Written by:

Holly Macdonald


December 3, 2015

One of the quandaries that instructional designers have been struggling with, is their role (if any) in informal or social learning.

First of all, what exactly is informal and social learning?

Informal – no set objective in terms of learning outcomes and is never intentional from the learner’s standpoint. Often, it is referred to as learning by experience or just as experience. For all learners this includes heuristic language building, socialization, inculturation, and play. Informal learning is a pervasive ongoing phenomenon of learning via participation or learning via knowledge creation, in contrast with the traditional view of teacher-centered learning via knowledge acquisition.


Social – I define social learning as participating with others to make sense of new ideas. Augmented by a new slew of social tools, people can gather information and gain new context from people across the globe and around the clock as easily as they could from those they work beside.


An instructional designer’s role is to design instruction. I believe in today’s world that could include informal/social. I’m reminded of an older post “Triple E-learning

  1. Bridging the two – adding informal/social to the formal – providing an additional way to extend the learning. This might mean adapting an existing formal learning into one that adds some informal or social learning. Really, we’ve done this for years with co-horts, small group work, discussion groups and other methods. We really just have more tools at our disposal in today’s environment. But, instead of it being an either/or situation, we need to consider how to make it an AND situation. I like how Clark Quinn describes options in this article https://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/57/social-networking-bridging-formal-and-informal-learning

2. Building and supporting an informal learning “space” – whether it’s online or offline. This is a much more facilitative role and some would argue that it’s counter-intutitive to have a designer involved. One of the challenges of social/informal learning is that best learning isn’t necessarily captured or shared and an ID might have some ways of enhancing the experience. James Tyer captures this well in his post: https://theworksocial.com/home/2015/10/29/learning-social

3. Connecting learning to the work – an instructional designer might be able to tap into an informal learning space or situation to identify a more substantial need or opportunity to amplify something shared or learned with a wider group and embed it into the more formal programs to ensure that it’s part of an ongoing culture of continuous improvement. Helen Blunden describes a project like this here: https://activatelearning.com.au/2015/09/work-connect-and-learn-a-guided-social-learning-program/

spark image 2I think the big issue around whether or not the instructional designer has a role in these situations, is one of control. If the ID is acting as a gatekeeper or tries to direct all activities related to training/learning, then it’s easier to see why there would be reluctance around their involvement. I would hope that a good instructional designer doesn’t act that way, but instead demonstrates the value that they’d provide.

How to enhance, extend, embed are all ways that an instructional designer can add value.

I’d add a couple more “E’s” to the mix here:

An instructional designer can help establish an environment or culture where informal learning is included and even celebrated. This might be an online community, peer-learning exchange, user-generated content, or simply making a connection between two people. Instruction isn’t always a course. It seems to have become that, but I believe that instruction is much broader than that. Think of it like an interior designer – they may put the space together seeking not only function, but also beauty, but they also care about how people will BE in those spaces. An instructional designer can do that too, even if it’s a virtual space or a workplace.

An instructional designer can also evaluate existing formal programs that perhaps no longer need to be managed formally and could be more effective if they were informal and/or social. Much of what happens in organizational learning departments is driven by efficiency, which is not always the most effective. Unfettering a formal program to an informal environment might free up time to develop more effective formal programs and might tap into some pretty great informal learning and sharing. It takes a lot of courage though to do that, but it can be done. And, the reality is, it’s an improvement for everyone. The client gets the right solution to their problem. The audience gets the right mode of training/learning. And you, the instructional designer, get a variety of new ways to help everyone get what they need.

What do you think? Is this the role of an instructional designer?