Encouraging informal learning

So how do we encourage students to learn outside the formal structures and processes we put in place across our institutions?

Informal learning in my opinion is learning that happens outside the “control” of the institution, but is part of the learning towards a qualification that a learner will undertake. This learning may happen within the institution, but will also happen outside at home, at work or in a coffee shop. This definition of informal learning differs from non-formal learning in that the activity of learning is still tied to the institution and the qualification, but is not a proscribed or set activity as set down by a practitioner or an academic.

So can you design informal learning?


There we go that was easy wasn’t it.

You see when you design informal learning, you formalise it and as a result it becomes formal learning.

So if you can’t design informal learning, then how do you design informal learning?

It’s not about designing informal learning, it’s about institutions facilitating and encouraging informal learning. If this happens then, with encouragement from practitioners (rather than setting activities) we should see more learners learning informally.

So how should institutions encourage informal learning?

Well the key really is to think about what actually facilitates and encourages informal learning.

It’s a combination of factors and can include design of learning spaces and the learning activities undertaken by the learners.

Creating the right contexts and environments for informal learning, will ensure that the concept of learn anywhere and anytime is encouraged and enhanced.

Don’t forget the coffee, well of course that could be tea, soft drinks, even cakes and chocolate. Having refreshments can aid the learning process, but also encourages people to be within an informal learning space.

So where is it written that learning has to be uncomfortable?

After I put some sofas into the libraries when I worked in a college, I was asked a few times why do I have sofas in the library when the library is a learning environment?

I would ask then, where is it written down that learning has to be uncomfortable? Where is the rulebook that states learners should sit at desks on hard chairs? Is it not possible for a learner to learn whilst sitting on a sofa? Why can’t a learning environment be enticing, comfortable and even a little bit social?

Sometimes you want to take learners out of their comfort zone, but I am not sure that means making them sit on hard benches! Providing spaces that learners like to be in, ones they will spend time in, combined with other factors could encourage informal learning. If all other factors were implemented, why would you spoil it all, by having an uncomfortable environment?

With dependency on the internet and connectivity for learning these days, it is critical when wanting to encourage learning to have ubiquitous, fast and dependable wifi. Any spaces will need to have the capacity for multiple connections, many learners will have two or more devices that use wifi.

Dropped connections, insufficient bandwidth can result in learners going elsewhere or doing something other than learning.

Another factor that often gets ignored is the impact building construction can have on 3G and 4G signals. If learners are using their own connections, then building construction should be considered in respect to that issue.

When creating spaces that will encourage informal learning, then it needs to provide different furniture for different activities.

Sofas for calm individual reflective thinking, tables and chairs for small group work. Quiet secluded places for focused work. Use appropriate furniture for small groups discussion.

As well as the physical aspects of the space, it is also useful to
think about the temperature, the lighting and ambient noise.
Use furniture, walls and plants to create quiet and less quiet spaces for example. Having the same kind of lighting across a space may be efficient, but using different kinds of lighting for different spaces can both encourage different kinds of activities.

As well as physical spaces, it is also useful when encouraging informal learning, to provide access to virtual collaborative spaces. This could be the vLE, but other options are available such as Slack, WhatsApp or even a Facebook group. It’s not just about providing access (through the firewall) but also about providing guidance and best practice so that learners have a better understanding of the benefits (and limitations) of these virtual collaborative tools. It would also make sense to check that the organisation has a sensible Social Media policy that reflects the use of social media tools for learning.

Think about any non-formal activity and ensure that student has access to appropriate resources (digital and non-digital). Is access to those resources mobile friendly? Will they work on the kinds of devices those learners are using when learning?

One thing to ensure is you have an appropriate Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy to facilitate informal learning.

So how are you creating spaces for and facilitating informal learning?

This blog post is inspired by a blog post on informal learning, that I wrote in 2010, and a cookery book activity from the ALT Winter Conference 2016.

One thought on “Encouraging informal learning”

  1. I agree, James, that creating environments in which people can learn in their own informal ways is vitally important. Actually I am becoming increasingly convinced that this is probably the most important role of a good teacher in any context. As Ken Robinson put it in one of his famous TED talks, we teachers have to “create the conditions under which [students] will begin to flourish”, and this flourishing can, I believe, only happen if we are successful in “creating spaces that will encourage informal learning”, in your words. As you say, we are talking about space both in the physical and virtual sense, but I think there is a third meaning of space that is important here. When someone says ‘I need some space’ they are very often referring to time as well as place. So I think that in order to promote informal learning we need to have the courage to make the formal learning environment less busy, less crowded with activity – which I realise is very difficult in the dysfunctionally pressured atmosphere of present-day learning institutions.

    Which brings me on to the important issue of institutional control, which you touch on near the start of your post, James. If I were a factory manager (which I am not) I would need to control both the output and every linear stage of the process. But as a vegetable gardener (which I am) I accept that I can never control the output, nor the stages of the growing process. My job is to create the best possible environments to suit the different needs of different plants, and let them get on with the growing. Here’s the whole of the paragraph of Ken Robinson’s talk from which I quoted above:

    “We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.”

    Earlier in the same TED talk Ken said:

    “One of the real challenges is to innovate fundamentally in education. Innovation is hard, because it means doing something that people don’t find very easy, for the most part. It means challenging what we take for granted, things that we think are obvious. The great problem for reform or transformation is the tyranny of common sense.”


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