Theories for Informal Learning Design?

Many different theories exist which try to explain how we learn. Based on those theories, we have numerous approaches to learning design. The whole field is quite connected (inbred?)…and boring. These theories are strongly slanted to reflect a course-based approach to learning. Courses are effective for many types of learning (especially for learners starting out in a new field). For most of us, however, the bulk of our learning has come from informal methods.

As informal learning gains greater recognition, it’s worth exploring the different learning theories that inform this style of learning. Except for one problem – there aren’t any. Over the last six months, I’ve reviewed a significant number of theories, severely abused Google, and have yet to come across a theory that provides guidance for designing informal learning(IL). Many resources exist for designing communities of practice, but that’s only one type of informal learning. Many organizations don’t focus on IL – they assume that the learners (employees) will find the answer to their problems. Even companies who are advanced in this area often do little more than provide software to blog, ask questions, and try and access the tacit knowledge of others in the organization.

Informal learning is too important leave to chance. But why don’t we have theories that provide guidelines (I imagine “steps 1, 2, and 3″ approaches would be a bit at odds with informal learning) to designing in these environments? Or is the notion of informal learning to vague (free spirited?) and applying increased design is an effort in futility?

Perhaps the challenge with IL is the many different approaches a learner might take (i.e. how can we plan and design for it?). Perhaps even our notion of design is worth rethinking – do we design learning? Or do we design environments in which motivated learners can acquire what they need? Yet if we can’t impose some type of order on the process, is it really design? Will corporations invest in a learning theory that isn’t strongly tied to strategic goals?

I wonder which established processes and systems can inform designing for informal leanring? Complex adaptive systems? Or am I seeking a difficult solution when an easier one exists? Any thoughts?

8 Responses to “Theories for Informal Learning Design?”

  1. Jay Cross says:

    A few months ago I listened in on a webinar about “Formalizing Informal Learning.” The panelists wanted to supplement formal learning with informal support. I asked why it wasn’t the other way around. They refused to ask my questions. Informal is great because it’s not top down; it’s flexible. I think you’re on the right track with the analogy to nurturing a garden. Instructional designers should more closely resemble landscape architects. And as for complexity, that’s certainly part of the matter. Complexity brings uncertainty. Uncertainty undermines the teacher-as-ultimate-authority model. Essentially, with informal learning, we’re all in this together. It’s what Etienne Wenger calls the “horizontalization” of learning.

  2. Jamie Billingham says:

    A couple of things came to mind when I read this post.
    1. If we plan and design for it aren’t we formalizing it?
    2. If we create and use guidelines aren’t we formalizing it?
    3. Should we focus more on assessing it and leave the “informal” process of acquiring knowledge alone?
    4. Are we, sometimes, really talking about tranferrable knowledge/skills? i.e. What I learned when I was raising my kids helps me manage staff.
    This isn’t the first time I’ve pondered this whole area. Most of the training I do with staff is “informal”, on the job, just-in-time stuff. I try to formalize it by anticipating issues and sending out case studies or senarios that will hopefully facilitate the emergence of creative solutions and articulated knowledge. More often than not what I get is a link to a web page.
    My latest experiment in creating a space and environment to facilitate informal learning and and capture tacit knowledge (aren’t they really different parts of the same pie?) is a Moodle site. I’ve set it up with lots of open forums that can be used as blogs. It also has wiki’s and all the other really cool stuff that helps with connecting, sharing and collaborating.
    It’s be up for 2 weeks and the only person to register is our tech guy lol

  3. Hi Jamie – nice to hear from you again!
    I agree with your assertions that designing and creating guidelines are a formalizing process…but the formalizing shouldn’t be in the nature of how people learn. It should be (at best) about formalizing a tools and environments (I touched on this in a recent article: ). Unfortunately, most learning design is currently about formalizing the learning process. Formalizing the learning process largely eliminates the voice of the learner. This is desirable in many situations (i.e. compliance or safety training). In most situations, however, the learner should be able to actively negotiate (perhaps through selection of learning tasks or the type of content to pursue) what will be learned. Nebulous knowledge needs require flexible learning processes.
    Great point also about transferring knowledge. The notion of networked learning would indicate that learning which occurs in one “node” (i.e. life situation or circumstance (as you mention – raising children)) will transfer value to other nodes.
    I can relate to your experience of setting up a supposed “knowledge sharing” space and not having anyone show up. It’s happened to me on many occasions with communities I’ve set up for work and for other informal activities. I don’t think it’s the space itself that limits involvement. I think it’s the skill of users, the busy-ness of life, and the perceived value of contributing. I’ve advocated change management strategies in the past to address this (based heavily on Senge’s view on systems and piloting), but I have honestly not experienced any significant break through in getting these tools used. I wonder if it’s simply about being patient…or if I need to reconsider tools and strategy…

  4. Jay Cross says:

    I’m working on this one right now. I suspect to arrive more at a Pattern Language and general principles than at a lock-step approach like ADDIE. My personal viewpoint is that everything flows; that requires fluid design to work. I’ll be happy to share what I have when things gel.

  5. I learned a lot from reading the above conversation on informal learning and we are struggling with exactly the same issues. I believe that there are 2 things that we need to consider. I am not sure if they are true or work but I love to hear your thoughts.
    1) We need to focus on learning design instead of instructional design. Today much learning/training/education is still structured and organized top down. Instruction does not work in informal learning. Also focus on the environment and its context rather than on content. The learning content and resources are out there the question is how are we capable of designing an environment where we can connect the learner and the resources just in time. Focus on designing and supporting the environment. I agree with Jay’s comments on informal learning content and formal learning support.
    2) We need to focus on learner engagement. How do we engage the learner and make sure that he/she is participating. How do we mobilize them which is not an issue related to just informal learning but also is related to formal training and education. Maybe we should focus on emotions in order to solve the above.
    Our emotions and our rationality serve the same overall purpose in our daily lives, which is to identify an optimal solution to the problems we encounter, although we do not normally think consciously of this process, because the emotional insights are often based on sub-conscious sensory input. These sensory inputs play an important role for our learning, but we often underestimate their importance for our ability to learn and interpret.
    Learning Lab in Denmark does a lot of research in this area. Here you can find an article on Emotional Learning.

  6. Steffi says:

    Good evening,
    whilst not an expert in e-learning, I am thoroughly enjoying to follow this discussion. Totally agree that learner engagement is very important for informal learning and hard to achieve. Emotional learning sounds interesting however is connected to the feeling that there could be some manipulation unnoticed – in this case to the learner, so will have to be handled very openly. To me everything you are saying sounds just the right amount of freedom for learning and therefore very inviting. All I am asking me is whether the learners we are trying to reach and engage are ready for this kind of freedom? Aren’t we going that little bit too far not enabling the vast majority to follow and should move slightly slower or limit the amount of freedom and increase it slower? Sounds to me like many other developments as for example the famous book/school ’summerhill’ – just to name an example in the same area. In many ways the internet is too fast for a lot of people, not necessarily from a technical point of view but from the actual potential it is offering. I love the idea of blogging, wikis, communities and informal learning but how to take people with us?

  7. Dave Bauer says:

    Do you need to “design” informal learning. Isn’t it more about learning what you need, when you need it, in the way that works best for you? That is, some people learn best from books, or video, or interactive computer simulations, or hands on experimentation, or more accurately, most people learn different things in different ways.
    I feel the best effect would be to put learning back into life. Give learners back their curiousity and wonder in the world. Not everyone forgets the excitement of learing something new that small children have. I’d love to see how these kind of ideas of learning all the time, from everywhere, everything and everyone can work.

  8. Jeremy says:

    Isn’t “knowledge management” in the workplace an attempt to create informal learning environments? I hate corporate courses, but I’d love a fantastic company intranet that easily connects me to the person or documents I need when I’m trying to figure something out at work.
    Right now, we make do with our personal networks, Google, e-mail and tapping the shoulder of the connected cubicle-mate to ask them how to do/find it. Are you looking for something more formal than that?