“Any occasion is good for learning!” could be the motto of informal learning, this type of learning without structure or organization that we all do on a daily basis without realizing it and whose possibilities are attracting increasing interest, especially in the workplace. This way of learning is in line with the current and future needs of workers and employers alike for autonomy and continuous development. Here are some highlights of this type of learning which, to be optimized, needs to be first acknowledged!
Cacophony and craze. In terms of terminology and theory, proposals have abounded in recent years trying to identify the drivers of informal learning. While it is necessary for theorists to eventually classify it, we can presume that the abundance of ideas generated by informal learning reveals a significant interest in its potential. As we stated at the outset, this learning is particularly relevant to the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s labour market.
Self-training through experience. The most common notion that emerges when it comes to informal learning is that of the experiential learning or “self-training” experience. For most researchers who have studied the subject in adult education, informal learning is seen as “acquisition of knowledge related to experience” and refers to “a double logic of experimentation and the construction of professional identity” (Cristol and Muller, 2013).
Concrete examples. At work, informal learning can be conducted with others, but also on its own. It can take forms as diverse as searching online for tips to improve oneself, showing a new employee how to use a tool with which he or she is not familiar, or sharing with one’s colleagues an approach that has been proved successful in previous professional activities. Informal learning can be applied to areas of knowledge as diverse as IT, health and safety, and management — to name a few.
Formal, informal and non-formal. The categorization of learning according to the triptych “formal, informal and non-formal” is traditionally based on the context in which learning takes place. Learning is said to be “formal” when it occurs in a formal educational setting, while it is considered “informal” when it occurs outside the classroom or in training. “Non-formal” learning, on the other hand, refers to structured and planned learning that occurs outside a formal educational setting.
The triptych that divides. Some researchers vigorously challenge the relevance, and even the logic, of the triptych of “formal, informal and non-formal,” particularly when applied in the workplace (Billett, 2016). It should be added that most researchers confine themselves solely to the notions of formal and informal; and that the majority of those who use the term “non-formal” do so to replace the notion of informal, which they reject (Hart, 2013).
Nevertheless, the triptych was somewhat validated at the beginning of the 2000s when the European Commission and CEDEFOP* used it in their Communication for the establishment of a European area of lifelong learning.
From formality to informality: a continuum. Informal learning was initially defined as opposed to formal learning, this type of learning that occurs in an official educational setting. To this dichotomous vision, researchers have proposed a new model for analyzing learning situations by classifying them into a continuum from formal to informal, considering different aspects (the learning process, its location and setting, its purpose and content) (Colley, Hodkinson and Malcom, 2008).
In this idea of a continuum, informal learning can be defined, as Michael Eraut explains in the article Informal learning in the workplace, as “learning that comes closer to the informal end than the formal end of a continuum. Characteristics of the informal end of the continuum of formality include implicit, unintended, opportunistic and unstructured learning and the absence of a teacher. In the middle come activities like mentoring, while coaching is rather more formal in most settings.”
Make this “invisible” learning visible. The main weakness of informal learning is that, although ubiquitous, it is paradoxically “invisible,” since it is external to institutional educational structures. Employers and workers alike are not — insufficiently — aware of its existence and value, and therefore cannot derive maximum benefit from it. Raising awareness in companies about the existence of this form of learning, giving workers the tools to optimize it, and creating an internal culture that values it are ways to make it more visible. And all these means can be promoted through online training!
* European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training