Formal learning empowers the teacher. Informal Learning empowers the student.

Any of my good colleagues and friends who are doing research into college students and social/digital technology will tell you that the distinction between formal and informal learning is an important one to understand.  Small and Vorgan (2011) state that technology has ushered in “a new culture of communication—no longer dictated by time, place, or even how one looks at the moment” (Kindle Locations 1458-1459).  This liberating and democratizing force is allowing individuals to access learning and educational content with ease and in ways not previously possible.  It has also highlighted a distinction between how we view learning, specifically “informal” versus “formal” learning (Bull et. al., 2008, Downes, 2005; Kurkela, 2011; Greenhow & Robelia, 2004).

Informal Learning PosterFormal learning typically occurs in a physical setting, such as in a classroom, and involves a highly regulated environment that regiments student behavior and the learning process. A teacher, or an agent, directs this environment and prescribes what will be learned and how it will be learned (Greenhow & Robelia, 2009). Davidson and Goldberg (2010) refer to these institutions as “cloning cultures” or spaces where “cloned learning” and “cloned knowledge” are standardized and delivered in uniform ways.

Stilted environments like the modernist environments of the contemporary school system stand in stark contrast to the vision of learning promulgated on the Web. Online student learning culture privileges openness and freedom. It allows everyone the ability to actively participate and share with his or her peers. It also allows one to customize and remix his or her own education. Informal learning, which occurs outside of the institutional context, holds more salience in the present day context.

DePaul_Informal_Learning_022912Informal learning’s key advantage is its flexibility. Web 2.0 technologies decenter the institution and the instructor. They have the power to “transform courses to a student-centered model, averting some of the disadvantages of the teacher-centered model traditionally found in higher education” (Lynk Wartman & Martínez Alemán, 2009, Kindle Locations 2378-2379). Informal learning also possesses “unique properties” that present compelling alternatives to formal instruction (Ito et. al., 2008).

Informal learning is a voluntary effort, driven by and motivating the learner. It encourages the exploration of topics in an interdisciplinary way through the use of distributed networks of people and information (Bull et. al., 2008; National Science Foundation, 2006, Section I, Introduction; Greenhow & Robelia, 2004). Davidson and Goldberg (2010) refer to this as “digital learning” or “participatory” learning. The sheer size and global nature of the Web allows one to engage in “many-to-many” and “many-to-multitudes” communication (Davidson & Goldberg, 2010). This communication allows one to decouple learning from the institution. Learning is “unschooled,” promoting a “learner-centered democratic approach to education… [where] the learner chooses what, where, how, and when they want to learn something” (Ricci, Laricchia, & Desmarais, 2010, p. 141).  This informal, unschooled learning is increasingly important in twenty-first century contexts where skills and competencies are more important than knowledge.

Are you ready for this change?  Are you ready for the challenge?


Bull, G., Thompson, A., Searson, M., Garofalo, J., Park, J., Young, C., & Lee, J. (2008). Connecting informal and formal learning: Experiences in the age of participatory media. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 8(2), 100-107.

Davidson, C. N., & Goldberg, D. T. (2010). The future of thinking: Learning Institutions for the digital age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Downes, S. (2005, October). E-learning 2.0. eLearn Magazine, 10, 1-6. doi: 10.1145/1104966.1104968

Greenhow, C., & Robelia, B. (2004, June). Informal learning and identity formation in online social networks. Learning Media and Technology, 34(2), 119-140. doi: 10.1080/17439880902923580

Greenhow, C., & Robelia, B. (2009, June). Informal learning and identity formation in online social networks. Learning Media and Technology, 34(2), 119-140. doi: 10.1080/17439880902923580

Ito, M., Horst, H., Bittanti, M., boyd, d., Herr-Stephenson, B., Lange, P. G., Pascoe, C. J., & Robinson, L. (2008, November). Living and learning with new media: Summary of the findings from the digital youth project [White paper]. Retrieved from

Kurkela, L. (2011, May). Systemic approach to learning paradigms and he use of social media in higher education. International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning, 6(51), 12-20. doi:10.3991/ijet.v6iS1.1616

Martínez Alemán, A. M., & Lynk Wartman, K. (2009). Online social networking on campus: Understanding what matters in student culture. New York: Routledge.

National Science Foundation. (2006). Informal science education program solicitation (NSF 06-520). Retrieved from

Ricci, C., Laricchia, P., & Desmarais, I.  (2011, January) What unschooling is and what it means to us.”  Our Schools/Our Selves, 20(2), 141-151.

Small, G., & Vorgan, G. (2011). Your brain is evolving right now. In M. Bauerlein (Ed.), The digital divide: Arguments for and against Facebook, Google, texting and the age of social networking (Kindle Locations 1196-1491). New York, NY: Penguin Group.

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