MET:Informal Learning

From UBC Wiki

This page was originally authored by Gordana Jugo (2010).
Edited by Adam Matthews (01.2016)

Informal learning is happening all the time everywhere around us: at homes, in the street, at workplace, on the web and so on. It happens to all of us in our everyday life whether we are aware of it or not. The term informal learning is derived from its opposite, formal learning, which has been valued over informal learning for a long time. Recently, with development of new perspectives on education, the importance of informal learning has started to grow and should continue to grow until formal learning will have been established as an essential component of lifelong learning and the Knowledge Society. Some elements of informal learning, which could be enhanced with technology, could be used in formal settings to improve the learning outcomes.

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Figure 1: A child immersed in informal learning

Definition of Informal Learning

Informal learning is commonly defined in negative terms as learning that takes place outside formal educational institutions such as schools, universities etc. However, it is better to define informal learning using its positive attributes. In this respect, Lucas and Moreira (2009, p. 327) define informal learning as „a vital and continuous process, along which people gain skills, attitudes and knowledge that derive from their daily activities as well as from the multiple contexts they experience.“

For better understanding of the term formal learning, it is necessary to define its relationship with the terms formal and non-formal learning. The terms formal learning and informal learning are seen as opposite. Many resources treat non-formal learning as having some aspects of both formal and informal learning, while some resources use terms informal and non-formal learning as synonyms.

While formal learning takes place in the hierarchically structured education system from primary school through university including specialized programmes and institutions for full-time technical and professional training, informal learning takes place through daily experience and environment including work and play, mass media, family, neighbours and so on. Non-formal learning is any organized educational activity taking place outside the formal system (Scheerens, 2009).

Taxonomy of Informal Learning

By using two main categories (intentionality and consciousness) Schugurensky (2000) developed taxonomy of informal learning shown in Table 1.

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Table 1: Three forms of informal learning (Schugurensky, 2000)

According to Schugurensky (2000), self-directed learning refers to 'learning projects' carried out by individuals who want to learn something and are aware that they have learned something. An example of self-directed learning is a person who reads books and goes to museums in order to learn more about his or her town history. Incidental learning happens when the learner does not have any intention to learn something out of a specific experience, but after the experience the learner becomes aware that learning has taken place. An example of incidental learning is a toddler who touches a sharp object and learns that it hurts. Socialization is internalization of values, attitudes, behaviours, skills, etc. in everyday life. For example, a toddler learns native language through socialization.

Pumpkin Angle Explores: Taxonomy of Formal Learning In this exciting episode of Pumpkin Angle Explores, we gain a little insight into Ellie's troubled past while looking into how she got to be so smart. Informal learning has played a large role in her life. Join her as she reflects upon her experience.

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Characteristics of Informal Learning

Informal learning is controlled and managed by the learners itself, either individually or collectively. There is no control of any formal institution, no externally imposed curriculum or criteria, no teacher or an institutionally authorized instructor and no assessment or certification. The structure of informal learning is „open, decentralized, distributed, dynamic, and democratic and above all connected – the kind of properties that can only be found in “networks, as opposed to hierarchies.”“ (Lucas & Moreira, 2009, p. 327) Furthermore, informal learning is organic/holistic, contextual, activity- and experience-based (Becket & Hager in Hager & Halliday, 2006).

Relationhship of Informal Learning to Other Educational Concepts

Informal Learning and Communities of Practice

Informal learning takes place in Communities of Practice as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.“ (Wenger, 2006). Gray (2004) shows that the online community of practice can serve as a forum for informal learning between members of a professional association.

Informal Learning and Web 2.0

The nature of Web 2.0 corresponds in many aspects with the nature of informal learning. Lucas and Moreira (2009, p. 328) argue that „the network structure is dynamic, distributed and decentralized with no need for a central entity to control it; each individual controls his/her network connections and learning happens when we connect“. Social networking tools allow the personal control, social interaction and collaboration thus providing the means for informal learning.

Fusion of Formal and Informal Learning

Continuous engagement of learners in seamless and contextual learning characterising informal learning makes it an appealing concept to educators in formal settings. How can educators use informal learning to improve learning outcomes in formal education institutions? Hall (2009) proposes use of Web 2.0 for enabling learners to fuse their informal and formal educational spaces. In development of a personal learning environment (PLE) learners gather, technologically or cognitively, tools, networks and content from a range of formal and informal places. In this process both learning and the produced artefacts are controlled by the individual learner.

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Figure 2: e-Learning in context, a Fused Learner Integration model (Hall, 2009)

Incidence of Informal Learning in Canada

Livingstone (2007) reports that the 2004 Work and Lifelong Learning (WALL) survey shows that 91% of adults in Canada participate in intentional informal learning activities 14 hours per week in average. He also states that 84% of workers in Canada find informal learning the most important source of job-specific knowledge, while only 16% give priority to employer training programs. Nevertheless, „informal learning is still the invisible part of the adult learning iceberg.“ (Livingstone, 2007, p. 21) The results of efforts to promote informal learning are still limited, such as work of Canadian Association for Prior Learning Assessment (CAPLA) and RecognitionForLearning (RFL), CAPLA's online community of practice dedicated to prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR).

Shift the Balance

Formal learning is still valued over informal learning. There is the need to shift the balance from formal towards informal learning. According to Hager and Halliday (2006), informal learning should have the vital role in understanding of lifelong learning and the Knowledge Society.

A Stop Animation Video:


Hager, P. & Halliday, J. (2006). Recovering informal learning: Wisdom, judgement and community. Dordrecht: Springer.

Hall, R. (2009). Towards a fusion of formal and informal learning environments: The impact of the read/write web. Electronic Journal of e-Learning. 7 (1), 29 - 40. Retrieved from

Livingstone, D. W. (2007). Re-exploring the icebergs of adult learning: comparative findings of the 1998 and 2004 Canadian surveys of formal and informal learning practices. The Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education, 20 (2), 1-24.

Lucas, M. & Moreira, A. (2009). Bridging formal and informal learning – A case study on students’ perceptions of the use of social networking tools. In U. Cress, V. Dimitrova & M. Specht (Eds.): EC-TEL 2009 (pp. 325–337). Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.

Scheerens, J. (2009). Aims and scope of the study. In D. N. Aspin, J. Chapman & J. Scheerens. (Eds.), Informal learning of active citizenship at school : an international comparative study in seven european countries.(pp. 1-10). Dordrecht, NLD: Springer Netherlands.

Schugurensky, D. (2000). The forms of informal learning: Towards a conceptualization of the field, NALL Working Paper 19. Retrieved from

Wenger, E. (2006, June). Communities of practice. Retrieved from

Video References

Bates, T. (2014, October 1). The role of community of practice in a digital age. Retrieved from:

Dewey, J. (2008). Democracy and Education. Retrieved from

Hager, P. & Halliday, J. (2006). Recovering informal learning: Wisdom, judgement and community. Dordrecht: Springer.

Jeffs, T. & Smith, M. (2005). Informal education: Conversation, democracy and learning. Educational Heretics Press.

Lave , J. & Wenger, E., (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (2015). Introduction to communities of practice. Retrieved from:

External Links

Informal Learning

Introducing Informal Learning

The Encyclopaedia of Informal Education

The research network for New Approaches to Lifelong Learning NALL