How Inkling Bridges the Gap Between Two Types of Learning

Think back to the last time you learned something on your own, without a professor, a tutor, or a textbook. (Really think about it. What did you learn?) Now, think back to the last time you acquired knowledge or skills by sitting down and having it “taught” to you. (Really think about this one, too.) Compare the two. Call the first type of learning “Type I” for “informal” or “intrinsically motivated” learning. Call the second “Type F” for “formal” or “framework-heavy” learning.

Achieving proficiency, whether in becoming a doctor or becoming fluent in Italian, requires both Type I and Type F learning. But all too often, we separate the two with walls and rules, often favoring Type F learning over Type I, because it’s more “serious.” That’s not the way the brain works, and it’s not the way we’ve designed Inkling. Instead, we seek opportunities to build bridges between these two learning modes and to integrate them. Far from being unserious, the power of Type I learning can be harnessed for subjects as diverse as cell biology, principles of economics, and the history of Baroque musical style.

The two modes of learning are well studied (1). In the context of university-level education, Type F learning occurs within the parameters of the institution. It’s characterized by schedules and syllabi. Students read textbooks, attend lectures, take quizzes, and listen to teachers.

Informal learning, by contrast, happens in the mental space between lectures. It’s what you learn outside a formal setting by observing the world and trying things out. (You didn’t learn the consequences of sticking a fork in the toaster from a book; you simply tried it.) It’s what you learn when you follow the trail of questions raised by every answer–once you read this, it makes you want to learn more about that, which in turn sparks your curiosity about something else. The next thing you know, hours have gone by and you’re the world’s newest expert on something you, perhaps, hadn’t expected. Odds are, just like in the first example you thought of above, you may have even called on your friends, colleagues, and the Internet to help in this process. Type I learning means developing networks (with people) and connections (between disparate concepts) that help you better understand ideas, both new and old.

Of course, we sacrifice a fair amount of nuance in such a blunt distinction. Type F learning provides a necessary scaffolding of understanding on which to hang our own experiences and explanations–formal learning often underpins informal, just as basic algebra underpins our understanding of how planes fly. Without formal learning, it’s harder to understand more complicated problems. But to motivate the learner, we have to understand how these Type F experiences will inform Type I experiences later on. To be sure, we designed Inkling to facilitate formal learning. But we’ve done our best to bring Type I experiences to the Type F process so that the lines are blurred. Inkling isn’t just great in a formal learning environment; it’s also designed to help you integrate the learning experience into your everyday life.

Inkling should help make information “sticky.” We want to combine the two learning styles into an environment where you can truly experience concepts–through text, images, audio, video, and interactivity. An Inkling student has the opportunity to move beyond passively absorbing information, to actually engaging with it on a number of levels. We think that formal learning can be more oriented toward the student by presenting the opportunities for further exploration in real time. If you don’t understand something, we want you–right now–to be able to look again in another way until you do understand. We want to bring the freedom to explore a topic into the curated context of a “textbook.”

It’s also important that we engage interpersonal relationships and communication, the hallmark of Type I learning. Asking others to help explain a concept another way, seeing questions that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred to you…this is all built into Inkling’s social notes feature. By following the notes of a peer, it’s possible to establish a real-world connection with someone whom you can help, or who can help you.

By allowing a user to explore the content freely, interact with others, easily jump from place to place, and to augment the learning experience with ancillary materials, we begin to infuse the learning content and tools of the Type F world with the raw materials of Type I learning. In doing so, we begin to close the engagement gap between the structured parameters of Type F and the unfettered curiosity of Type I. And engaging your natural curiosity, after all, is what Inkling’s all about.

(1) Just a very few of the available resources for further reading: Michael Hanley’s blog (E-Learning Curve Blog). Cross, Jay. (2006) Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways That Inspire Innovation and Performance. San Francisco: Pfieffer; Don Clark has some interesting diagrams and essays.