by Geoff Allan

What sort of learning?

There are a number of types of learning and it may be useful to think about what sort of learning you require before looking for a particular package that will deliver it. All the types of learning described below can take place with appropriate e-learning packages.

Formal versus informal learning

One way of looking at learning is in terms of whether it is formal or informal. Formal learning is planned and is probably provided in the form of a course or modules, with assessment as an inherent part of the process. Often, there will be some form of certification, with a qualification at one extreme and a certificate of attendance at the other. When we refer to e-learning packages or modules, we are usually referring to a type of formal learning.

Informal learning might be said to be the opposite. In other words, it’s unplanned, with no assessment and no certification. Many authorities suggest that most of our learning is informal, and if you take the view that we are always learning, then this is probably true – what proportion of our adult lives do we spend in formal learning situations?

Informal learning takes place in a myriad of ways: listening to others, discussing things, asking a colleague how something is done, trying things out yourself, reading newspapers, magazines, professional journals or books, seeing things on TV or hearing them on radio or podcasts, using the web, reading blogs, wikis or bulletin boards. All these are examples of activities in which informal learning may be happening. Reading this topic is a form of informal learning. In deciding to read this and other topics in this resource, you are taking part in informal learning. In other words, you are seeking information on an ad hoc basis to satisfy a desire or solve a problem.

Self-managed versus self-determined learning

Finally, it might be useful to be aware of two terms often associated with e-learning – self-managed learning and self-directed learning.

Self-managed learning

Here, the learner is responsible for their progress through a particular programme or course, arranging meetings with their mentor or tutor and so on. However, the learning objectives have been determined for them, possibly during an appraisal session (‘I think you need to update your knowledge of health and safety regulations’).

Self-determined learning

This is where the learner decides what they need to learn and when. It is then up to them to choose how they will learn. They may decide on either formal or informal approaches and they may use e-learning or more conventional approaches. E-learning, in both guises, formal and informal, is ideally suited to encourage self-determined learning, much of which can be described as just-in-time learning.

Blended learning

This term is commonly used as if it was unique to e-learning, but it is what good training has always done – used a variety of methods and technologies to achieve results. For example, someone learning presentation skills in a workshop environment may well have watched a video of a presentation, discussed how to construct one, produced a set of PowerPoint slides, given a presentation to fellow learners, and then received feedback on the effort. That mixture of approaches is called blended learning.

Key point

The value placed on blended learning emphasises the point that an e-learning package may not be able to stand on its own. You may, in other words, need to support it with other forms of learning, including discussion (see What support might be needed?).

You may sense a tension here between some of the advantages of e-learning, such as flexibility, and the implication that e-learning needs to be combined with other forms of training. Much will depend on the topic and the quality of the e-learning package. Learning how to analyse a set of financial figures in a spreadsheet is something probably within the capacity of most people to learn by themselves, given an appropriate training package. Learning coaching skills, on the other hand, may seem something that must be done with some form of blended learning. Even here, however, a good simulation in an e-learning package will allow a learner to practise over and over again in a way that would never be possible in a skills workshop.