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Informal learning is semi-structured and occurs in a variety of places, such as learning at home, work, and through daily interactions and shared relationships among members of society. For many learners this includes language acquisition, cultural norms and manners. Informal learning for young people is an ongoing process that also occurs in a variety of places, such as out of school time, as well as in youth programs and at community centers.



In the context of corporate training and education, the term informal learning is widely used to describe the many forms of learning that takes place independently from instructor-led programs: books, self-study programs, performance support materials and systems, coaching, communities of practice, and expert directories.



Formal and nonformal education. To fully understand informal learning it is useful to define the terms "formal" and "non-formal" education. Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007), state: "Formal education is highly institutionalized, bureaucratic, curriculum driven, and formally recognized with grades, diplomas, or certificates" (p. 29). Merriam and others (2007), also state: "The term non-formal has been used most often to describe organized learning outside of the formal education system. These offerings tend to be short-term, voluntary, and have few if any prerequisites. However they typically have a curriculum and often a facilitator" (p. 30).Non-formal learning can also include learning in the formal arena when concepts are adapted to the unique needs of individual students (Burlin, 2009).



Informal learning experiences. Informal knowledge is information that has not been externalized or captured and exists only inside someone's head. (Grebow, David, "At the Water Cooler of Learning" in Cross, J., & Quinn, C. "Transforming Culture: An Executive Briefing on the Power of Learning", Char­lottesville: University of Virginia, 2002) To get at the knowledge, you must locate and talk to that person. Examples of such informal knowledge transfer include instant messaging, a spontaneous meeting on the Internet, a phone call to someone who has information you need, a live one-time-only sales meeting introducing a new product, a chat-room in real time, a chance meeting by the water cooler, a scheduled Web-based meeting with a real-time agenda, a tech walking you through a repair process, or a meeting with your assigned mentor or manager.



Experience indicates that almost all real learning for performance is informal (The Institute for Research on Learning, 2000, Menlo Park), and the people from whom we learn informally are usually present in real time. We all need that kind of access to an expert who can answer our questions and with whom we can play with the learning, practice, make mistakes, and practice some more. It can take place over the telephone or through the Internet, as well as in person. Informal access is not built into the formal learning process, the chances of getting past knowing to doing will be difficult at best.



A study of time-to-performance done by Sally Anne Moore at Digital Equipment Corporation in the early 1990s, (Moore, Sally-Ann, "Time-to-Learning", Digital Equipment Corporation, 1998) graphically shows this disparity between formal and informal learning.



 



In the UK, the government formally recognized the benefits of informal learning in "The Learning Revolution" White Paper published on March 23, 2009 (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2009). The Learning Revolution Festival ran in October 2009 and funding has been used by libraries—which offer a host of informal learning opportunities such as book groups, "meet the author" events and family history sessions—to run activities such as The North East Festival of Learning.


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