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Musings on Informal Learning

Recently, we were updating a course we teach for ASTD called Essentials of Adult Learning. It is a 3-session, online, course and the last session is actually about anything BUT adult learning. The last session is called Outside the Boundaries of Adult Learning.  One of the topics within this last session is Informal Learning. You know – the notion that learning goes on all the time – whenever learning is needed – not necessarily within a prescribed period of time. 

Informal learning used to be a short mention in this course, but we decided to spend more time on it (hence the redesign) because “formal” training is really becoming a dinosaur these days. So, as part of the redesign, we read Jay Cross’ EXCELLENT book “Informal Learning” (2007 Pfeiffer). It’s a fast, informative and fun read.

Then, something interesting happened – we actually WITNESSED informal learning going on all around us! (You know how you never noticed there were so many [insert your car make and model here] on the road, until you bought one? Same concept.) 

Overheard in the gym lockeroom; two mid- to late-50’s women:
Woman #1 – Did you fix your washing machine yet?
Woman #2 – Almost. It took forever to figure out how to remove the (garbled) but I went to You Tube and found a video.
Woman #1 – That’s what I did last year when I had to fix mine! I found a video on line with step by step instructions.

Then… even closer to home…
The other day one of our colleagues needed to un-hide some columns in Excel. No clue how to do this. Alone in the office. Nobody on Skype she could ask (Informal learning solution #1). Hmmm how about Ask.com (Informal learning solution #2)?  Sure enough, the query: How do I unhide columns in Exel? produced the correct answer in about 12 seconds.  The solution was sooo simple and right at her fingertips. She went from problem to problem-solved in under one minute!  What if she had had to wait for a training class to learn this? Or… what if she HAD taken a training class where she DID learn this, but had since forgotten?  How is formal training the more appropriate answer? Granted, even a decade ago we could not have been as self-sufficient in terms of finding our own answers. But with the incredible (recent) power of technology and the internet – we trainers really have to stop and consider how crucial our role – and formally designed training programs – really are. 

And this thought is coming from a 100% instructional design firm! We make our living designing formal training. Go figure…