Informal Learning: New Challenges for Designers and Educators

By Till Credner (Own work: [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

By Till Credner (Own work: [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

I first realized the power of Informal or Out-of-School Learning as I lay looking up at the stars in my backyard with my young daughter. We lay together looking up, and I pulled out my phone and opened up a Sky/Constellation science app. Together, we looked at the stars, and she looked up information and saw high quality photos about constellations, stars and other objects that we couldn’t view without this augmented reality. In that moment, she was engaged in this informal learning in a way very different from a classroom setting. It was a great experience.

Informal learning happens all around us. Many educators and instructional designers are taking notice. According to Julian Sefton-Greene, there are two scales to consider when looking at informal learning. First, learning can be considered on a scale from informal to formal in terms of setting (e.g., in-school vs. out of school). Secondly, learning can be considered in terms of the curriculum (e.g., self guided educational apps vs. a highly structured MOOC). Considering where your designs fall on this scale can be a powerful tool for educators and designers as they look at ways to improve learning.

Informal Learning Scale

The Indian edublogger Sahana Chattopadhyay explores how the changing landscape of work and learning impacts the requirements for learning material, the design process and the skill profile of instructional designers. Chattopadhyay argues that instructional design needs to respond to an education landscape that is characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA).

“An instructional designer today is required to not only understand the fundamentals of good instructional design but must also expand his/her skill sets to include an understanding of community management, the spectrum of learning from formal to informal, the impact of social, local and mobile on user behaviour, the need to equip users with self-managed learning skills”.

A first step to develop these skills is to develop an understanding of user behavior and learner activities that span formal and informal learning. Here is a brief list of informal learning articles and publications from 2014. It offers a gateway into current research on social learning activities, online communities and informal learning in a variety of contexts.

Further Reading

Chunngam, B., Chanchalor, S. & Murphy, E. (2014). Membership, participation and knowledge building in virtual communities for informal learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 45(5), 863-879. Retrieved from

This study, looks at the design of a virtual community for informal learning about Thai herbs. The community relied on social networking tools and a database of expert knowledge as well as community coordinators. Results show findings that relate the importance of access to expert knowledge and interest in a subject in informal learning contexts.

Ferguson, R., Faulkner, D., Whitelock, D., & Sheehy, K. (2014). Pre-teens’ informal learning with ICT and Web 2.0. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, (ahead-of-print), 1-19.

This study looks at the habits of pre-teen informal learning with Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and Web 2.0 tools. There are still restrictions of how technology is used in many school environments and this study takes a look at some of the distinctive elements of pre-teens use of these technologies.

Halverson, E. R., & Sheridan, K. M. (2014). The Maker Movement in Education. Harvard Educational Review, 84(4), 495-504.

In this essay, the authors provide context, give theoretical background, and consider the role of making in education. This form of informal learning is increasingly popular with the decrease in price of 3D printers, Laser Cutters, and other consumer manufacturing equipment. They finish with exploring the potential pedagogical impacts on teaching and learning.

Hou, H. T., Wu, S. Y., Lin, P. C., Sung, Y. T., Lin, J. W., & Chang, K. E. (2014). A Blended Mobile Learning Environment for Museum Learning. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 17(2).

This study looked at three varieties of museum learning. (1) The traditional museum visit accompanied by a learning website, (2) paper – based learning sheets used during
museum visits accompanied by a learning website, and (c) an interactive mobile learning system used during museum visits accompanied by a learning website.

Jones, W. M., & Dexter, S. (2014). How teachers learn: the roles of formal, informal, and independent learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 62(3), 367-384.

In this qualitative study of math and science teachers at two middle schools, the authors iden-
tifies how their system for learning to integrate technology into their teaching goes beyond
what school leaders typically consider when planning for teachers’ learning. It considers the roles of formal, informal and independent learning for today’s teachers.

Maier, M., Rothmund, T., Retzbach, A., Otto, L., & Besley, J. C. (2014). Informal learning through science media usage. Educational Psychologist, (ahead-of-print), 1-18.

This article reviews current research on informal science learning through news media. Based on a descriptive model of media-based science communication the authors distinguish between (a) the professional routines by which journalists select and depict scientific information in traditional media and (b) the psychological processes that account for how media recipients select, process and integrate such information.

Schreurs, B., Van den Beemt, A., Prinsen, F., Witthaus, G., Conole, G. & de Laat, M. (2014). An investigation into social learning activities by practitioners in open educational practices. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 15(4).

This research investigates how educational practitioners participate in activities around open educational practices (OEP). The results show how practitioners of six different OEPs learn, while acting and collaborating through a combination of offline and online networks.

Song, D., & Lee, J. (2014). Has Web 2.0 revitalized informal learning? The relationship between Web 2.0 and informal learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning.

Web 2.0 technology allows researchers to shed a new light on the importance and prevalence of informal learning. The present study investigates the relationship between Web 2.0 levels and the evaluation of over 250 informal learning websites.

Ziegler, M. F., Paulus, T., & Woodside, M. (2014). Understanding Informal Group Learning in Online Communities Through Discourse Analysis. Adult Education Quarterly, 64(1), 60-78.

While informal learning may tend to occur as an individual endeavor, group learning can also be powerful. This study presents an exploratory analysis of a single thread from an online hiking community to introduce discourse analysis as a framework to study informal learning as a group meaning-making process.

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