Differentiating Factors Between Formal/Informal Learning: Factor #2 – Time

by Dana Skiff on October 20, 2009

2. Time

The second differentiating factor between formal and informal learning is time. Time has two aspects that deserve consideration: scheduling and duration.

Some formal learning formats (e.g., courses, workshops and seminars) involve distinct components (i.e., training site, instructor, participants, training materials, etc.) that must be coordinated and brought together in time and place for training to occur. Such formats require that training sessions must be scheduled at specific times and locations for learning to happen. However, such is not the case with informal learning. Informal learning requires no logistics and, therefore, no need for scheduling. The individual learner simply accesses learning resources when and as they are available according to the learners need to know.

The second aspect of time, duration, is also different for formal learning than for informal learning. Because it is structured, formal learning is of a specific duration as it has a definitive beginning and ending. For example, instructor-led sessions like workshops and seminars begin and end at specific times. Unlike formal learning, informal learning is of undermined duration. It could be very short (e.g., the few minutes needed to quickly access the internet). Or, it could be somewhat extended (e.g., interviewing peers, reading through source documents, etc.). In either case, duration is not specific but rather situational (i.e., dependent upon the nature of the problem, learning skills of the individual learner, learning resources immediately available and accessible to the learner, etc.)

As a result, formal learning is characterized by scheduling and length of training whereas informal learning is not.

Implication for Practice

The implications of time on practice are several:

First, in many cases, informal learning has the potential to enhance performance sooner than formal learning. The reason is simple: learners become more effective/productive quicker. Individuals utilizing informal learning can enhance their knowledge/skill sooner and apply it immediately instead of having to wait weeks or months to attend a scheduled, formal training offering. Only after attending a training session are learners even in a position to begin applying their new learning.

Second, in terms of duration, informal learning is almost always quicker than formal learning. Typically, formal learning requires a learner to attend, or go through, a whole program. Many such programs are one or more days in duration. This is not the case with informal learning where the learner is only unproductive during the short time necessary to learn what he/she needs to learn. In most cases, informal learning is shorter in duration than formal learning. As a result, learners involved in informal learning are unproductive for shorter periods of time than those attending formal training sessions.

Most often, not all content in a formal learning program is new to participants. Sometimes, portions of it may even be irrelevant to a participant’s job. In cases where training is multiple days and not all content is relevant, participants are off the job and unproductive while sitting through training they do not need.

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