History of Informal Learning: the Early Years

The emergence of digital / digitisation / digitalization is forcing organisations to rethink and evaluate how workers learn and how to support effective performance. How do people learn? Why? What accounts for the upswing in interest in informal learning? Does it work?

In the corporate context, learning is about mastering technical and social skills, as well as product and services’ knowledge. The focus is ever and always on attaining the skills, knowledge, and expertise required to fulfil the promise made to the customer. In a prescient interview from 2005, the estimable (and now sadly late) Jay Cross articulated a concept that many (including myself) felt at the time was an emerging trend in corporate learning and development:

Well, I had to redefine all learning …because the world is changing so fast. The concepts we had when knowledge was fixed in place, like something you could put in a library, don’t work anymore. So I look at all learning as adaptation to the communities that matter to you, to your ecosystems, if you will. Informal Learning is simply that, which is not directed by an organization or somebody in a control position.

(Interview with Jay Cross: Informal Learning)

Cross went on to describe informal learning as the process of “…discovering the natural pathways that inspire innovation and performance.”

That same year – 2005 – heralded the recovery from the Dot-Com Crash, a period in history that Kevin Kruse has described as one that

…brought the harsh, steep slope of unfulfilled promises. Several high-profile [e-learning] providers shut their doors while many more announced large-scale layoffs in the face of missed revenue targets and crashing stock prices. E-learning advocates retreated to the more defensible ground of “blended learning. This year [2001, went] down as the Trough of Despair.

In amongst the turmoil and gloom of this turn-of-the-century disillusionment (or indeed fin de siècle ennui), a key document on lifelong learning published by the European Commission in the same year went unnoticed by many, including one of its intended audiences: training professionals. In the document Communication on Lifelong Learning, the authors Holford, Patulny & Sturgis defined the terms formal, non-formal and informal learning (p.9):

Table 1 Definition of learning types

Learning Type


Formal Learning

Learning typically provided by an education or training institution, structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and leading to certification. Formal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective [my italics].

Non-formal Learning

Learning that is not provided by an education or training institution and typically does not lead to formalized certification. It is, however, structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support). Non-formal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective [my italics].

Informal Learning

Learning resulting from daily life activities related to work, family or leisure. It is not structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and typically does not lead to certification. Informal learning may be intentional but in most cases it is non-intentional (or “incidental”/ random) [my italics].




Cross, J. (2004) An informal history of eLearning. On the Horizon [Internet] 12(3). pp.103-110. Available from: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/Insight/viewPDF.jsp?Filename=html/Output/Published/EmeraldFullTextArticle/Pdf/2740120301.pdf (Subscription required) Accessed 20th February, 2018

Holford, J. Patulny, R. & Sturgis, P. (2006). Indicators of Non-formal and Informal Educational Contributions to Active Citizenship In: Working towards Indicators on Active Citizenship. Report of the JRC-CRELL Active Citizenship for Democracy Conference, held at European Commission Joint Research Centre, Ispra, Italy, 20-21 September 2006. 39 pp

Kruse, K. (2002) The State of e-Learning: Looking at History with the Technology Hype Cycle. [Internet] Available from: https://web.archive.org/web/20021002222004/http://www.e-learningguru.com:80/articles/hype1_1.htm [Accessed 12th February 2018]