13 April 2012

week 1 pedagogical challenges

Put succinctly, this Cross Field course is an attempt to come to an understanding of informal learning in the age of the Internet. This is quite a daunting task, something which is a key research area for many, including my own research programme on networked learning at the Open University of The Netherlands. However, even if we should not hope to achieve a final understanding, we can certainly make headway towards a better understanding of this question and suggestions for possible answers to it. We will do this by investigating the pedagogical challenges in week 1 and the technological challenges in week 2 that this kind of learning poses. 
To inventory the pedagogical challenges, I will here first discuss briefly the distinction between formal, informal and non-formal, which also touches upon lifelong learning. Then we will look into the specific demands this group of learners make and how their learning may be supported. Finally, I'll list a few questions that may be used to inspire your writing of the short paper in weeks 3 and 4.

Formal, informal, non-formal learning

Figure 1 Forms versus contexts of learning

The term 'informal' learning is problematic in that it is used in different ways by different people. Without attempting to define it once and forever, the following distinctions are useful. By formal learning, I mean the kind of learning we do at schools; learning organized mostly by an accredited institution, with a curriculum, exams, formal entrance requirements and a formal diploma if one passes the exam. Accidental learning is the very opposite of this. It happens because as a biological species we are 'wired' to learn, we cannot not learn. Learning, for example, is not only a topic in text books of psychology but also in text biology books on physiology and behaviour. The crucial  distinction between the two forms is that formal learning is intentional and accidental learning is unintentional. In formal learning, people set out to learn something, learn on purpose; in accidental learning people (and animals) just learn, willy-nilly. The intentionality is also a characteristic of non-formal learning, but the lack of exams, curricula, etc. it shares with accidental learning (even though ways may be sought to somehow give credit for what people have learnt non-formally). Informal learning is sometimes used to label accidental learning, sometimes to describe non-formal learning. This is where the confusion comes in. I will use it here as a synonym of non-formal learning only.

Next to distinguishing these forms of learning, one may distinguish two contexts: initial learning, that is meant to prepare mostly young people for the workplace and life in general, and post-intital learning, which is for people who have passed the initial phase and need to keep learning to stay abreast of new developments, specifically in our fast-paced knowledge society. The need to have the often compulsory phase of initial education followed by a further phase of post-initial education, is often indicated by saying that people need to learn throughout their entire life, that is, participate in lifelong learning. As a short hand, post-initial learners who learn non-formally are often called lifelong learners (see Figure 1). And although this is not entirely correct (if lifelong learning spans the whole lifecycle, it should also incorporate initial education), it is a common usage to which I will conform.

Now for the punch line. In my view, the methods that are used in the context of initial learning, that is a formal learning setting with lecture halls, curricula, etc., are unfit for post-initial education. They are unfit because of the specific demands post-initial learners (lifelong learners) make on learning settings. Therefore, here we will focus on designing learning environments for the lower middle cell of Figure 1, on non-formal learning for post-initial education. Indeed, it is quite possible that whatever insights a focus on this cell produces, may be used profitably to innovate the upper middle cell on non-formal learning for initial education. That would probably be most welcome, as it is something which is next to nonexistent at present. That is, universities, schools, etc. do no seek to help their students learn non-formally nor do they attempt to somehow give students credit for the non-formal learning they have done.

Demands of post-initial learners

See private Mendeley group Chapter 1 of Sloep et al. (2011), Backgrounds and Reasons, here in a quick English translation, discusses a number of use cases, situations of people who may want to engage in lifelong learning (non-formal learning for post-initial education). Generalizing from these use cases, three kinds of demands may be distinguished, which I have called logistic, content-related and methodical demands. Logistic demands are about designing your educational environment in such a way that people may learn at their individual place, time and pace. Typical classrooms are anathema to this. They force learners to come to a lecture hall, at particular class hours, and every time a particular subject is discussed. Thus place, time and pace are heavily constrained. Second, it is the teacher or rather teaching staff who determines the topics that are being taught (content). This of course is derived from the curriculum, which in turn may have to conform to national standards, etc. Nevertheless, a lifelong learner has very specific needs and demands of his or her own. Those may but need not coincide to what is on offer as part of an existing curriculum. Third, people, particularly experienced learners have their own preference for how they want to learn (method); by themselves or with others, driven by tasks set by teachers or just following an erratic trace of their, starting with some realistic problem or by assimilating theoretical backgrounds first, using a classical handbook or drawing on Internet resources, etc. Again, in formal learning it is a teacher who determines this for an entire class, which may not guarantee the best form for each and every individual, but at least something which is acceptably good. However, for lifelong learners with a lot of learning experience who follow their own interests anyway, this won't do.

Figure 2 Demands and Freedoms 

Interestingly this tripartite demands' division corresponds with the classification of eight freedoms offered by networked learning that Terry Anderson and Jon Dron discuss (see Figure 2). Location, time and pace correspond with logistic demands; subject with content demands; and sociability, approach and technology with methodical demands. That leaves delegability, which is a bit of a difficult one. What it for example refers to is the ability of networked (lifelong) learners to have a choice in what people they may choose to work with, to act as peers, etc. It goes beyond choosing in that it not only allows one to pick form a given list (of peers or content items) but to also assemble the list. 

Designing an appropriate learning environment

The upshot of the above discussion is that designing a learning environment in which lifelong learners are capable of learning non-formally is a tall order. One cannot rely on the usual ingredient of learning environments for formal learning as those stand in the way of the freedoms these learning need (demands they make on such an environment). So teachers cannot play the role of experts who determine the content to be studied, unless one is willing to give each student a personal teachers (well, a few students per teacher), and this is of course unaffordable. This not just goes for the role of teachers as experts who pick content, but also for teachers as tutors, who provide help with questions.

To cater for these kinds of situations, one often speaks of self-guided learning: it is the student who guides him or herself. That sounds interesting but really just begs the question: how should students then guide themselves? How should they pick the right content, how should they find people who can help them with hard questions, and, even, how can they overcome difficult periods of lowered motivation?

Without getting ahead of the story, it is technology that admittedly cannot answer those questions to the full, but should at least help to find those answers more easily, perhaps more adequately also. But this is the topic of week 2.


The present discussion and the papers referred to in it, should all act as starting points for Friday's seminar and, later on, the paper that is to be written. The following questions may be distilled from the above.
  1. Are the dimensions of forms and contexts of learning independent of each other (as they should in a good classification)?
  2. Are there other forms than formal, non-formal and accidental? Ditto for  initial and post-initial (exhaustiveness also is a demand of good classification).
  3. Is the classification portrayed by Figure 1 useful?
  4. Are the 8 freedoms independent, is there no overlap?
  5. Are there other freedoms that are relevant?
  6. Do these freedoms indeed cover the kinds of demands you would expect lifelong learners to have?
  7. Is is correct, productive, sensible to speak in terms of designing a learning environment for non-formal learning as I did?
  8. What is wrong with characterizes these learning as self-guided, after all, that is what they need to do?
  9. Why does it make sense to rely on technology to support self-guidedness and meet the demands for the eight kinds of freedoms? or is this a silly question?