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Self-directed learning vs. formal/informal/non-formal learning

Another way of categorising learning

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Steven Verjans
19 November 2009

In a blogpost by Jane Hart, she suggests another way of categorising learning situations/contexts.

"Rather than use the broad categories of formal and informal learning - terms which I think are  pretty difficult to grasp, and which are being confused and abused if phrases I have read like "managing informal learning information" are anything to go by! - I have decided to categorise the use of social media in the following 5 different ways:

  1. IOL - Intra-Organisational Learning - how social media tools can be used to keep employees up to date and up to speed on strategic and other internal initiatives
  2. FSL - Formal Structured Learning - how educators (teachers, trainers, learning designers) as well as students can use social media within education and training - for courses, classes, workshops etc
  3. GDL - Group Directed Learning - how groups of individuals - teams, projects, study groups etc - can use social media to work and learn together (a "group" could just be two people, so coaching and mentoring falls into this category)
  4. PDL - Personal Directed Learning - how individuals can use social media for their own (self-directed) personal or professional learning
  5. ASL - Accidental & Serendipitous Learning - how individuals, by using social media, can learn without consciously realising it (aka incidental or random learning)

It may well be that these categories will need tweaking or even overhauling completely, but here is my first attempt at how social media can be used in these 5 categories, which will be a work in progress.

Harold Jarche takes these thoughts and puts them in a diagram in a follow-up blogpost.

"This had me thinking about how best to explain these categories to clients and folks not immersed in social media and learning. I started by looking at it as a 2×2 matrix, but of course there are five categories, so that wouldn’t work. However, the axes of the amount of direction versus group size made sense to me, so I created the diagram below. What jumped out at me after the fact, and I’ve highlighted in red, is that social media for learning requires a lot of self-directed learning, either individually or as a participant in a group/organization. Externally directed learning (FSL) is only one of five possibilities. Good food for thought on the future role of the “training” department, isn’t it?"

social media for learning


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I was very interested when I saw Jane's work a couple of days ago as it relates directly to a discussion I had a couple of days previously with my DPhil supervisor. See my blog. I have been reading around the formal/informal/non-formal literature for the last few months and getting less and less happy about what I have been reading. Not least because of the degree of confusion over terminology and whether it refers to a learning style, a learning context, learning content, etc, etc. What I proposed to my supervisor was a 5 part categorisation of other-directed, self-directed, incidental, serendipitous, social. On further reflection, I was unhappy with social as a category, mainly because 'social learning' is a current buzz word, but also because social seemed to be at a different level, as captured in the idea of individual, group and organisation suggested by Harold.

Having done a bit more reading around self-directed learning, I am not happy with that, mainly because it is a concept which appears to have changed in meaning considerably over time and lost some of the sense of the self-taught learner outside the institution which it originally had. I am veering towards self-initiated and other-initiated, with sub-categories of intentional, incidental and accidental. I will be doing more work around this and am very interested to know more about what others are thinking.

The recent blogs by Graham Attwell, Tillman Swinke and Steve Wheeler are also very relevant to this topic.

Liz Thackray
17:08 on 19 November 2009

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Gráinne Conole
4:38pm 19 November 2009

Hi I am really interested in this cloud and hadn't come across Jane's categorisation which I think has a lot of merit. I particularly like the way Harold has represented it. I have never been comfortable with the formal/informal/non-formal distinction. The wording and the focus feels wrong. The comments so far make be wonder whether there are other categorisations - I am sure there are! It's just not a literature I am totally familar with.

Francis Brouns
1:02pm 30 November 2009

Context seems very important when trying to explain what we mean. This example seems to focus very much on the use of social media in education and not so much with the form of education.

I'm not sure whether I agree that IOL is self-directed, as it seems to be organised and imposed by the organisation. As employer I'm required to know about these initiatives.

Antonella Esposito
7:01pm 10 December 2009

The European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop) has issued a document of guidelines addressingthe wide range of policy-makers and practitioners involved in developing and implementing validation arrangements at different levels.

"These guidelines, while inspired by the common European principles
on identifying and validating non-formal and informal learning adopted by
the European Council in 2004, are not a policy framework approved by a
law-making body: they are a practical tool, providing expert advice to be
applied on a purely voluntary basis"

(p.9) "the centre of the validation process is the individual.
The activities of other agencies involved in validation should be considered
in the light of their impact on the individual. the multiple
stage validation process offers individuals many opportunities for deciding
about the future direction of their process. This decision‑making should be
supported by information, advice and guidance".

In the Glossary, we can find the following definitions of:

- Informal learning (p.74)
Learning resulting from daily activities related to work, family or leisure. It is
not organised or structured in terms of objectives, time or learning support.
Informal learning is mostly unintentional from the learner’s perspective..

-  Non‑formal learning (p.75)
Learning which is embedded in planned activities not always explicitly
designated as learning (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or
learning support), but which contain an important learning element. Non‑formal
learning is intentional from the learner’s point of view. 

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