Informal vs. Formal Learning: What's the Difference?

Informal vs. Formal Learning: What's the Difference?
February 23, 2012

In the world of corporate training, there’s often the question of whether a formal or informal learning program is the right way to go. But what are the differences between formal and informal learning? 

Formal vs. Informal Learning

Formal learning is structured and typically led by instructional designers and trainers in a classroom setting. Informal learning offers more flexibility for learners and can often be accessed on-the-go via mobile devices.

However, it’s important to understand that there are many different opinions out there on formal vs. informal learning, and there’s certainly more than one approach for each. 

At Brainshark, we believe the training experience you choose should depend heavily on your company’s needs, objectives and challenges. In his book, Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation and Performance, Jay Cross likens the difference between formal and informal training to riding on a bus vs. riding a bike:

  • With the formal learning bus, "the driver decides where the bus is going; the passengers are along for the ride."

  • When on the informal learning bike, "the rider chooses the destination, the speed, and the route."

To understand better, let’s take a closer look at the ways many of us at Brainshark view these two different approaches for corporate training.

What Is Formal Learning?

Formal learning programs are typically synonymous with full-scale learning management systems (LMS), with courses and curricula mapped in a very structured way. As a result, content is generally created by a specified group of instructional designers and trainers.

The content development process usually lasts longer with formal learning programs, as those involved are often tasked with creating long, thorough presentations and publishing via a potentially complex LMS tool set.

Content and learning materials can be delivered via a traditional class room training model, complete with lectures, required reading and scheduled testing. Live webinars and screen-sharing technology can also be used so that remote learners can attend the required sessions.

Formal learning is a popular choice for companies that wish to have more control over the learning experience of their employees. There are a variety of LMS options to choose from, each with varying levels of price, support, functionality and flexibility. Even Brainshark provides a formal learning option called Rapid Learning that’s designed specifically for Brainshark video content.

Related: B2B Sales Has Changed: Why Your Training Should, Too

What Is Informal Learning?

Informal learning programs, on the other hand, provide a lot more flexibility in the way content is both created and consumed. By removing the formality of a full-scale LMS, companies are usually able to create more content quickly and deliver it to their audiences in the way that makes the most sense.

The idea here is that rather than limiting the responsibilities of content development to a few instructional designers, subject matter experts from across the organization can now become part of the process. Since anyone can create learning resources quickly and easily, more content can be developed by those who best understand the needs of the learners.

While both formal and informal learning programs are capable of delivering content quickly on-demand, informal learning is generally more convenient for the audience – particularly when coupled with mobile-ready courses and presentations. Informal learning allows companies to save time on tedious live training sessions that are associated with many (though not all) formal programs and tend to cut into employee productivity. It’s also easier to segment the audiences for on-demand content, meaning learners can choose the information they care most about and access it as needed, rather than sitting through mass live training sessions where the topics covered may not always be relevant.

Informal learning content is also more easily shared and distributed via social channels like Facebook or Twitter, and more adaptable to mobile devices for “on-the-go” viewing. In other words, a well-developed informal learning program provides information to learners anytime, anywhere.

As an example, many companies leverage Brainshark’s ease-of-use to empower anyone in their organization to take what were once bloated PowerPoint presentations and repurpose them into voice-enriched, on-demand videos. Those videos can be housed in a web portal online where anyone can find them, or simply emailed as a URL to the appropriate parties. From there, trainers can track and report on the success of the learning material by seeing who is viewing the content, establish learning criteria, and so on.

Formal vs. Informal Learning: How to Decide 

As I mentioned before, it really comes down to your company’s challenges and how a formal or informal learning program can best help. For example:

  1. Content Development – How complicated is it to create and deliver new content? Is it difficult to leverage the expertise of others in the company? Do you have trouble getting timely messages out quickly? How often does certain content need to be updated?

  2. Audience – Are live formal training sessions wasting too much time? Are the sessions having the desired effect? Do learners have trouble finding follow-up information when they need it?

  3. Tracking and Reporting – How many people need to generate reports? Do you need more or less control over required courses? What exactly do you need to track?

Hopefully that helps clear up the basic differences between formal and informal learning. Just remember, when developing your company’s training strategy, iron out your needs and objectives first, then choose the program that makes most sense for you. You may even find that a blended learning approach of both formal and informal training is the way to go.

Learn more about training best practices: