Learning by any other name…

Posted: February 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

Formal and Other learning

It’s easy to recognize and agree on Formal Learning, this is learning that takes place within a structured and accredited organization.
Confusion sets in when the conversation shifts to other types of learning. The other day Tom Spiglanin was  interested and intriguied that I made a distinction between Non-Formal and Informal Learning. Last year I thought that there was only what you did in school (formal) and everything else (informal).

Types of learning

What is the difference between DIY, Non-Formal, Informal, and Self Directed learning? These terms are used almost interchangeably in the open education and digital learning dialog. Over the last year or two I have seen them used in nearly the same context from many different sources. Through my research I have found that going back to at least the ’70s there is a difference in the literature.

Non-Formal, DIY, Self Directed

Coombs, Prosser, and Ahmed (1973, p. 11) define non-formal learning as “any organized educational activity outside the established formal system-whether operating separately or as an important feature of some broader activity-that is intended to serve identifiable learning clienteles and learning objectives”.  More succinctly it is “education ‘owned’ and ‘directed’ by the learner” (Hall, 2009, p. 31).  I think that DIY as well as Self Directed learning fall into this category as well. This occrs when a learner decides to learn a specific topic, determines goals, and goes about achieving them. This could be activly searching youtube or google for information or seeking out an open education initiave that helps to guide the learning.


Informal learning has several different meanings.  Colardyn & Bjornavold, (2004, p. 71) call it unplanned and unstructured. This is the type of learning that occurs while the learner is doing something else. It can be intentional, but is usually unstructured. Most commonly it is the type of learning that takes place while at work or in everyday life.
Do we need to continue to make the distinction between the different types of learning? Should we standardize definitions for terms? Should we use DIY, non-formal, informal, and self directed learning interchangeably? Does it really matter how someone learns something? Isn’t it more important that they retain the knowledge, and have the ability to put it into practice?
  • Colardyn, D., & Bjornavold, J. (2004). Validation of formal, non-formal and informal learning: Policy and practices in EU member states. European Journal of Education, 39(1), 69-89. doi: 10.1111/j.0141-8211.2004.00167.x
  • Coombs, P. H., Prosser, R. C., & Ahmed, M. (1973). New paths to learning for rural children and youth: Nonformal education for rural development. New York: International Council for Educational Development
  • Hall, R. (2009). Towards a fusion of formal and informal learning environments: The impact of the read/write web. Electronic Journal of e-Learning, 7(1), 29-40.
  1. Leah says:

    These are some good approaches to definitions for these terms. Have you studied any of Jane Hart’s work? Her and the rest of the #lrnchat gang are setting the rules for informal learning. You are right about DIY learning- but I’d also add it’s when people knowingly craft their own learning opportunities like on p2pu. Great post!

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