Research is creating new knowledge.”
— Neil Armstrong

If you take a minute to consider the sum of everything you know, you’ll realize a small portion of that learning took place in a classroom. As critical as formal education and training is to human development, an even greater force is what’s commonly called informal learning.  And we live in a world that today presents unprecedented opportunities for this self-led, cross-functional, community-driven education.

Informal learners are curious and collaborative, gaining knowledge and sharing it with others.  Whether they’re pursuing a hobby that gives them satisfaction or skills that make them more valuable in the workplace, studies show that for many self-learners (also known as autodidacts), the knowledge gained through informal education is actually retained longer.

The world is catching on to what the researchers already know.  The sheer number of informal learning resources available online is astounding and growing every day, from community resources such as Wikipedia and YouTube to many sites focused on sharing deep expertise on a single topic,

Taken together, this expanding universe of free knowledge means the limits of learning are increasingly defined not by access to institutions, but rather the willingness to create and follow a path that keeps a learner connected to an ever-growing world of informal education.

Why does informal learning work?

While it resonates with each individual differently, there are some common factors at work:

  • Informal learning is student-led, allowing people to choose topics that interest them.  That naturally increases engagement and retention
  • Informal learning is metric-free, letting learners set their own expectations around ‘achievement’.  Absence worrying about a grade or other measurement, many people relax and learn more.
  • Informal learning is modular, enabling learners to explore a large subject ‘one bite at a time’.  For many, this is a more effective strategy than being overwhelmed in a formal learning scenario trying to consume everything at once.
  • Informal learning is self-paced, without a strict timeline or formal checkpoints.  This lets learners proceed at their own pace, choosing resources that match their preferred learning styles or strengths.

Informal learning is often communal, where students gather on message boards and social platforms to share the knowledge they’ve acquired.  Nobody is fighting for grade or rank, leading to a very supportive learning environment.

  • Informal learning can be experiential, meaning students are going ‘hands on’ as they learn.  This means that in addition to merely consuming facts and theories, they’re putting them into practice.

Informal learning in the workplace

While informal learning is undoubtedly fulfilling for the individual, how can organizations leverage the passionate practice of curiosity in order to elevate and accelerate skills in the workplace?

A lot of workplace education is already informal.  People pick up best practices from a co-worker or discover software efficiencies by browsing the web over lunch.  Sometimes this learning is more dramatic, where new discoveries can lead to new products or services that directly impact growth.

This is why it pays off to facilitate what’s commonly called a growth mindset.  This mean a person is willing to learn new skills that enable them to be successful even as the shape of opportunity is changing.  They don’t wait for formal reskilling; they seek their own path and strengthen their own talents.

Organizations can nurture this passion by working to build a culture of continuous learning.  This means giving employees access to learning opportunities outside of regularly scheduled, sometimes yearly, training and development.  Rather than rely on rigidly sequential development plans, these organizations empower employees to lead their own education and define their own learning outcomes.

ELearning Systems and Informal Learning

Technology doesn’t make informal learning possible, but it certainly scales the number of choices.  This is especially true in the workplace.  While some organizations can invest heavily in deep and diverse curriculum that let employees find their own path, it’s simply not realistic for most.  There’s just not enough time in the day or dollars in the budget.

That’s where an eLearning System can make a significant difference. It can simplify the “one to many” delivery of a wide variety of courses, giving employees an array of choices that enable the magic of self-organized learning.  And while many learning management system (LMS) platforms are organized around formal curriculum, that’s not the only way to reach users looking to gain knowledge.

Rather than covering a variety of topics for a wide range of users, companies can also create subject-specific learning resources that aggregate a wide range of content that goes deep rather than wide.  Subject-specific sites can be organized by Wikipedia, collecting articles, media, and even hosting forum boards.  These resources are ideal for self-learners, who can browse and learn at their own pace.

Integrated Learning Universes

Luckily, eLearning doesn’t have to follow a single path. First of all, LMS implementations can be as diverse as the strategy. This means they can meet many of the requirements of informal learning.

Beyond this flexibility, organizations can use eLearning platforms that link a formal LMS to other resources.  Content in the LMS can point to these resources and vice versa.  This enables organizations to create an integrated strategy that nurtures required skills while also empowering dynamic informal learning opportunities.  It’s a win for all learning stakeholders, from trainers and instructional designers to the students themselves. This is especially true when organizations choose a cloud-driven solution that offloads all the work and worry of hosting the application. When you take an integrated approach, you:

  • Reduce timelines and costs for implementation
  • Eliminate need for dedicated IT staff or infrastructure
  • Empower instructional designer to create engaging, media-rich content
  • Quickly customize learning plans
  • Give human resource development professionals instant visibility into student progress
  • Create huge, multifaceted learning systems that include traditional coursework and resources for informal learning experiences
  • Extend functionality and integration with a solid API
  • In some cases, support ecommerce to help resolve internal finance issues

Attend any major training conference, whether it’s Association for Talent Development (ATD, formerly ASTD) or International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI), and you’ll learn what the cutting edge of workforce development looks like.  And nearly every success story starts with a well-implemented LMS as the foundation for big picture learning strategy.

How to choose an LMS

Diverse learners need dynamic solutions and asolid foundation for formal and informal learning. When choosing the best platform to support multimodal education across your organization, a cloud-driven LMS like Litmos maximizes choice for both instructional stakeholders and students. The best LMS should feature:

  • Content that is easy to create and simple to deliver to various devices, as well SCORM-compliant
  • A consistently predictable interface for both designers and students
  • Rapid customization of learning plans and programs (by either students or staff)
  • Robust scalability without help of additional IT staff or infrastructure

The best way to learn: a 14-day trial

Everybody learns at their own pace.  But the best way to learn about Litmos LMS is to experience its power firsthand.  Ask about our free 14-day trial that lets you explore the platform and get inspired on what to create next.