My Masters, Teaching & Learning

An interesting dichotomy in formal and informal online learning

More lit review reading for my thesis, this time an article called “Exploring the Role of ICT in Facilitating Adult Informal Learning” in which an interesting dichotomy emerged from the research. It’s one that I have heard before which goes something like this.

The researchers conducted a survey of 1100 people in the UK on the role that ICT (information and communication technology) plays in learning, both formal and informal. Among their findings was the tidbit that people who might never use ICT for formal learning use it regularly for informal learning. That is to say, they would not consider taking a web-based college course in, say, photography, but yet they are likely to use the web to learn about photography.

Interesting. And raises some questions. The first one is why the hesitation to take a formal online course in a topic they are interested in? Here is the first response, from a 38 year old woman who owns her own web development company, who the researchers suspected would be a prime candidate for an online learning course.

Researcher: But have you been tempted by all the online courses you can take, never actually having to leave the comfort of your front room?

Interviewee: I’ll tell you what puts me off those—I’ve had scan through the leamdirect courses—and it’s the feeling that they’re trying to teach basic skills without teacher interaction, and I personally like classroom interaction. And I don’t think you can get the same buzz doing it online. I chat [on the Internet] quite often to friends in the States. In chat rooms the difficulty is that it becomes very disjointed and you lose threads very easily and you lose the interaction that you get when you’re face to face. And I think that’s the disadvantage of it…if I wanted to learn maths or something I think it would be great. But I think if you were learning something that required a bit more interaction, I would treat it with a bit of distrust.

Distrust. Strong word. So, not only does she perceive that there would be a lack of interaction with classmates in an online course, but she also goes so far as to say she would approach a course that didn’t offer interaction with a “bit of distrust”. Her preconceived notion is that a formal online course would lack interaction. Granted, this research was done 6 years ago and I suspect her perceptions were probably closer to truth in 2004 than in 2010, but it is surprising how often I hear attitudes like this in casual conversations with people, especially those who have been away from formal learning for the past few years.

What about that photography example from earlier? Here is the response from a 63 year old male:

Researcher: Would you consider doing a formal photography course on the Internet?

Interviewee: Yeah, there are camera courses. I’ve thought about It, but I’ve probably got to the stage now that I don’t want to be bothered. I think I’ve learnt enough, but I pick most things up. I can sit down and read something on the computer and I’d have the gist of how to do the job.

Now, there is no explanation as to why he can’t be bothered (maybe it’s too expensive, or he considers this “just a hobby” and does not require a formal course – his incentive to attend isn’t great), so this speaks as much to learner motivation as it does to the perception of the quality of an online course. Seems to me, however, that his response is an endorsement for his perception of the quality of open educational resources and open communities available on the web. Not that he thinks they are better than what he might find through an institution, but they are good enough to satisfy his learning needs.  If a learner is getting what they need from the open sources on the web, then does that reduce the motivation for them to attend college or university? Is their learning itch being scratched by the availability of open resources on the web?

According to the authors, these two examples are not isolated responses in their study, and “these attitudes towards ICT-based formal learning permeated our interviews.”

Neil Selwyn and Stephen Gorard, “Exploring the Role of ICT in Facilitating Adult Informal Learning.,” Education, Communication & Information 4, no. 2 (May 2004): 293-310.

CC BY 4.0 An interesting dichotomy in formal and informal online learning by Clint Lalonde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


  1. Hi Clint. As an instructor who teaches creative writing online, I'm very interested in this debate. This is my second year of offering courses online and I'm hoping that the more courses I offer and the more the word gets out, the more students will sign up for them. In addition to lots of interaction with the students, it's important for students to be able to advance in their studies online so this year, in additon to the first-year course in fiction, they can now take the second-year course.

  2. Hey Clint. I just posted a comment on another of your posts that dealt with the very issue of trust and perceptions. Seems it's not only instructors who distrust students will do work using ICT, but perhaps students distrust the level of engagement they'll get from an instructor.

    Instructors also seem to (rightly) feel that using ICT will be more work, but are not prepared to change the approach and that approach is often a deeper level of interaction – with students and with the curricular material.

  3. The debate between instructor-led classroom training and web-based training is an on-going one. Its largely based on user preference, but always interesting to see the reasons people cite for preferring one over the other. Virtual classes can be added into the mix as well. Will be interesting to see how the training landscape continues to evolve over time – and how learning organizations adapt.

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