Digital learning and the possibility of informal learning
We are seeing emerging concepts such as digital learning as a reflection of the transformation where digital technologies are more and more transcending to e-learning, reaching all activities of learning including full time study programs as well as distance study programs. However, if there exists a key element, talking about the possibility of digital learning in organisations, for me without any doubt it is the integration of informal learning into our teaching – learning systems.
Learning is much more than we think
When we think of learning, schools, universities and courses come into our minds. However, almost everything we know is not learnt in those places, but from our parents, friends, classmates, colleagues, chiefs, from our children and also from ourselves. Sometimes, even from our teachers.
Every 24th July a group of people celebrates ''the day of learning nothing“. During this day they agree on trying hard to learn nothing at all. At least they try, because at the end of the day they find out that this kind of the task is not possible to achieve. This is an excellent example of how to show that people learn constatntly, whether they want to or not, and most of the time they do it unconsciously, spontaneously and naturally. This is known as informal learning.
We can only guess the great value of this style of learning. In many publications it is said that between 80% and 95% of what we learn is done so in an informal way. I have not found research backing up these figures, but there exists one thing which we can be sure of: informal learning is extremely effective. It is effective because it is real, it happens in meaningful contexts, it solves real problems at the moment we need it. The responsibility is in our hands, we don't delegate to anybody and nobody imposes it on us. It is spontaneous and quick, we do not have to wait for somebody to make a decision for us.
Obviously, digital learning could not be kept out of the huge piece of cake which represents formal learning. However, what does our Learning Management System (LMS) do with it?
Traditional platforms which are aimed at distributing closed classes, designed from the top to the bottom and where there exists some expert knowledge which should be transferred to a student, allow hardly any freedom in the learning process. Contrary to these forms, systems like Personal Learning Environment (PLE) have emerged. They are designed to give students control of their learning. In other words, it allows them to set their own targets, manage content, make decisions on the evaluation, etc. To put students in the centre of the learning process means to make them aware of their PLE.
The Achilles heel: assessment and recognition
As we have already seen, the main part of our knowledge is learnt informally. The problem is that we are not usually conscious of it. How can we assess that learning objectively and honestly? We can find a lot of cases where the problem has been addressed by creating lists of possible learning results and developing the means to confirm these results, for example the project VILMA for assessing informal learning in mobility. However, how effective are these methodologies in accrediting the competences which have been acquired in an informal way? Can we rely on standardised tests in these cases?
There are other forms of assessment that can give us valuable information, such as peer assessment. The problem is that this method can lose its credibility when the recognition of a competence transforms into an exchange of favours. You surely know what I mean (Linkedin).
There exists a third form of assessment which reperesents the key for me: self-assessment. We should not turn our backs on the evaluation whereby the students realise their own abilities as the biggest responsibility of their developing process. We have to be able to give students tools which enable them to approach this issue critically. Although even here we are not free of some risks. How can we avoid the fact that a student thinks that he controls one of his competences when he only has a superficial approach to it?
There exists some techniques of self-assesment that address these difficulties, for example portfolios or dossiers which allow us to document the processes of informal learning, combining the use of different aids like diaries, sheets of self-assessment, plans of personal develpment, etc. We can even find some instances of utilization, e.g. the European project coordinated by IG Metall for expanding the systems of certification of informal competences.
Although there is still a long way to go in the research of informal learning, the development of digital learning is becoming a key impulse in this form of learning. Available technological developments, like the experience API (xAPI) or open educational resources (OER) give us a great opportunity.
In conclusion, the topic of informal learning has a lot to do with what kind of society we want to be: what kind of students, employees and citizens we want to become. Informal learning speaks about people who are committed to their processes of development, critical thinking, taking responsibilities, self-assessment and moving control to an individual. Currently, we do not know if organizations and companies will be able to rise to the challenge.
Daniel Fernández Porras,
Head of e-learning project
Freelace and expert in corporate learning and instructional design consultant
Infomercial - 01/14/2016