Four Reasons you need structure for informal learning

April 29, 2015 Dawn Poulos

Wrong Way Last month, I moderated an educational webinar on mobile learning and I was fortunate enough to get some of the leading experts in the field, Judy Brown, Tyson Greer and Allison Rossett, to participate in an online panel discussion to discuss a broad range of topics around mLearning and mSupport.

Normally, our webinars are formal, tightly scripted and tightly controlled events that are planned out to the smallest detail; and I take great pride in the overwhelmingly positive feedback we always get. But as we all know, learning is evolving. Today, we keep hearing that formal presentations are out, that it’s all about informal learning, social learning and user-generated content.

What this webinar taught me is that it’s actually somewhere in between the two.


For this event, I decided to dispose of the safety net that had served me so well in the past and host a completely informal webinar whose content was completely driven by attendee questions. I had list of potential questions and topics ready and simply asked the following from Allison, Judy and Tyson:

  1. Think about what work and research you have that supports these topics.
  2. Have any pre-existing slides on hand and ready to show should a question arise that they can support.
  3. Don’t be afraid to have differing views.

The result: Not my most successful webinar.

While the majority of people liked the webinar and said it was one they would recommend, slightly over 20% of the attendees felt the event did not meet their expectations and would not recommend it. This stung!

This seemed due in large part to the format of the event. Here we asked attendees to rate the design of the webinar:

The easy thing to do is to conclude that an informal setting doesn’t work online, but I don’t believe that. What I saw from these results is that we were potentially on to something. So I dug deep into the comments and survey results to see what lessons I could apply to our next event.

The “ah-ha” factor came quickly from the following survey question:“What constructive changes would you suggest to make the webinar more effective next time?”

40% of webinar attendees who answered this question told us, in one way or another, that we needed to provide more structure to the event.

So, while structured informal learning sounds like an oxymoron, here are four reasons why structure still matters:

1. Formal learning is still the “comfort zone” for many people: The rapid rise of informal learning is based on the premise that formal presentations don’t engage learners; that the majority of information presented is not retained; and that peoples’ attention tends to drift. (Ever catch up on your email during a formal presentation?) Even so, we received a number of comments similar to the following:

I guess I wouldn’t have a panel discussion. It jumped around too much for me… I guess I’m more of a lineal learner! I think a series of presentation/discussions would be more effective.

Even with all of the buzz surrounding informal learning, Chief Learning Officer Magazine reports that 41% of learning executives indicated they continue to use classroom-based instructor-led training as the primary learning delivery method. Structured, formal learning still predominates and it’s what people know and are comfortable with (maybe it’s generational, but one size clearly doesn’t fit all). This should be taken into account as we integrate informal learning programs into our organizations.

2. Structure provides a template for how to best convey knowledge in an informal setting: Wikipedia characterizes informal learning as follows:

It does not necessarily follow a specified curriculum and is not often professionally organized but rather originates accidentally, sporadically, in association with certain occasions, from changing practical requirements.

While it seems contradictory at first, it’s this ad-hoc format that benefits most from structure. A common complaint we received was that there was a lack of examples on how mobile learning content is currently being used. The difficult part of reading this was the fact that these examples were indeed available! Furthermore, I know from past webinar experience and feedback that examples are highly valued by participants. Had I leveraged this knowledge to provide a structured approach or template for panelists to address questions, these examples would not have fallen by the wayside and we would have ultimately better met the needs of our webinar audience.

3. Structure allows you to immediately organize a large, diverse set of content: Throughout the webinar, there was a continuous flow of questions that admittedly, I just could not coordinate on-the-fly with the real-time discussion. Here is a bit of feedback that summarizes nicely the issue I was having:

“It was very hard to follow with all of the jumping around! Just because someone has a questions doesn’t mean they have to be prioritized. It was distracting.”

User tagging is an important aspect of sharing content that many social media tools promote. Structure allows us to make sense of information by defining a limited and logical set of tags to describe a set of content. To illustrate, had the webinar technology we were using been optimized for social learning, attendees could have simply marked their questions by choosing from a set of pre-defined tags limited to the topics discussed during the webinar. This would have automatically grouped the questions into small buckets, allowing me to quickly identify and pull a question pertinent to the topic at hand without disrupting the flow of the discussion.

4. Structure blends formal and informal content to create a better learning experience: Another issue that attendees pointed out had to do with the lack of guidance provided to them:

It is my belief that if you have a deck available, it should somehow be used to guide the conversation. Asking to jump from slide to slide was a distraction and caused me some frustration.

A formal teaching environment is normally broken down into three phases:

  1. Set learning objectives;
  2. Go through the materials;
  3. Summarize what was just learned.

Informal learning shouldn’t mean we disregard what works effectively in a formal setting. When an event is 100% informal and unstructured, it becomes quite difficult to convert the inherent chaos of user-generated content into something impacting and lasting.

Whether it’s an educational webinar or training, it’s entirely plausible to wrap unstructured contributions around a structured format. What the feedback told me at the end of the day is that while attendees appreciated our efforts to have their questions drive the content of the event, they didn’t want that to be at the expense of a concrete agenda and some level of formal presentation.

So, had I leveraged a methodology that included formal objectives and presentations, but allowed people to contribute in an informal way to enrich and guide the formal content – that instead of allowing user-generated contributions to dive the entire event agenda – I would have created a much richer learning experience.

I called Judy Brown immediately after the event and asked her how she felt about it. She said she felt like she just ran a marathon. I felt the same. She also mentioned that she had just attended a live event where they wouldn’t let anyone contribute during the presentation and that it really brought the energy of the event down. Comparing the two events, she said: “There has to be a happy medium here.”

I agree.

About the Author

Dawn Poulos

Dawn is the main contributor to the Dawn of Learning blog and her writing is behind its success, driving readers back time and again. She is a proud vegan and health enthusiast and lives in San Francisco with her husband and daughter. She is an accomplished speaker and writer, having written numerous white papers and trade articles and speaking yearly at numerous tradeshows on the popular subjects of personalized learning experiences, cloud learning, content strategy, single source and XML.

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