Book Review: Informal Learning Basics

Saul Carliner’s Latest Book Discusses Social Learning’s Importance and Techniques for Implementation

Pedagogy and Learning, Research Comments (0)

The experience of being in a classroom and listening to an expert teacher present information on a topic is nearly universal. Given that the institution of schools is the overwhelmingly dominant model of places where people learn, it takes some courage to see things differently and to break away from this paradigm. One place where this has happened is in museums, which are venerated institutions of learning but do not use a teaching model that requires the subjugation of students to the expertise and evaluation of the teacher. Instead, visitors to museums choose their own pace and decide what they would like to examine from a wide range of choices of exhibits. The same model holds for zoos and art galleries.

Informal Learning Basics book coverInterestingly, it is the use of mobile phones in museums where we see some of the first applications of mobile learning in the 1990s. Learning in museums was also the subject of Saul Carliner‘s 1995 doctoral dissertation and a subsequent 1998 article in Performance Improvement Quarterly. In spite of a long gestation, this experience, and Saul’s subsequent work in learning technologies, all comes together in his newest book, Informal Learning Basics, just published by ASTD Press (2012).

The book it begins with a caution – “what’s ‘informal’ to some is not considered informal by others.” The term informal learning is often contrasted with formal learning and confused with other terms such as “nonformal learning,” “incidental learning,” “self-directed learning,” “transfer of training,” and “ubiquitous learning.” (I would also add the term “free choice learning” which is still used by people discussing museums). Saul zeros into the concept of learner control as being critical in defining informal learning. His definition of informal learning in the workplace is “situations in which some combination of the process, location, purpose, and content of instruction are determined by the worker, who may or may not be conscious that an instructional event has occurred.”

One of the reasons for the rise of informal learning in organizations is the shift in the contract between workers and employers. This has resulted in more temporary workers who often have to come to a job fully trained or pay for their own training. It is also driven by the failure of formal learning to provide useful and up-to-date content, as well as the hassles of travel, high costs, and lack of flexible hours that often accompany classroom-based learning.

In his book, Saul cautions that informal learning is not the be-all and end-all of training. Indeed, formal learning and informal learning are often interwoven and are part of a “larger learning puzzle.” This point is the first of nine principles of informal learning discussed in Chapter 2. The others are:

  • Objectives play a different role in informal learning than in formal learning.
  • Executive and management support strengthens informal learning efforts in the workplace.
  • A variety of solutions support informal learning.
  • Left on their own, informal learners follow their own paths.
  • Many informal learners have an incomplete toolkit of learning techniques.
  • Informal learning is often a social activity.
  • Evaluating informal learning challenges existing and evaluation methodologies.
  • The nature of informal learning substantially differs from that of formal learning.

The rest of the book is an elaboration of these principles. There’s lots in this book that is very practical and will be of use to learning and development professionals. For example, the discussion of the lifecycle of a job shows that different kinds of learning and content are needed at each stage of the cycle. Additionally, this book contains tips on how training and development professionals can support informal learning for their employees, as well as lists and descriptions of group activities and individual activities that promote informal learning.

The last two chapters of the book focus on how to use technology to support informal learning and how to evaluate informal learning. While a wide variety of technologies are mentioned, I feel that these are the two weakest chapters of the book in that various technologies are listed but there is little in-depth discussion about how to use these technologies for informal learning or for the evaluation of informal learning.

This is of particular interest to us at Float because we have developed Tappestry, a mobile app that allows individuals and groups to track their informal learning in a variety of ways. They can use, as is suggested in this book, a combination of self-assessments, mini-portfolios listing their achievements and aspirations, and ratings of their own and others’ learning experiences, all from a mobile phone or tablet.

Because the mobile learning industry is rapidly changing, the lack of discussion about it in this book is understandable, as the manuscript was probably written about a year ago. Despite that, I strongly recommend Informal Learning Basics because it is highly useful to all learning and development professionals who want a grounding in the importance of and techniques for fostering informal learning.

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Gary Woodill is a senior analyst with Float, as well as CEO of i5 Research. He Gary Woodill is a senior analyst for Float Mobile Learning. Gary conducts research and market analyses, as well as assessments and forecasting for emerging technologies. Gary is the co-editor of "Mastering Mobile Learning," author of “The Mobile Learning Edge,” and the co-author of “Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds.” He also presents at conferences and is the author of numerous articles and research reports on emerging learning technologies. Gary holds a doctor of education degree from the University of Toronto.

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On November 16, 2012
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