Learning is all about acquiring new knowledge and updating existing knowledge and skills. The terms formal and informal learning have nothing to do with the education process as such, but more with the person involved in learning process. In formal learning, the training is controlled by the trainers, where as in informal learning, the training and learning will be initiated by the learners themselves.
In formal learning the learners have to set the goals and objectives on what and how to learn but in an informal learning scenario, learners pick up something that interests them and pursue its study through informal channels.
Formal Learning: In formal learning, the learning content and structure is set by the instructor or teacher. It is typically a program with a defined timeline where the learners are expected to attain certain amount of proficiency be it with respect to a knowledge or skill. On successful completion, their proficiency is rewarded in the form of a certificate. This type of learning is more planned and structured which are basically organized by the L&D and HR departments and are guided by the vision and objectives of organizations. They follow a structured system and have clear benchmarks against which employees’ learning outcomes are measured.
Formal learning in organizations is in the form of seminars, conferences, training programs or eLearning programs. The main purpose of these initiatives is to enhance the existing skills or knowledge of the employees and apply the same in their working environment. The objective of such an effort is generally performance improvement. However, it is also used as an incentive for employees to increase their employment opportunities.
Informal Learning: This type of learning is never organized or scheduled but is sought after when learners encounter a specific need. This is generally done by consulting their colleagues at workplace, by surfing the internet or through online discussions and forums. This is particularly true in information technology industry where individuals working on software constantly need to interact with other users for troubleshooting or debugging. With rapid changes in technology, information available through traditional resources such as books, become outdated very fast in certain domains. Peer-to-peer interaction is the only means by which individuals exchange and share their knowledge either about a software application or a tool.
There are many platforms that are available for those seeking to learn informally. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn along with industry specific discussion forums, blogs and groups offer ample of opportunity for informal learning. Sometimes, it is easier to find solutions to problems online through forums than through traditional methods. Therefore it is not surprising that informal learning is being viewed more seriously than before.
Thus, formal and informal learning have more to do with the manner in which learning happens than with the process of education, it largely depends on who controls the goals and objectives of learning. However, organizations could weave the seeds of informal learning within the organization using company intranet or portals for easier knowledge transfer and sharing.