Whether you’re short on time, learner motivation, or just need to improve your learning culture, informal eLearning experiences offer a fresh, less rigorous way of thinking about learning.
Now, informal learning is no new thing. Consider the new understanding that you take away from watching a TED talk video clip. Or what you learn about a colleague when you assist in their orientation process.
Much of what we learn in the “real world” happens informally, and often without our awareness. And this is no different in business.
But informal eLearning experiences are a little different from the purest forms of informal learning, because they’re designed with intent. These experiences combine the best aspects of unplanned real-world learning, with carefully intended learning design.
In this way, an informal approach complements formal programs where more strict progress and testing are required.
Blending informal eLearning experiences into your overall training program requires more craft than you might think. Using your learning expertise makes all the difference.
More Than eLearning With Its Shoes Off
Raising the topic of “informal learning” might just result in some cringes from your audience. You can’t blame them, really. It’s hard not to imagine the kind of informal lectures we all had at school. Picture teacher sitting back in chair, telling class to share what they’ve learnt about Shakespeare with each other… Ugh.
But actually, informal eLearning is a decidedly adult learning tactic, because it relies on trust. Trust that the learner can self-motivate, self-correct, and self-evaluate themselves in the learning process.
Formal training often favors a teacher-centred approach, where learners are assumed to be the empty glass, waiting to be filled with knowledge from the almighty training expert. But informal training methods take a learner-centred approach. The learners themselves create knowledge, and are full participants in communicating knowledge to others.
What we’re saying is that informal training is built on shared control of the learning process, location, purpose, and scope.
Think of informal eLearning experiences as taking a road trip together. You’re all in the same bus, but some passengers are keen to stop at the museums, a few want take the scenic route to learn more about the area, and some would like to take the shortcut because they’ve gone down this route before.
But with only the driver (or instructional designer) in control, the bus still gets to its destination, but the trip is less beneficial to each individual passenger.
While many examples of informal training involve unofficial, impromptu ways of learning, planning for informal learning is key in making it a functional part of your overall training strategy.
Why Choose Informal eLearning Experiences?
The 70/20/10 model advises using 70% of employee time on job and community experiences, 20% on social learning, and only 10% on formal training. Such a drastic ratio might not make sense for your organization’s learning. But the principle of balancing formal, social, and informal learning remains relevant.
Say you have to train a large group of newly-hired sales staff. The formal training required to operate the customer relationship management (CRM) system is unavoidable. But you also need informal training to build soft skills in persuasion, active listening, and personalizing the sales experience.
Informal training can also be used to provide context about situations for applying skills learned through formal training.
The main benefits of informal eLearning experiences are that:
● Learners feel less pressured about the learning process. This reduces their resistance to training and improves their motivation.
● Instructional designers follow a less intensive design process. This reduces development time and learning costs.
● Informal learning is driven by the interests of the learners. This reduces boredom and allows for more self-directed learning outside of formal programs.
● Informal learning usually involves a natural learning between people, which improves workplace relationships.
At this point you’re probably thinking that informal learning is basically on-the-job training, and wondering where eLearning comes into it? Informal eLearning experiences make the best of the principles of informal training that have been around for ages, but using modern eLearning tools.
The Dos and Dont’s of Informal Training
1. Emphasize experience
Informal learning in the workplace is often best-suited to blended delivery, as the combination of online and in-person engagement provides complementary opportunities for workshopping, problem-solving and discussion.
Scenario-based learning is especially popular in informal learning, particularly when a scenario is complex but realistic enough to provide several choices of action. Branching scenarios can provide plenty of opportunities to recover, and prompt exploration of other resources. A successful informal learning environment is one in which failure is not only tolerated, but embraced.
2. Create communities
Focus your informal learning methods on not only experience, but shared experience. Create opportunities to share knowledge, observations, and personal stories.
Designing opportunities for authentic collaboration, with minimal control, ensures that employees find teaching and learning dynamics within their own teams and roles.
When external knowledge is needed, think carefully about how you use SMEs, celebrities in the field (or just people with unique experiences) to share their knowledge without slipping into a stale, top-down, teacher-centred approach.
Social learning opportunities like informal workshops are an effective way of merging informal learning methods with more formal tactics.
Welcome feedback and ideas from internal team members. They might just provide the fresh perspective a learning program needs!
And finally, don’t be afraid of social media, but have a code of conduct for how it’s used. If employees find Facebook and LinkedIn groups a more natural fit for collaboration, think about how your SMEs can also engage on these platforms to direct and support a healthy learning culture.
3. Informal does not mean undesigned
Your instructional design skills are still majorly valuable in planning informal eLearning experiences. When designing workshops, opportunities for collaboration, and resources, incorporate triggers for recalling previous information. Or, add prompts to research new knowledge and engage in past reflection.
Informal learning may not always involve communicating learning outcomes upfront, but consider how you can balance informality with a clear learning path. Learners should be aware of how their knowledge and skills are improving.
4. Create the right resources
Informal eLearning experiences need to strike a fine balance between loosening up control over the learning experience, and still providing employees with all they need to be successful in their learning.
When you design resources to accompany experiences, try sticking to these guidelines.
● Just-in-time information: Create resources that learners can turn to when they’re really stuck, and right in the middle of a situation.
● Keep it short and informative to optimize time.
● Avoid extra information, but teach the tools to find it. Linking to a resource-guide, or tips from SMEs, is more effective long-term than handing over all information on a huge silver platter.
● Complement in-person interactions, and don’t duplicate information.
● Use the formats learners like. Even when their time and energy is low, most people can manage a video or blog, but not a manual or textbook chapter.
● Lastly, pull enthusiastic learners into resource-creation where possible. Use interviews or articles by team members to add authenticity to the informal eLearning experience, and keep the community active.
The LMS for Making Informal eLearning Experiences Stick
If you’re relaxing your grip on when and how learners learn, your LMS should reflect this. Using an LMS with mobile features, for example, provides portability and convenience.
Social learning relies on easy communication, so make sure your LMS has a variety of options for employees and SMEs to chat. Discussion forums, instant messaging, video and webinar chat features keep your online informal learning environment lively and engaging. These features should be so easy to use, that they become a natural part of any employee’s day.
Knowledge-sharing features like wiki’s and blogs, along with simple instructions on how to use them, empower team members to step forward and share knowledge in a way that feels unforced and encouraging.
An LMS that supports a variety of resource types for fun learning, that make learners want to explore a topic, will also be a boon when designing better informal eLearning experiences.
You can’t, and arguably shouldn’t, control how your employees learn contextual and soft skills. But with the help of a versatile LMS and our tips and tricks, you can craft informal eLearning experiences that make employees want to keep learning. Start your own eLearning portal to support informal learning in just 30 seconds!