Informal Online Learning: What the dog saw

10 May

Since puppies sell (who doesn’t love a good dog story?), here I go. Please stay on the scent, there is a point about informal learning:


Our dog Forrest, who definitely learned exactly what he could get away with (RIP).

Dogs are social animals, and they learn through interactions with other dogs and humans. I’ve trained a few dogs in my life, and the best advice I ever got from a good dog trainer was: “Your dog is learning something every day. Your job is to make sure he is learning the things you want him to learn.” 

People are also social animals, and nothing is more social than learning. Indeed, even the most basic learning is based in discourse. At times that discourse may be a conversation with one’s self, but we learn through conversations about facts, ideas and applied skills. (It’s why folks in isolation end up muttering to themselves.) That’s just how social animals roll.

Bringing it back to the professional sphere—Every day we continue to learn something about our jobs, our value to our organization, our place in the world. In formal learning environments (synchronous or a-synchronous), teachers, trainers and IDs work hard to hold learners’ attention and deliver what we want them to learn. 

But really, that’s the tail wagging the dog, because that accounts for only 5% of adult learners’ time in the best of circumstances. Informal learning is the nod to the other 95% of learners’ time. 

Think about it: The most admired and valuable members of your team have attained that status in large part through time and effort spent understanding how your organization works, who the key stakeholders and partners are, when and where to “pitch” ideas and ultimately how to get things done. He or she didn’t learn any of that in school. We are social learners, and the folks we admire are those who take the initiative to learn the skills they need to thrive on the job. (A lot like a well-adjusted dog, don’t you think?)

As e-learning professionals, we should strive to:

  • Build the structures for informal learning
  • Support a learning culture that “teaches” people that:
    • what they know is important
    • sharing what they know is valuable
    • we expect and support the time and effort they make to learn outside formal learning events
  • Facilitate, guide and coach the process as needed

Informal online learning might take the form of online Communities of Practice, ask-the-expert sessions, forums, shared resources and tools, social media and curation opportunities, user-contributed success stories, etc. There is no one way to do it, and every situation is different. The question that should gnaw at us is: “If our learning cohorts are not learning what we want them to learn, then what ARE they learning?”

For more on Informal Learning, see Marcia Conner’s Introduction to Informal Learning and Jay Cross’ post about it on his site. I’m also a big fan of Jane Hart, and she has a great piece on ID and social learning.

One Response to “Informal Online Learning: What the dog saw”


  1. Collaboration as Learning? Collaboration IS Learning (or certainly should be!) | In the Learning Age - July 9, 2013

    […] discussed in earlier posts my strong belief that learning is based in discourse. Through conversation, examination, doubt and reaffirmation we arrive to that place where we are […]

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