Informal Learning in Digital Contexts | Handbook of Open, Distance, and Digital Education

This is the second of two chapters by Terry Anderson and me (the other being on the topic of pedagogical paradigms, that I shared a week or two ago) from Springer’s Handbook of Open, Distance, and Digital Education.

The ‘paradigms’ chapter more or less wrote itself – we’ve churned those ideas around for long enough now that we both know the topic rather well – but this one caused us a lot more trouble. Our difficulties were largely due to the fact that we started out with roughly as much idea about what the term ‘informal learning’ means as anyone else. In other words, we kind of recognized it when we saw it, but could come up with no plausible definition that was not either simply wrong, incomplete, or vaguely defined as ‘not formal’ (sometimes adding the utterly circular cop-out notion of ‘non-formal’). As we later figured, ‘formal’ is no better defined than ‘informal’, so that didn’t help. Faced with the need to cover a fairly representative sample of work in the area, we therefore made a mess of it. Our initial draft consisted mainly of a set of examples culled mainly from Terry’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the literature in the field, bound together in loosely connected themes. Because the literature we were citing was based on a large, vague, and often mutually contradictory variety of understandings of ‘informal learning’ the chapter reflected this too: the parts were fine, but the whole was quite incoherent. We needed a better framework.

So we started to brainstorm a few different ways of thinking about the problem, looking at as many ways the term was used as we could find, identifying common patterns and frequently associated concepts, trying to distinguish necessary from sufficient conditions, and consequently finding a much bigger mess than the one we had started with. The amount of fuzzy thinking and loose, almost arbitrary terminology found in the field of informal learning turns out to be quite staggering. It’s not a field: it’s a jungle.

Not for the first time, though, I found Michael Erault’s work in the area to be an inspiration and source of clarity. Erault doesn’t try to come up with a single defining characteristic, instead recognizing that there is a richly variegated continuum of informal-to-formal ways that people learn from and with one another (at least in the workplace settings he has studied). Although (as far as I know) he didn’t  explicitly use the term, the sets of characteristics that Erault uses to identify relative degrees of informality seemed to me to imply that he was thinking in terms of what Wittgenstein described as Familienähnlichkeit (family resemblances). No single cluster of characteristics define learning as informal (or formal, for that matter) but, if enough are present, we can usually recognize it as one or the other, or somewhere in between.

This gave us a useful starting point, but it still left a lot of vagueness, and  Erault’s focus on informal workplace learning did not fully address all of the meanings and instantiations of informal learning that are particularly significant when examining digital contexts – all the stuff that happens in exchanges through social media, for instance, from Quora to YouTube tutorials and back through email, Reddit, and Twitter. Also, it seemed to gloss over the formal stuff which (as we noted) is as poorly defined as ‘informal’, and that almost never occurs in anything resembling a ‘pure’ form: there is hardly ever any formal learning without informal learning lurking close by. It would be a lot easier if we just talked about formal teaching, because that does refer to a much clearer set of better-defined activities, but teaching is not at all the same thing as learning. Indeed, sometimes the relationship is very oblique indeed, notwithstanding Frere’s claims that you cannot call it teaching unless learning occurs. And then there’s the complex role of credentials of various kinds in both assessing and influencing learning. We wanted to find a way to capture the richness of that, but could find no existing work that worked well enough for us.

We went through a lot of different concepts and representations (yes, there were Venn diagrams!) before finally hitting on the notion that it is not so much a two-dimensional continuum between formal and informal, but a multi-dimensional spectrum defined in terms of relative degrees of dependence/independence and intentionality/non-intentionality.


Informal learning as a 3D continuum, with dimensions of dependence/self-direction and incidental/intentional

We (tentatively) reckon that we can situate at least most existing work in the field within this framework, and that it provides a helpful way of thinking about whatever is happening in a particular moment of a learning trajectory (another concept from Erault that I’ve found very useful in the past, especially when talking about transactional control in my first book). An individual’s learning trajectory will constantly wind around this space and, when other individuals are involved (not just formal teachers), their paths will affect one another in interesting ways. After we’d worked this out, the rest of the chapter fell more or less into place. You can read the result here.

Here’s the chapter abstract:

Governments, business leaders, educators, students, and parents realize the need to inculcate a culture of lifelong learning – learning that spans geography, time, and lifespan. This learning has both formal and informal components. In this chapter, we examine the conceptual basis upon which informal learning is defined and some of the tools and techniques used to support informal learning. We overview the rapid development in information and communications technologies that not only creates opportunities for learners, teachers, and researchers but also challenges us to create equitable and culturally appropriate tools and contexts in which high-quality, continuous learning is available to all.


Dron J., Anderson T. (2022) Informal Learning in Digital Contexts. In: Zawacki-Richter O., Jung I. (eds) Handbook of Open, Distance and Digital Education. Springer, Singapore.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

2 Comments on Informal Learning in Digital Contexts | Handbook of Open, Distance, and Digital Education

  1. Anne-Marie Scott says:

    I think you just took informal learning as close to 3D chess as it’s possible to do. A multi-dimensional spectrum eh? I do think you’re right about binary definitions and hard boundaries being more than useless in this space though. 

    Your nifty diagram got me thinking about residual learning, e.g. when I set out to learn something formally but end up learning a bunch of other stuff not accounted for in assessments or learning outcomes. So I like the idea that one could identify where both might happen simultaneously on this diagram.

    I also really like “incidental” as a category. The role of reflection and judgement becomes interesting here to me. How did I realise I’d learned something? Often when I do something in the workplace or am involved in someone else’s thing in the workplace I learn stuff. Mostly about process and people and how organisations work, but it takes a little while for my mind to sift the experience and find the little nugget. I didn’t know I was even looking for it until the little lightbulb moment happens.

    That’s all to say that I find this analysis compelling from my esteemed position of personal anecdote and bias 😉

    1. Jon Dron says:

      Anecdote and bias are pretty much as good as it gets in educational research. Well, that and collections incommensurate concepts drawn as an infographic and labelled as a model. Maybe we should start a journal: the International Review of Anecdote, Infographics, and Learning.
      A friend and I once invented a way to play 3D chess on a conventional chess board with the pieces laid out as usual, each 4×4 section of the board being mapped to a level in the tower. It was entertaining to play when stoned and it confused the hell out of onlookers when pawns jumped to the other side of the board. Actually, it confused the hell out of us, too. We often failed to notice if one of us had won. I think that’s probably quite a good metaphor for something.
      I quite like the term ‘residual learning’ – I don’t recall hearing that before – though I think it is often better applied to the formal outcomes than the rest. The overlapping portion of the Venn diagram between what we think we teach and what students actually learn is really quite small, on the whole, sometimes vanishingly so, and that is exactly as it should be (at least for softer subjects – maybe not so useful when learning to ride a bike or to handle plutonium safely). I am therefore quite drawn to the notion of outcome harvesting, which provides a formal framework for both evaluation and reflection. And, yes, the reflection part is so very, very important. This is one of the great benefits of doing this kind of thing with others, especially in a diversely populated public space like Twitter or Reddit (or comments on a blog, albeit a blog with a broken notification system so it sometimes takes me a while to notice comments), though a notebook of thoughts or a journal is probably the next best thing.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.