Informal Learning

Lessons learned from the 30th annual conference on Distance Teaching & Learning

Recently, I attended and presented a part of my work at the 30th annual conference on Distance Teaching & Learning in Madison, Wisconsin. IMG_3494I had a great time at the conference, met some great new colleagues, and heard some excellent talks. One of my favorite quick talks was a very brief (about 15 minute) remote Skype talk from Elliot Masie. Masie is very popular in the world of online learning, in particular corporate learning, and it is easy to see why. He is energetic, and brings lots of great ideas to his talks.

Quick aside, my first interaction with Masie and his consortium occurred while I was working as a summer intern for Humana back in 2009.  On a webinar, Masie spoke about how the elearning world had done themselves a huge disfavor by having a lot of early online learning work focus solely on things like Sarbanes-Oxley training or other certifications that simply needed a check box to show to management that a satisfactory completion rate had been achieved. Because of this, so much early online training was dull, boring, unimaginative, and lacking in engagement for employees.  He issued a call to designers of the consortium to think of ways to bring back learning that was innovative and engaging for corporate learners. To demonstrate his points, he paralleled video game designers. He was not calling for ‘gamification,’ ‘serious gaming,’ any of the other trendy words used to describe video game research, rather he used some principles of games and why they are fun, such as difficulty (no one wants to play a game that is super easy), failure (the ability to fail frequently and restart), and other concepts that I thought were very insightful and potentially very useful for instructional designers. He suggested that if instructional designers were to design learning materials that were difficult, engaging, and had the option to not be afraid of failure, that these trainings could be very useful.IMG_3495

Now back to Masie’s recent talk. His key point that he spoke about (and later blogged about here was a notion that he calls Learning Interruptus. His view of current learning is that as opposed to a prior view of Learning Completus, where the assumption is that a learner completes an assignment, class or project from start to finish. Yet now learning has become much more interrupted, or interruptus. People may join a class or MOOC just to glean bits of information without intending to finish the course.  Learners will get distracted by other online resources while working on projects. Learners can often hit pause on their learning and them come back to it later. Learners have many choices and if we can accommodate and encourage constant learning, we can achieve greater success in keeping the learners active. In Masie’s words, “the learner of the future is not a prisoner.”

Another session that provided some good insight, was Chris Dede’s session about developing massive technology-based models for use in education. In this session, Dede spoke about the highlights of a recent project/simulation that has been developed at Harvard. The simulation is a pond ecosystem that can be used by students to learn about pond ecosystems and can also be ramped up to be used by advanced college students with the right development. While I am not very familiar with existing research about simulations, the point that I thought was most interesting occurred during the question and answer. One skeptic in the audience raised the issue that this was just a single simulation environment, in this case a pond, and it may not be feasible for many universities to have the ability to develop such an environment only to be used for that project. Dede’s response was clear, that yes, you need some initial funding to build the environment, in the same way a movie company has to spend money to build a western town set for films. However, the thing that was exciting to Dede is that this environment can be scaled, modified and used in myriad ways for learning, not just a single study that was going on now, with minimal requirement of maintenance and resources. Continuing with the Western town set metaphor, he said, “Once you build a western town set, you can film 30 different movies. We are building sets to use for a variety of purposes in the future.” This idea touches on open access learning and other concepts that I find very intriguing.

Finally, I learned that Madison, Wisconsin is as beautiful in the summer as everyone said it was. I actually camped at a small campground just outside of town on Mendota Lake, and the conference center, Menona Terrace, had spectacular view of Menona Lake. Taqueria Guadalajara had some of the best Mexican food I have had in years (try the sopes!) and overall the weather was great. It is easy to see why so many people love Madison.

Thanks UW Madison for putting on an excellent conference and I look forward to coming back next year.


Create a terrific informal learning experience. Ready, set, go.

Q. If you were going to help an instructional designer create a terrific informal learning experience today, what would you advise that designer to differently than for a formal learning experience?

My first piece of advice for anyone designing formal or informal experiences is to simply be aware of the potential for informal learning.  Not all learning occurs during the structured portions of the experience.  But more specifically for designers of informal environments, I would encourage a high focus on learner autonomy and meeting intrinsic motivation. Recognizing and reinforcing individual interests by providing opportunities to share and connect with others would also be key.  Some of the recent changes within the Virtual Choir were largely regarded as positive by most participants. They enjoyed having guide tracks to assist them with learning the voice part.  However, some participants lamented the fact that more guidance was given about wearing a dark shirt with a plain background in the final video.  One participant spoke of really enjoying seeing the backgrounds of the individual videos on the first projects almost as if it let you into their homes.  On this recent one, he felt that he had lost that connection with others and it became a bit sterile, therefore not as exciting.

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.  Even simple 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

While the approach and the structure would be different, these Instructional Design techniques and models can be used to inform informal learning environments.

How did you validate your study?

Q. How were the categories used in your survey developed? Validated? Analyzed? How do you carry out thematic analysis?

The categories in my survey were developed and built in part, based on a larger survey developed in our larger research group with Dr. Bonk that has been with a variety of populations.  We had 159 participants respond to the larger survey after Dr. Bonk’s MOOC last summer and we had over 1,400 survey responses to users of MIT OpenCourseWare. My study questions and categories, however, were meant to be a simpler version of the larger survey. We established face validity, which is a qualitative measure of validity, through multiple rounds of review within the research group, as well as expert review from Dr. Bonk.  To be clear, the survey was simply meant to guide participants and inform the participant interviews, which would go deeper into investigating the research questions. The survey responses were analyzed primarily using descriptive statistics only as this was a limited sample size and face validity is not quantified with statistical methods. This is a clear limitation of the first part of this study that I want to improve on in future research.

The thematic analysis that is ongoing follows Braun and Clarke’s, 2006 paper that outlines a 6 phase guide to performing thematic analysis. This is also a recursive process that involves constantly moving back and forth through the phases, and as I am finding out, may take longer than initially expected.  (The six phases are 1. Familiarizing yourself with the data. 2. Generating initial codes. 3. Searching for themes. 4. Reviewing themes. 5. Defining and naming themes. 6. Producing the report.) I am currently in the coding phase and moving into the themes phase.  Some of my initial codes relate to elements of the survey such as “global nature of the project,” or “I love Whitacre’s music,” but other emergent codes have emerged more directly related to specific singing techniques such as “improved breath control,” or “learning about American styles of choral singing compared to classical European styles.”

Transformation of knowledge vs transfer of knowledge. Are they the same?

Q. What does transformation of knowledge mean to you? Is it equivalent to “transfer of knowledge”? How does Virtual Choir participation require the transformation of knowledge? Do you see participation in the project as automatically resulting in some kind of learning?

I don’t see transformation of knowledge and transfer of knowledge as the same thing.  Transfer deals with issues of how can learning from one context be applied to another context.  My future research studies seek to investigate this as I become more familiar with other examples of online informal learning and the complexities that go along with transfer of knowledge.  I am not very familiar with the term transformation of knowledge, but to me it would mean gaining knowledge that alters or transforms your existing schema.  Kind of a constructivist or sociocultural way of learning, where knowledge is not just some object to be gained, but is constructed.  The virtual choir was not designed to be an ‘instructional’ or ‘learning’ environment.  But learning is occurring. I don’t think that everyone would claim that they learned something by participating, but examples from my study have shown themes like, “I learned a new piece of music,” while other mentioned that they learned video recording techniques.  The learning was personal for each participant because of the flexibility of the environment, but certainly not automatic.

Is there structure in the Virtual Choir project?

Q. Part of the Virtual Choir experience seems, as you describe it, very structured — in what ways do you see the project as being an example of informal learning?

As with many informal learning experiences, some structure is necessary and is a good thing.  Perhaps the single most important aspect of choral singing is following the cues of an instructor.  In this case, having a recorded instructor track with an accompaniment helped to keep singers together and singing in the same key.  There were also good guidelines of how to record and upload the video.  Maintaining correct file formats for the videos and a logical submission process is critical when dealing with thousands of people from around the world.

The informal learning that was unstructured occurs first as this is outside of an educational curriculum, as defined by Livingstone. Also the methods of learning the music were very unstructured.  You could use the guide tracks that were provided, but based on my study, many people learned the songs by watching other postings and following along.  Some printed the music and practiced at a piano.  The setting is also informal and unstructured, which would put this down in the bottom of Sefton-Green’s quadrant. One participant from the most recent project is a deaf & mute singer that participated in the project by submitting a video of herself signing along with the music.  Even though she didn’t fit the original mold, she created her own learning and changed the structure.  Her contribution touched many people that participated in the project.

So while there was some initial structure to the project, both the setting and the curriculum would be considered informal.

walking-around-lived-experience-that-results-in-new-knowledge. Is this informal learning?

Q. If informal learning can be characterized as all the learning that doesn’t take place in school, what is the difference between informal learning and the walking-around-lived-experience-that-results-in-new-knowledge? Who are the populations of interest within informal learning research?

In some definitions they could be one and the same. I would agree that walking-around-lived experience is absolutely a part of informal learning and should be considered as learning.  That is one of the Sefton-Greens arguments as well. He argues that, “learning in out-of school settings needs to be accorded status and understanding as we seek to enhance the education system more generally” (p. 6, 2004). But this is too broad of a scope for me.  That is why I am focusing on online informal environments.

The populations of interest in informal learning vary greatly.  Sefton-Green and others focus on children in out-of-school contexts. My minor advisor in the Learning Sciences, Dr. Kylie Peppler, has focused much of her research on children and the intersection of the arts and new media in informal spaces. Other researchers from the Learning Sciences such as Dr. Kevin Crowley, from Pittsburgh, study museum learning and its connection to STEM. Business consultants and researchers, such as Jay Cross, focus on encouraging informal learning in the workplace. Our own recent work with Dr. Bonk on MOOCs and self-directed learning environments has shown examples from all ages.  There is high emerging interest in these populations.  The virtual choir had participants ranging from under 10 (with the help of a parent), to a woman in her 80’s from over 100 countries.

If I can go back to Sefton-Green’s criteria notice that he focuses on both structure and intentions. “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). Perhaps having the intention to learn could distinguish informal learning as an academic field from every-day lived experience. However, I would still consider those everyday experiences as informal learning, even though trying to investigate and research that would be very difficult.

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.