous and happens anytime and anywhere. The learner is self-motivated and eager to gain knowledge about any specific topic or may get an impulse to get familiar with a new topic. From an instructor’s point of view, during informal learning, the instruction is conscious about the need to share the skill or knowledge with the learner in a particular context.
For instance, if a new employee has no idea about operating a copy machine, some other colleague may instantly demonstrate it in practice and how to get the job done. This informal way of obtaining knowledge is a quick help for the new worker and one of the best example of spontaneous and informal learning context.
However, during a formal learning situation, the learning is planned, direct, noncontextual and formulated. The instructor and learners take up the learning course intentionally and with a clear objective in mind. The learning is time-framed and has certain boundaries, prohibiting the complete control over the learning framework.
Lifelong learning process
Formal learning is not a life-long process but offer results in a pre-defined time frame. For instance, students taking a particular certification course for the duration of two months. This is not a learning process that would continue throughout life. The program is designed for a particular duration and with the set, guidelines to be followed to achieve the targeted objective.
The informal learning is a spontaneous and lifelong learning activity. In our early age, we learn as a kid from our parents. As we grow older, we learn from peers, friends, a job or from co-workers. As you get old, the learning process continues and you continue to learn from younger, for instance, the use of new technology.
It can be said that informal learning keeps individuals vibrant, interested, and mentally active in the world around. Nonetheless, it is something that is highly crucial for intellectual self- development.
The formal learning is always quantifiable. It is measurable and formulated. It is a learning or transfer of knowledge in a proper university or classroom setup, offered by skilled instructors and up to a certain degree. For example, if you need to take a particular course, you must take the beginner, advanced or master level courses to gain the required knowledge. The outcomes are measurable and you know the skill set that you can achieve after taking a certain level of formal education.
The informal learning is, however, quite difficult to quantify. It is not measurable or pre-designed to achieve a particular set of skills in a set time frame. Since it is not a tangible learning approach hence, there are no tracking or exams to gauge the skill set just like certifications or degree courses. The outcomes are difficult to measure. This is indeed one of the biggest challenges of informal learning i.e. the validation and recognition of the informally obtained knowledge in order to make it valid, valuable and visible to other for its proper utilization.
The Future Relevance of Formal and Informal Learning
So which of these two learning approaches are most relevant in the future? Well, there are some challenges in incorporating both of these learning methodologies. Both of them offer their distinctive learning experiences and hence everything comes down to the learner’s learning objective.
In an informal learning, learner gets the ability to develop more capacity for self-directed approaches towards enduring learning. Anyone who does it and develops these skills gains a great advantage over others who are persistently reliant and submissive to various influential figures to tell them when to learn, how to learn, what to learn and when to stop learning.
Considering the corporate perspective, there may be some jobs that would praise for following the guidelines or commands of a micro-managing boss, but the growing corporations are now shifting this trend.
In today’s competitive environment, it is all about taking the initiative. This is the era of working in a contextual environment than the theoretical world. To deliver and handle the problem upfront and pursue solutions right away.
That is why it is important for a learner to make a smooth transition from formal to informal. This transition promises the idea of ‘continuity’. In other words, the open or informal education system can easily be adopted in the traditional structure of schools. It is all about offering learners a chance to determine the learning pace. They should be set free to move around and search for the best sources to learn with full motivation and keenness.
The key is to let them make the most of the available means to master the subjects that catch their interest. Likewise, gradually suppressing the basic features of a formal learning approach that may include granting the learners total freedom as to the subject choice, activities and content that must be carried out along with the time duration that needs to be granted at each stage.
In a nutshell, in going from formal to informal education, we are actually perforce displacing our ‘center of gravity’ form the processes of traditional or formulated school systems to that of students learning objectives.
The Final Word
We can conclude by saying that when the interest and needs of the learners are taken into consideration, learners will be more willing and interested to participate in the learning activities. The basic reason why institute and organizations are now adapting informal learning approach is that the formal learning is perceived as an obeying and punitive learning approach.
It is dependent on the pre-defined norms of the institutions whereas the learners’ interest and needs fade away. Conversely, an informal learning approach succeeds to convert the needs and interest of learners in a more adaptive and flexible formation.
The content developers must recognize and consider the range of learning opportunities in course designing. They must iron out the objectives and needs of the learners first and then design a course that makes the most sense for learners. In this way they may find the best-blended learning approach, incorporating both the formal and informal ways of learning.