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Formal vs informal learning and what the LMS should do about them

That we learn something new all the time is more than an overused cliché; it is actually fact. Every time we buy a new piece of technology, be it a smartphone, a TV or a blender, we need to learn how to use it. Some of us go by trial and error, few of us read the manual and the younger lot simply go online and watch tutorials about how to do it. In the end, all of us get to a certain degree of mastery in operating the modern appliance. Because we need to, lest we had spent our money in vain.

Adult learning is very much connected to need and usefulness and as a result it’s paramount for instructional designers to prove the importance of any material they present and allow for learners to go about finding what they think is of educational value at a certain point.

Formal and informal learning – two peas in the same pod

There has been a lot of talk lately about formal and informal learning in organizations. A lot of times these two are regarded as conflicting rather than complementary activities.

While the modern digital universe offers almost unlimited resources, formal learning is still very important in employee development. Even with classroom training becoming obsolete and e-learning completely transforming corporate L&D, people need structure and guidance apart from access to various resources.

So, in the end, it’s not really a battle between what people learn as part of a predefined program and what they come to know from peers and various online channels.

It is very important that learning specialists understand this complementarity and not only allow but help employees get the best of both versions in order to obtain positive results in the workplace and in their personal lives.

Read more: How technology can change formal learning

Advantages of formal learning

When it comes to organizational development, formal learning is still regarded as the most efficient tool for getting people where they (and the company) need to be. This makes sense as generally there are well established L&D departments that do a great job of identifying both the learning needs and the best action courses for covering them.

Furthermore, formal learning comes with a much-coveted recognition – people still frame and put up diplomas in their offices and the younger crowd proudly displays badges on digital profiles.

When it comes to formal learning, there is also the perk of giving equal opportunities to all involved by enrolling them in the same programs and evaluating them by similar scales.

There is also the possibility of controlling the quality of the learning material, updating it when necessary and introducing valuable content from qualified subject matter experts.

With informal learning this is mostly a gamble – though to be fair Wikipedia has proved to be just as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica.

Advantages of informal learning

Probably the preferred quality (for organizational decision makers) is that informal learning implies almost no costs at all. There isn’t a question of running training needs assessments, hiring designers, delivering and evaluating the programs. Mainly because informal learning isn’t in any way scheduled – it occurs exactly when it is needed with no prerequisites and no follow-up testing.

The fact that people get to learn something only when that is useful to them brings about another enormous advantage – higher retention rates. Information is easily forgotten if it is not tested and used so the immediacy of informal learning ensure that all that is presented is also utilized at once and thus has a much better chance of bringing about behavioral change or becoming habit.

That all this happens with no interference or intervention on the part of the organization constitutes a big plus as it saves resources while also bringing positive results.

Read more: 8 Best practices to facilitate informal learning

The role of LMS in both formal and informal learning

It is fairly obvious what the mission of an LMS is when it comes to formal learning. It does everything from managing registration and attendance from deploying e-learning, tracking progress and reporting on the results.

Read more: Using LMS reports to find pain points in the company’s e-learning programs

When it comes to informal learning, however, the role of the LMS is a lot less apparent. That’s because we often overestimate people’s digital and filtering skills. Even the younger generations, made up of people who grew up in smart homes and live a lot through social media can benefit from training aimed at improving their internet browsing skills.

Since informal learning is not in any way evaluated by a tertiary, coaching users to review and assess their own information acquisition and skill development is needed.

Yet the most valuable thing to learn formally before diving free into the digital ocean is to get a good grasp on discerning between valuable content and pointless screen-fillers.

The LMS can be a gateway for informal learning

Apart from teaching employees how to surf the web effectively and what to look for, companies can take one step forward in encouraging informal learning.

Any LMS contains a library of courses and modules targeted towards specific learning needs. Most of these units contain useful links and added materials.

Organizations ought to consider also incorporating technical databases and research journals as well as custom materials on company policies and procedures.

The LMS can also act as a hub for interpersonal connections by hosting forums or messaging platforms where people with similar interests can communicate and share experiences.

Taking this one step further, there can be a list of highly qualified professionals who agree to act as coaches. Employees can then reach out to them for just in time training or advice.

Ultimately, with informal learning connected to the LMS there is the possibility for L&D specialists to track it to some extent and get a good idea about the interests and curiosities of learners.

Closing thoughts

The sooner organizations understand that informal learning is just as valuable as its formal counterpart and incorporate it into their strategy, the better the overall results and the employee engagement numbers will become. An LMS provides the perfect framework for integrating all organizational learning.

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