Differences of Formal, Informal, and Nonformal Learning

Currently scholars distinguish three forms of learning: formal, informal, and nonformal (Farrow, de los Arcos, Pitt, & Weller, 2015; McMillon, 2009; Norqvist, Leffler, & Jahnke, 2016; Rogoff, Callanan, Gutiérrez, & Erickson, 2016). To differentiate these three forms of learning, scholars (Farrrow et al., 2015; Schugurensky, 2000) have recommended considering factors concerning the what, where, and when of learning.

Formal learning is structured in terms of learning objectives, learning times, and learning support (Aberg, 2016; Etling, 1993). Rogers (2019), Thaman (2013) and Werquin (2010) defined formal learning as structured, planned, proposed though national curriculum, and school-based learning that takes place in a formal education system, leading to recognized diplomas. Elementary schools, secondary schools, academic colleges, and universities are considered to be sites for formal learning (Rogers, 2004).

Informal learning can be intentional but, in most cases, is described as unintentional and non-institutionalized; learning can happen anytime, anywhere, and by anyone (Rogoff, Callanan,Gutiérrez, & Erickson, 2016; Thaman, 2013). Such learning does not lead to recognized certifications or diplomas. Informal learning is a lifelong process whereby individuals acquire values, skills, and knowledge from daily experiences and activities related to work, family, or leisure (Eaton, 2010). Examples of informal learning include learning from extracurricular activities, peers or family members, field trips, and learning languages from native speakers (Eaton, 2010).

Nonformal learning has aspects of both formal and informal learning. Coombs and Ahmed (1974) defined nonformal learning as “organized, systematic, educational activity carried on outside the framework of the formal system” (p. 8). Nonformal learning takes place in a variety of situations and environments (Coombs & Ahmed, 1974) but does not lead to certification or a diploma (Aberg, 2016).

 Nonformal learning is intentional (Colardyn & Bjornavold, 2004), and provides alternative learning opportunities for those who have no access to formal education or who need to attain specific life skills and knowledge to conquer different obstacles. It is student-centered, voluntary, available for anyone, and purposeful, but more flexible than formal learning (Eraut, 2000; Tuomainen, 2014). Examples of nonformal learning include adult literacy programs, occupational skill trainings, online tutorials, language skill programs, disciplinary after school projects, fitness classes, tutoring, and professional and vocational programs organized by non-profit organizations (Rogers, 2004).Non-formal or nonformal learning? The difference in meaning between the hyphenated term non-formal and the non-hyphenated term nonformal is significant (Etling, 1993). 

Non-formal learning represents opposition to formal learning. Aberg (2016), Etling (1993), and Farrow et al. (2015) spelled nonformal learning without a hyphen to indicate that nonformal learning is not the opposite of formal learning, but an alternative or supplement to formal learning (Etling, 1993). Thus, I chose to use the non-hyphenated term nonformal to specify my intended meaning within this program.As a result of careful examination of studies (Aberg, 2016) and official documents (Norqvist, Leffler, and Jahnke, 2016; UNESCO; 2005), and based on my experience in the WLCP, I define nonformal learning as prearranged and semi-structured learning that happens in a program within an institution or organization. Such learning is community-based, voluntary, self-directed, and self-engaged worthwhile learning. It does not lead to recognized certifications or diplomas; however, it is guided by a teacher or facilitator.