IST. Motivation. Informal learning. Is there a connection?

Q. How does your work in IST inform your thinking about motivation? Informal learning? What’s the connection?

It is a difficult balancing act of having enough structure and support to encourage learning, yet still allows each individual to feel as though they are contributing something significant.  Instructional design techniques such as rapid prototyping can be employed as they encourage iteration and flexibility, which would be appropriate in an informal learning environment. Other instructional design models such as van Merrienboer’s 4C-ID model for complex learning would also be useful as it draws attention to four components of Instructional Design:

  • Learning tasks
  • Supportive Information
  • JIT Information
  • Part-task Practice

Just-in-time information, for example is very important in informal learning. The ability for each learner to get the right information as they need it may help to maintain the levels of motivation that we see in Keller’s ARCS instructional model of motivation.

While the approach and the structure would be different, these Instructional Design techniques and models can be used to inform informal learning environments. In part, I think this is an area where I can have meaningful impact in the area of informal learning.  By having an understanding of ISD models such as the 4C-ID model and ARCS’s model, and others, I can help others use sound methods of Instructional Design while balancing the self-directed, autonomous, innovative, flexible, and exciting aspects of informal learning that draws so many. Even the ADDIE model, though problematic in informal learning because of the linear nature of the model, can guide a designer to conduct needs analysis and follow the other stages of the model, though perhaps in a more iterative way. All of these can help form connections with motivation and learning in informal ways, that may not have been fully explored previously.


What’s the deal with massive drop-out rates in MOOCs?

Q. You say that MOOCs represent a blurring of the lines between formal and informal education. How do you view the possible relationship between self-determination theory and the massive drop-out rates we see in MOOCs? How would you anticipate this aspect of MOOCs to guide instructional designers who are working to incorporate motivational aspects of informal learning into formal learning situations?

As has been pointed out, one major concern with MOOCs is high drop-out rates. A greater understanding of self-determination theory and how to maximize intrinsic motivation could certainly be applied with MOOCs.  However, there is evidence that people don’t enroll in MOOCs for the same reasons they would as part of a traditional course. According to a recent study based on Duke’s first MOOC on bioelectricity, when asked about motivation for enrolling, 87% expressed general interest in the course, 53% wanted to extend their general knowledge about the subject, 44% were interested in professional development. 26% reported that they were taking the course as a supplement another college/university class.  In other words, they may not have the same objectives of completing the course as you would find in traditional university courses. The role of MOOCs is still very much being debated and researched in higher education.

Dr. Dan Hickey, program director of IU’s learning sciences, is currently offering a MOOC on educational assessment. Actually he calls is a BOOC or Big Open Online Course, because his course is limited to about 400 students and some of them paying a fee and are enrolling for actual course credit, while others or enrolling just to participate and learn from the course. His course is a bit different then some of the other more massive courses.  And that flexibility is what is intriguing. His course may be available for credit, while many others may be simply used as an extra resource, in the same way that a good textbook or instructional video would be.  Just last month, Campus Technology (, ran an article about having blended MOOCs and using MOOCs to supplement regular classes.

So getting back to your initial question about drop out rates of MOOCs, viewing the relationship between SDT and focusing on meeting the intrinsic motivational needs of the learners could well have an effect on maintaining higher levels of engagement clear to the end of the course. Trying to figure out the best way to use MOOCs and the pitfalls of how to not use MOOCs clearly requires further investigation.

Is motivation different in informal and formal learning?

Q. You seem to expect that motivation will operate differently in formal and informal learning situations. Do you? And in what ways do you expect motivation to differ because of the setting? Who are you drawing from to inform this understanding?

In many ways, this question gets to the heart of my research interests. While I believe that the same principles of motivational theories can be used in both situations, I think the emphasis and details are different.

In informal environments, learners tend to have much higher autonomy.  They are engaged in the activities by choice, not as part of a school curriculum. For example getting back to John Keller’s ARCS model of instructional motivation, this can be applied in both settings.  Designers and instructors in both formal and informal environments need to gain the attention of the learners, show relevance to the content, help the learner build confidence, and finally gain satisfaction from the process.  However, the way that this occurs may be different.

In many ways, there can be a lot more autonomy in informal environments.  Gaining the students attention may require providing enough novel and unique resources to that environment to keep participants there.  In the case of the virtual choir, many of the participants cited that they simply love Eric Whitacre’s music and they wanted to be a part of this.  The ‘celebrity factor’ of singing his music might be enough to get their attention.  But if they struggle with learning the music or have technical problems, this would cause problems in gaining confidence and they might lose motivation.

Satisfaction in the case of the virtual choir may come from sharing the finished video project on Facebook.  In my own experience of participating, there is a certain level of satisfaction sharing the finished project, especially when my mom, who is something of a music critic, even said that she likes it!  That gave me satisfaction. (

I definitely draw on Keller’s ARCS model and on Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s Self Determination Theory, which focuses heavily on the importance of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation.  In their early work, Deci and Ryan conducted psychological experiments and invariably found results that external rewards such as paying money can be detrimental to an individual’s intrinsic motivation to solve a task or problem.  As I mentioned earlier, I think that this theory of motivation could be applied in many areas of IST.  It has even recently been popularized by Dan Pink’s bestselling book, Drive and in TED talks about motivation.

I also draw on, and have not mentioned enough, the work on motivation in online settings done by Dr. Bonk.  His TEC-VARIETY framework is a very practical model specifically for encouraging motivation and retention in online courses and is a great framework to consider for designers and instructors.

  • Tone/Climate: Psych Safety, Comfort, Belonging
  • Encouragement: Feedback, Responsive, Supports
  • Curiosity: Fun, Fantasy, Control
  • Variety: Novelty, Intrigue, Unknowns
  • Autonomy: Choice, Flexibility, Opportunities
  • Relevance: Meaningful, Authentic, Interesting
  • Interactive: Collaborative, Team-Based, Community
  • Engagement: Effort, Involvement, Excitement
  • Tension: Challenge, Dissonance, Controversy
  • Yields: Goal Driven, Products, Success, Ownership

I have recently been reading draft versions of some chapters in his forthcoming book, that gives examples and activity based on his decades of work on online learning and motivation. The MOOC that I assisted him with last summer also focused a lot on online motivation for instructors.

The lens of informal learning & motivation may be a good way to incorporate other motivational models that may not be typical to IST.  This may be an area where I can contribute to the field.

Is “informal” the same as “unstructured”?

Q. In your view, as you have adopted Sefton-Green’s criteria, would the term “informal” be equivalent to “unstructured”?  What do you see as the elements of “structure” applicable to curriculum and setting?

It depends on how you are defining structure, but in my definition, yes I would say that they could be equivalent. Julian Sefton-Green is a Principal Research Fellow at University of Oslo working on projects exploring learning and learner identity across formal and informal domains, and is someone that I have started reading over the past year. (Appendix A) In fact in his literature review, Sefton-Green (2004) takes this idea of informal and structure a step further and says that, “the distinction between informal and formal learning…, can more clearly be made around the intentions and structure of the learning experience” (p. 6, emphasis added). As Sefton-Green points out, there is a quadrant when looking at informal learning.

One of the contributions that Sefton-Green adds to the definition of D.W. Livingstone (2000), is that Livingstone refers to only, “the curricula of educational institutions.”  I still follow this definition as it does encapsulate my work, but adding the quadrant of Sefton-Green provides more clarity and focus.Image

For example, two years ago my W210 students and I helped facilitate a “passions project” at the local Bloomington Project School.  The passions project was a three-week project where we helped the students learn about Lego Mindstorm robotic kits.  These were 6th -8th grade students in a classroom setting, with an instructor, and visiting education majors from IU.  In other words, this was a pretty formal setting.  But the activities and curricula were very unstructured.  The objectives for the project were to work in groups and pick something to build out of the lego kits, and ultimately program the object to move or do something.  Each group could set their own objectives. One group made a car that could change directions when it hit an object. One of the kids was much more interested in learning about the computer programming of the object while others had more interesting in building the car and making it stronger so it wouldn’t break. These activities were less structured, but still in a formal setting. These could also include the Boys and Girls Club or a neighborhood Computer clubhouse. My minor advisor Dr. Kylie Peppler from the Learning Sciences, has done extensive work in researching the role of informal learning at the intersection of the arts and new media in these spaces.

Contrast this with someone participating in something like the Virtual Choir, which would be lower on the scales of curriculum and setting. Online learning, or some MOOCs might be informal settings as you can participate from your home or anywhere, yet have highly structured (more formal) curriculum with set assignments and objectives

Traditional K-12 schools would be generally highly structured and highly formal.  Adventure Learning, which I mentioned before, might be right in the middle of both scales.  Some AL projects start with a designed curriculum, in a school, but they may deconstruct that curriculum and iterate on it during the project depending on the findings of the explorers and researchers. Students may follow the curriculum during the school day learning about an ‘animal of the day,’ but they also interact with the adventurers/researchers after school or by following along on blogs, webcams, or webcasts. There are many other examples that I could place on this, but these are ones that I am most familiar with.

This is a pretty long way of showing how yes; I do think that structure could be viewed in the same way as informal.  But this explanation has also shown how the different definitions of informal learning are important. Sefton-Green’s definition built on Livingstone and provides clarity.

Since I am also following Sefton-Green’s definition, structure is a part of both curriculum and setting.  So I think that as they relate to curriculum and setting, it is not a simple question of marking something as ‘yes, this is informal’ vs ‘no, this is formal.’ They are degrees and there are times and situations where each may be more or less appropriate depending on the learner.  In some cases more structure may be appropriate, where others it would be less appropriate. This is an area where my background in IST may help to understand how more structure could be beneficial in some informal learning environments. It’s all about creating structures for learners. These structures may be dependent on age, familiarity with the context, may be more structured at first then become less structured at the end.  The environment needs to be able to be flexible and so does the structure.

Answers to thoughtful questions about the intersection of Inforal Learning and Instructional Technology as a field

As part of the qualifying exam process at Indiana University, we have to present and defend a dossier comprising our research, teaching, and service competencies. As part of my dossier presentation, I received questions that were very beneficial in really keying in on central issues related to informal learning and its relation to the field of Instructional Systems Technology.  

I welcome comments and feedback as this can hopefully serve as a conversation starter for considering informal learning and its relationship to other fields. Some of my responses are well developed, while others may remain a bit scattered, but hopefully this may further clarify and inform others about informal learning, and specifically, online informal learning environments.

I will post each question along with my answer as a separate post.



This is my blog for my p574 ‘Computational Technologies in Educational Ecosystems.’  I will use this blog to reflect on the class and update my personal model that will be developed throughout the semester.

my (pre)model

Here is my original learning model that I created on our first day of class.  I created the model using Popplet Lite on an iPad and it worked pretty well.  The tool was fairly easy to use and allowed to me to create a basic mind-map with connecting words and strands to the existing center of the model.  Due to our time constraints, my main focus of the learning model that I started was on technology and focused on my present research on ‘extreme learning’.    I will explain more about my model in my next reflection and my model will clearly evolve throughout the semester (and beyond).