Every morning, my email is littered with very basic questions about informal learning. I’ve been ranting about informal and computer-supported learning in organizations for twelve years now. I’m the Johnny Appleseed of networked, social learning
I make 95% of my work available on the net at no charge. You can find it in blogs, presentations, articles, books, YouTube, free book chapters. Google “informal learning jay cross;” go to the Informal Learning Page, for an overview and links..
(20 minutes later) I just set up the Jaycross FAQ. It’s going to encourage people who want the basics to read this interview with the eLearning Coach before asking questions. It’s all in there.
Welcome to readers around the planet! This is the website of Connie Malamed, an eLearning, information and visual designer with a Masters Degree in Instructional Design & Technology and 20 years of experience in the trenches. The eLearning Coach is where I share actionable strategies, practical content, personal reviews and resources to help you design, develop and understand online learning.
Connie: A funny thing happened while we were learning informally. A few astute people noticed it, wrote about it and brought it to the forefront of the learning arena. In fact, the buzz about informal learning seems to grow every day. You’ll find it discussed in training forums, featured in conferences and the subject of many presentations.
Social learning technologies, which often facilitate informal learning, seem to have paved the way for greater interest in this approach. So I think readers of The eLearning Coach would appreciate an interview with a person who wrote the book on the subject … literally. Meet Jay Cross, author of Informal Learning, speaker and consultant.
Connie: What is your definition of informal learning?
Jay: Learning is that which enables you to participate successfully in life, at work, and in the groups that matter to you. Informal learning is the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way people learn to do their jobs.
Formal learning is like riding a bus: the driver decides where the bus is going; the passengers are along for the ride. Informal learning is like riding a bike: the rider chooses the destination, the speed, and the route. The rider can take a detour at a moment’s notice to admire the scenery or go to the bathroom. Learning is adaptation. Taking advantage of the double meaning of the word network, to learn is to optimize the quality of one’s networks.
That said, all learning is part formal and part informal; neither exist in pure, unadulterated form. The issue we’re really addressing is whether the learning is mainly formal (imposed) or informal (sought).
Three hallmarks of formal learning are: a curriculum, a schedule and recognition upon completion (even if only a checkmark in an LMS).
Coach: What are examples of offline informal learning?
Jay: Learning to walk, talk, eat, kiss, smooch, run or ride a bicycle.
Coach: And examples of online informal learning?
Jay: Getting an answer from the Help Desk, asking Twitter friends for an answer, looking at a FAQ on a wiki.
Coach: What motivational factors underlie informal learning?
Jay: The primary motivation is needing to learn something in order to do something. There are so many forms of learning, it’s tough to generalize. I might want to learn Italian to foster my relationship with Sophia. I might learn to program Cisco routers in order to get a raise. I might seek an answer to a customer’s question.
Coach: How do you think cognitive processes differ when someone is learning informally as opposed to formally?
Jay: Generally informal learning is demand-driven. I’m more interested because I’ve chosen the subject matter and extent of the learning. It’s likely I’ll reinforce my learning almost immediately and that will make it stick. (Can anybody really remember the content of their high school coursework?)
Coach: Formal and structured learning can potentially promote efficient organization in long-term memory. Would this be an advantage of formal learning over informal?
Jay: Organization in a curriculum isn’t efficient unless it’s the right stuff. Generally, informal learning will take less time and effort to learn an equivalent amount of material.
Coach: Is there more potential for picking up incorrect information or developing inaccurate mental models when learning informally?
Jay: There’s potential for picking up incorrect information from informal learning or formal learning or newspapers or television or one’s brother. Learners need to be able to apply tests of reasonableness. Can the information be substantiated? Do others agree? Has it been vetted by thousands of others? Does it make sense to me?
Coach: Are there advantages to informal collaborative learning as compared to informal individualized learning?
Jay: Learning is social. Most learning is collaborative. Other people are providing the context and the need, even if they’re not in the room. Relative advantages would depend on the nature of what’s being learned. I don’t sense that there are absolutes.
Coach: How can organizations optimize the workplace for informal learning?
Jay: I’ve written books on this, but in short, organizations need to trust their people. People confronted by high expectations tend to live up to them. (And when confronted with low expectations, they tend to sink down to a low level.)
There are hundreds of smaller interventions that nurture informal learning. Examples might be setting up facilities to encourage conversation, providing time and encouragement of reflection, displaying graphics that explain company processes, building a social network infrastructure, setting up ways to share information, and viewing learning as part of every job.
There’s a lengthy summary of this at Internet Time Wiki. That’s the “informal learning page” I set up just for people who are curious about informal learning. You can download book chapters, watch a video, find white papers, etc.
Thanks for a great interview, Jay!
You’re quite welcome, Connie. I’m on a crusade to show businesspeople the enormous potential return on small investments in informal learning. Investments in learning return huge amounts; neglect of informal and social learning both demeans employees and leaves gobs of money on the table. Thanks for putting this together.