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Non-formal learning in LN

Why non-formal learning

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Francis Brouns
18 November 2009

In our definition we state that Learning Networks are particularly suitable for non-formal learning.

  • What is non-formal learning?
  • How is it different from formal learning or even informal learning?
  • Why is it important for LN that we define the type of learning involved?
  • ...

Extra content

"Non-formal learning is, thus, "any activity involving the pursuit of understanding, knowledge or skill which occurs outside the curricula of educational institutions, or the courses or workshops offered by educational or social agencies ...[and] undertaken on one's own, either individually or collectively, without either externally imposed criteria or the prsence of an institutionally authorized instructor." (p.3)" Livingstone, 1999, p3 as cited by van Merriënboer et al, 2009


Several aspects are mentioned in our articles:

non-formal learning is

  • intentional, like formal learning, but from learner's point of view
  • does not necessarily rely on fixed curricula, classroom instruction, cohort-based pacing
  • takes the desires of learners as starting point (pull-based rather than push)
  • the scope or context for non-formal learning often are the individual's employability concerns or personal competence development needs
  • not restricted to subscription to a single educational institution or service provider
  • does not typically lead to formal certification
  • consists of learning embedded in planned activities that are not explicitly designated as learning
  • structured in terms of personal learning objectives, learnig tiem or learning support


Sloep, P. (2009). Social interaction in Learning Networks. In R. Koper (Ed.), Learning Network Services for Professional Development (pp. 17-25). Berlin, Germany: Springer Verlag.

Sloep, P. B. (2008, 2009). Fostering Sociability in Learning Networks through Ad-Hoc Transient Communities. Paper presented at the Computer-Mediated Social Networking. First International Conference on Computer Mediated Social Networking, ICCMSN 2008, Dunedin, New Zealand.

Van Merriënboer, J. J. G., Kirschner, P. A., Paas, F., Sloep, P. B., Caniëls, M. C. J. (2009). Towards an integrated approach for research on lifelong learning. Educational Technology Magazine, 49(3), 3-15.

Livingstone, D. W. (1999). Exploring the icebergs of adult learning: Findings of the first
Canadian survey of informal learning practices. The Canadian Journal for the Study of
Adult Education, 13, 49-72.


Francis Brouns
15:09 on 25 November 2009

To me the main characteristics are:

- intentional

- self-organised

Peter formulates it like this

"Second, I still like the distinction between informal, formal and non-formal, although I do realise it doesn't capture everyting. For me, there are two dimensions to look at, the intentional vs non-intentional, and the organised, structured versus the self-organised."

This still does not make a statement about the form of the actual learning object or learning material. Can that be formal?

Francis Brouns
12:15 on 30 November 2009

Embedded Content


Kamakshi Rajagopal
9:08am 19 November 2009

Good questions!

I think there is some need to have this discussion as the definitions of the terms formal/non-formal learning seem to be becoming blurry.

I think Learning Networks (as a network of people and resources designed to support learning) are essentially for non-formal learning (i.e. learning that is intentional but not organised by an external person or institution).

I think the intentionality of the learner becomes much more important (as the learner ideally becomes more aware of her learning and uses these networks to achieve goals). In that sense, the learner can choose to formalize (=get social recognition for) certain parts of her learning path.     

10:19am 19 November 2009

Hi there,

Yesterday, I really enjoy thinking together with everyone from different perspectives!

For me, the difference between formal and non-formal learning is whether there is externally imposed supervision or evaluation during the learning process.

There are no clear boundary in most aspects of these two forms of learning. But the defining difference is non-formal learning suits self-directness better than formal learning. If we think of self-directness, then the difference between formal and non-formal learning can be clear. A self-directed lifelong learner can monitor and evaluate his/her own progress during non-formal learning. This does not need externally imposed supervision from the teacher or institution. To end the learning process, non-formal learners can also acquire certificates if they want to. That’s why I do not think the difference between these two forms of learning depends on getting a certificate or not. I think the difference rests in which form of learning can satisfy self-directness.

If you think formal learning can also cater self-directness, I am not surprised! But, there is always assessment/evaluation for formal learning! This is less suitable for self-directed learners!

 Amy  ^__^



Steven Verjans
11:15am 19 November 2009

I added a link to the blogpost by Jyri Engeström, who argues that you need objects in a social network, and not just people. In the learning network model that Henry Hermans and Marcel Wigman are developing, knowledge objects/artefacts are a crucial part of a learning network. Maybe that helps to further our thinking about non-formal learning in a LN

Bert van den Berg
11:21am 19 November 2009


i also enjoyed the discussion yesterday. It is also good to think and re-think about the things we often take for granted.

For me the main question at the moment is: whether it is necesarry to make the difference between formal and non-formal. The interesting issue for me is. If there is a difference what would be the consequence for (the design of)  the Learning Network.

WIth repect to the discussion of whether a learning network  always and only includes people who are "on-line"  I would prefer to say "people who are "connected".


11:39am 19 November 2009

Indeed! the discussion was fruitful, it was thought provoking, even we dint come to a consensus. We learned the different perspectives.

To this end. I think Non-formal learning, is about the "learner-organized learning activity", "flexible", "learning objective is intentional". That may or may not lead you to certificate. "Doing a course on internet on HTML"is non-formal, even though the course is structured by someone else, but the choice and flexibility is in the hand of learner (Learner-organised).

Formal learning is more about institutionally-designed, less-flexible to learners'needs, strictly cirriculum based, might lead you to certificate.

Informal learning, can be intentional, like acquiring knowledge or skills on daily basis at home or at work place, but it is not an organised-learning activity. No-instructions are required. Learning resources (family, neighbour, colleagues, libraries, internet) are the environment of the learner.

Each of us may have several learning goals, which we strive to achieve in formal, non-formal or in-formal way, or a combination of one, two or all of these, depending upon the learning domain.

Learning Netowrk for a given domain may include Knowledge (resources), people (experts or novices), and services (tools to support learning: knowledge sharing and collaboration). This makes the Learning Network an online network. I think which is an essential part of its definition.

An interesting example of Learning Network, which comes to my mind, probably i have told to some of you. In India recently, many schools were abruptly closed for preventive measures against swine flu. The students started to look for each other online, and sharing their home work and other learning resources, with time it evolved as a learning network, where school kids could share their tasks, ask questions and help each other. It helped them self-organizing their learning activities. This is essentially what I think is the purpose of Learning Network. It may cater the needs of learners for any type of learning. But what we are interested in is how learning network can help non-formal types of learning. 

hall is open for discussion, keep pouring in your ideas!



Bert van den Berg
1:05pm 19 November 2009

Hi Danish

i think I understand what you are saying and to a certain degree i also agree,,,,However I have some questions: are the differences that you describe in your examples not more caused by the pedagocical model that are used?

Related to your idea that a LN must be an online something:

- is it possible to say that a person is a member of a LN? and if so is this person only  a member when he or she is on-line? Does a football-team only exist when they are playing? Does  a road only exist when I drive on it? What was the LN before it was on-line?

2:03pm 19 November 2009 (Edited 2:03pm 19 November 2009)


your question is philosophically very interesting! Learning Network as an "abstract concept" or a "structured ICT infrastructure" is interesting view for research. I guess there is no-harm in imagining LN as offline or online as long as you are connected with people. We do use the term synchronous and asynchronous LN to mean that. It may also happen that you see the members of LN face-to-face and also are able to contact them online. (this is what i meant in my example of schools, which were closed to prevent against swine flu). In your example of football team, it is no-harm to say they are in team, even when they are not playing football in the field. In my understanding, about analogising the LN in a similar fashion, you may know people face-to-face (as a football-team), but when you aint playing, team members may still contact you online to share lessons and plan their strategy for the next game. Now If I am interested in football, I have two options, either i know you personally, face-to-face because I met you somewhere near the football field. Or I go online and search for people who are interested in football. Being online I find your email and know about you as one of the champion in local league :-). I contact you via email, exchange our interests and later we meet face-to-face, and i join the football club. I think the role of Learning Network is to "support" my second approach of getting in contact with you. Once we are connected in online world (virtually), we are also community of people (in real-world) interested in football. We use online ways or face-to-face way to connect and share our football strategies to play good games. In my view, I consider, Learning Network as an ICT infrastructure to support my non-formal interests/learning/goals. But when we meet face to face, we are still a part of community who are interested in common goals/interests.

I liked your view about the abstract notion of LN, and it has indeed served a good food for thought.



Bert van den Berg
10:12am 20 November 2009

Hi Danish

i don't know who said "education = communication" (for the first time) but it is true. it is nice to exchange ideas and learn from each other. I share your explanation about the Learning Network as an ict infrastructure that provides services for people who want to learn (formal or non-fomal).

kind regards


Peter B. Sloep
12:24pm 22 November 2009

When talking definitions, there are a lot of things to be kept in mind. For example, a definition need not contain all relevant characteristics. So a LN may by definition contain both people and objects or as a matter of fact. I have chosen for the latter. So a LN consists of people and it is designed to support non-formal learning. If you want to do that properly it needs to contain objects (and a whole lot more), not by definition, but as a matter of contingent (empirical) fact. Not including objects thus allows you to investigate whether objects are needed. Including them in the definition immediately generates two kinds of LNs, those with and those without objects, which turns the discussion into one about semantics rather than facts. That is also the reason why it is better to be economic with your definitions, it allows you to discuss empirical questions rather than definitional (logical) ones. 

Second, I still like the distinction between informal, formal and non-formal, although I do realise it doesn't capture everyting. For me, there are two dimensions to look at, the intentional vs non-intentional, and the organised, structured versus the self-organised. Formal learning is intentional and organised, informal learning is the opposite, it is the kind of learning we cannot refrain from, what we do unconsciously almost. Non-formal learning sits in the middle, it is intentional but self-organised. Non-intentional and organised seems to be an empty category as I do not see how this could be done. 

Third, these definitions are about how people learn and are taught; not about the role of web 2.0 for learning. It is an empirical (not a definitional) question of how web2.0 affects the three kinds of learning distinguished. I would hypothesize that particularly non-formal learning can profit from it (and so does informal learning of course, but we have no role in that as by definition it eludes our influence as organisers of teaching). But this an hypothesis, which needs to be researched (the if and the how).

Fourth and finally, even though we may focus on non-formal learning, whatever tools and guidelines we find that foster non-formal learning may, again as a matter of fact, also be beneficial to informal and formal learning. And it is quite ok to say something about that in the course of research on LNs (for non-formal learning).

Gráinne Conole
12:33pm 22 November 2009

Your comments Peter remind me of a framework we developed a few years ago. It considered dimensions of learning and could be used either to map learning theories onto (which we did in a computers and education paper) or as a means of mapping tools in context to the framework. It had three dimensions:

  • Indivudal vs. social learning
  • Information-based vs. experiential learning
  • Passive vs. active learning

I was never very happy with the word 'passive' but I can see now that this really is what you are calling non-formal learning. The analogy I always gave to describe this was if you are driving across America in a car you might not intentionally aim to learn about American culture but by being surrounded by the countryside, towns and villages you can't help but pick things up about Amedican culture.

Peter B. Sloep
12:46pm 22 November 2009

That's exactly what I mean! As animals, we cannot but learn, it's part of our 'success' as a species. I find non-formal learning interesting because I believe there's much need for supporting this kind of learning. LNs as self-organising structures that foster non-formal learning I therefore find so interesting as an object of study. There's much more to say about this, of course, see for instance

Gráinne Conole
1:33pm 22 November 2009

Thanks for the link Peter - looks really interesting. I am wondering to what extent your ideas of non-formal learning and LNs apply to the behaviours we are seeing emerging in Cloudworks? We have just been revisting our theoretical perspectives on the site. This is in light of recent emergent patterns of behaviour. We have just submitted a paper to the Networked Learning conference, which explores 3 theoretical frameworks - ritual performance, expansive learning and collective intelligence. We mapped types of activity we see on the site - such as the flash debates, use of the site for conferences and workshops and the "open research reviews" - to these frameworks. Seems quite promising as an approach so far. I wonder if we should explore your non-fromal LN ideas as well.

Antonella Esposito
4:36pm 22 November 2009 (Edited 4:38pm 22 November 2009)

“There's much need for supporting this kind of learning”. I agree with Peter not only thinking of lifelong learners in a networked world, but also reflecting on the need of creative solutions of non-formal learning where fomal schools are not available for any reason. For instance it comes to mind Sugata Mitra’s experiments of computer literacy in rural India, in which groups of illiterate children can leam to use computer and Internet on their own in shared public spaces, where learning networks are composed of peers, siblings, any friends. These pilots pose the pre-conditions so that online learning networks can be created between disadvantages students, as Danish mentioned referring to the same India.

Grainne, looking forward to reading more on the 3 frameworks you devised referring to Cloudworks. Personally, becoming acquainted wih the Cloudworks ‘habitat’ makes me reflecting on my (intermittent) attending in some pilot open courses such as CCK09 or ECI831.

So far the Cloudworks habitat has being provided different opportunities for active/vicarious learning and to play different roles (visitor, reader, content provider, discussant, reviewer, participant in distant event), with the add-on of the development of clouds/topics over time, whenever new stuff are added or new issues are raisen by new or old participants.

On the other hand, in the above mentioned pilots of open courses the number of non-credit students against the for-credit ones and the tough non-formal approach make the experience as an external learner in an open course much more similar (or overlapped?) to the experience as a participant in a community of interest (or, sometimes, of practice). But in this non formal courses I see the scheduled time for activities as a sort of paradox. I wander if it makes sense that this kinds of non-formal courses are delivered in a defined timespan or if they should be considered as springboards for as many communities of interest. Sometimes I had the impression (maybe wrong) that the crowd of concurrent activites and contributions is at danger to facilitate ‘group thinking’ and that this could be avoided allowing more in-depth analysis to be developed over time.
However, I realise that these early (and truly original and enriching) initiatives of non formal courses are strongly characterized by being ‘meta-reflections’ on networked socio-technical and learning settings and that further investigation should be undertaken to explore formal and non-formal learner’s experience, for further design. Thanks for setting the could!

Peter B. Sloep
8:33pm 22 November 2009

@ Gráinne: It is a pity that I could not make to your presentation before Riina's doctoral defense. We would have had a chance to discuss this. From what I see and you tell me, there are interesting similarities. Particularly the case of collective intelligence I find interesting, although the other two may also be useful as analytic lenses for the kinds of (non-formal) LNs we study.

Perhaps the conceptual machinery that we are developing to capture LN dynamics may also be useful in the context of cloudworks. Your activity streams for instance seem akin to what we've dubbed ad-hoc transient communities, temporary groupings of learners within the larger Learning Network which form to solve a particular problem and dissolve one the problem has been solved. However, such fleeting contacts of course lead to the conversion of weak links into strong ones, at least in some cases. These kinds of processes also seem to be taking place in cloudworks.

May be, we have a chance further to discuss this in Aalborg (I intend to go there too, we submitted papers to it as well, one about the concept of ad-hoc transient communities).

Francis Brouns
8:42am 23 November 2009

To me the main characteristic of LN is that it is me as learner who decides what I want or need to learn and how I do that. That  to me is the non-formal part: it is bottom-up, personalised, special for my own personal needs at least in content, but probably also in time and place.

After that it becomes blurry. Because it might fit my needs best for a particular goal to obtain this goal via a formal course. However, a LN that consists only of formal education, courses and curricula provided by instittutions might not feasible. First of all, there is a massive organisation and administration involved for the institution, unless they force all LN learners to enrol at fixed times and come to fixed locations. Also, didactics involved in the formal courses might not fit my personal needs, my personal learning styles, or my need for flexibility in content (only learn that part I still don't know), time (after working hours), location (at home).

Francis Brouns
8:45am 23 November 2009

@ Gráinne and Peter,

to me, the example of learning about American culture while driving through Americ is a typical example of informal learning, not non-formal learning. The intention to learn is missing here. Unless of course, I set out to learn about American culture and choose to do that by crossing the country by car, visiting a lot of cities and towns and talk to locals.

Kamakshi Rajagopal
9:26am 23 November 2009

@ Gráinne, Peter and Francis

Your remark seems very interesting, Francis, as I was actually considering the opposite. I saw the analogy of a roadtrip through America exactly as an example of non-formal learning (which you mention at the end of your post).

I see the intentionality in this example in the fact that the learner consciously chooses to put herself in a setting/context/network where she can learn about something of interest to her. There might not be a clearly defined goal for the learning, but I think there will still be some form of learning through this immersion in a chosen context.

In Gráinne's framework, I would position it then as social, experiential and passive learning (where passive I guess would mean something as not-through-considered-steps-towards-a-defined-goal). 

And in Cloudworks, I think you could compare it with following a cloudscape on a particular chosen topic (without necessarily knowing who will be part of it or what exactly will be discussed in it)

Cindy Kerawalla
11:57am 23 November 2009

This discussion is very interesting. I am currently involved in some research with an after school club and I am trying to define the context. Is this a non-formal learning context? According to some of the definitions above, the club is organised and structured (formal) with no curriculum and no assessment (non-formal) and attendance is voluntary. It is run by the same teachers that the children see for lessons and extends work done previously in the classroom.

The children design investigations in the club, which they can then carry out at home. At first glance, the home seems like an informal setting, but when decisions made in the club guide what is done at home, the distinction between the two contexts is less clear.

Seems to me that the learning achieved in the club and at home is semi-formal (as opposed to non-formal).

Francis Brouns
3:27pm 25 November 2009

@Bert, related to your first post on 19 November

if it has effects on the design of LN really depends on our definitions of formal and non-formal learning. My gut reaction, based on my experience in the programme sofar: yes, it does matter. We can not fulfill the needs of the lifelong learner with formal curricula: we can not meet their need for personalisation (only learn those competences I'm missing) nor cater for their needs for flexibility in logistics (study after hours, at home, in the train, etc). Next, suppose we could manage that with formal curricula, what about the teaching and supervising staff, let alone the massive administration. Because there are no cohorts anymore a teacher will have to address each student individually, has to repeatedly answer the same question, because there is no mechanism to inform everyone about the question and answer; all students will be in a different part of the curriculum, because they start when they want. Poor teacher, who never sees an end to his time. It will be far to expensive to hire the teaching staff required. Or how to deal with certification when a learner only takes a couple of the course of the curriculum.

So, yes, in short, I believe it matters immensely.

As to your second remark: A LN is an online social network, but that does not mean that its members are only considered member when they are online. People are connected via ICT into a social network. Main component is online.

Francis Brouns
12:33pm 30 November 2009


our definition of non-formal is in the context of Learning Networks: i.e. in the context of lifelong learning. And I believe it has much more to do with the process than the actual products (i.e. the courses, learning activities, etc). Although there are aspects in lifelong learning and LN, that make that it is not possible with traditional didactional scenarios.

So, to see whether we would dubb your after school club as non-formal, we need to look at intentions:

- who designed the club? Is that based on requirements, wishes and needs of the learners, or did the school or teachers decided the club was required?

- who decides what activities are carried out?

- who decides what activity best fits the need?

It is non-formal when

- the learner has the intention to learn something

- when the learner organises how, where and when that is done.


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