Designing Informal Learning

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.



There is always a but…

You see informal learning is such a valuable way of learning for learners that institutions are often thinking about how to design informal learning activities… of course as we know, that means it becomes a formal learning activity.

It might be useful at this point to define what I mean by informal learning, how it differs from formal learning and the implication of using the term as opposed to non-formal learning.

Formal learning is is learning that happens within a structure prescribed by an institution. This learning may happen within a classroom or lecture theatre, but could also happen outside the institutions. It will involve set tasks and activities and a timeframe. Examples could include:

  • a lecture on macroeconomics in a lecture theatre
  • a lesson on statistics in a classroom
  • a field trip to look at tourist sites in Gloucester

Formal learning is very much about learning that is planned, organised and assessed. There is structure, constraints and expectations.

Non-formal learning is learning that happens not just outside the confines of the institution, but also outside the qualificational framework. This learning is often ad hoc and unplanned. Examples could include:

  • reading a book on political history on a train
  • using the web to discover how to write an iPhone Application through sites, forums and iTunes U
  • watching a television programme on archaeology

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. Examples could include:

  • an economics student reading books on macroeconomics in the college library
  • media students discussing an assignment on media channels in the college cafe
  • photography student checking websites on photography in Starbucks
  • managers in a business discussing their management course over lunch

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.

So can practitioners design informal learning activities?


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

If learning activities are dependent on learners learning knowledge and demonstrating that they understand and can apply that knowledge through an essay or an assignment, then traditional learning spaces are usually going to be sufficient. Learning at home on a desk is probably quite normal for this kind of individual activity.

However once practitioners think more creatively about learning activities and learners are given more choice and control about how they undertake their learning, then the space in which the learning takes place becomes much more important.

The learning space and importantly the informal learning space is really important if learners are to take advantage of the time and space to learn. Learners will learn in a variety of places both in and out of the institution.

Inside the institution, we need to consider how the spaces we provide allow for informal learning. In the past we generally divided spaces into learning spaces such as the library and social spaces like the refectory or cafe. If we are to encourage informal learning, then we need to create social learning spaces. Usually (in the past) libraries were silent working areas, recently quiet working is now the norm. Good library design allows for a variety of learning activities from quiet individual work, to collaborative group work. Space needs to allow for the use of both new technologies, user owned technologies and traditional resources such as books and journals.

Questions you need to ask about your learning spaces?

Are the computers all in one place in the learning centre? Or are they spread about the space to encourage group working, working with non-digital (traditional) resources and individual working.

Do you provide a wireless network to allow users to use their own devices? Does the wireless network “work” with mobile devices such as the iPhone or other smartphones? What barriers are in the way when a learner brings in their device? Do they need to register the device? Have it PAT tested? Are there power points for user owned devices? How simple is it for users to charge their devices?

Can learners access digital and online resources via the wireless network? Can they access online storage?

Are users allowed to use their mobile phones in the learning space? Not for loud conversations, but for internet, SMS or listening to audio and video content.

What about the coffee?

Likewise what about the traditional social space? The focus is probably on moving people through the space as quickly as possible through a short lunch hour! They are probably designed for eating and drinking and not studying. They are probably loud noisy places, some may even have loud music!

These spaces are fully utilised during refreshment breaks and are designed to ensure as many people as possible can get something to eat and drink before they then move onto the next lesson or workshop. That obviously means at other times, the space is quieter and accessible for learning; but is it accessible and accomodating to those learners who want to use the space for learning?

Are they fully open plan? Are there spaces for small group working? Do you divide the space out or are there no divisions?

Are there different kinds of furniture to cater for different needs? Are there chairs, tables, sofas?

Are there different areas for different activities? Quiet spaces for individual working or reflection? Group spaces for discussion and collaboration? Open spaces for debate?

Are there charging points for learner owned devices?

Is it purely a self-clear area, or do the staff take pride to ensure that the space is attractive and conducive to study and learning?

Has any consideration been given to the sort of food and drink available? Are healthy snacks promoted?

What about the coffee?

Yes it is easier to design spaces for learning and design spaces for social use. It is more challenging to create learning spaces that encourage informal and social learning. As demands on space continues to grow and demand for more learner-led learning, it is important that institutions consider much more how their spaces can be used for informal learning.

4 thoughts on “Designing Informal Learning”

  1. If we think of informal learning as a practice (sometimes unconscious) then design as part of the learner’s practice becomes a means and outcome of them being reflective and assuming responsibility for their own learning development.

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