Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Formal Informal - Control!

As I advise educators on learning design and instructional approaches I am always astounded by their fear of "letting go". They seem to have an innate need to be in control of the learning situation - and that loosening their grip is somehow abdicating their responsibility as educators. I'm also struck by the lack of respect accorded to informal learning - the idea that a learner might acquire knowledge from something/someone without formal accreditation, or without commonly understood forms of structure like courses, classrooms, assessments and set hours for learning. It isn't surprising then that I find Stephen Downes' comments on formal/informal learning and the misunderstandings surrounding structure and informal learning of interest:

"What makes informal learning different from formal learning is not that it is formless, but rather, it that it is conducted outside the domain of the formal education infrastructure, with the associated and not trivial implication that it is managed by the learner, and not the professor or institution.

That's why a statement like 'too important to be left to chance' is so misleading. It implies that there is no reason why a person (whether an employee or a student) might choose this or that informal learning method. It implies that nothing can be done to support this person, to suggest some structures or mechanisms, to improve their likely outcome. It assumes that, unless we control this person, the outcome is 'by chance'"

Informal learning does not mean less structure - it means different structures, with opportunities for student involvement in the definition of the framework and conditions surrounding learning. We, as educators, have to learn that there are variants of control, and that "letting go" of some of the reins of control is a good thing for the student. We need to have students more responsible for their learning and we must also support and help them define and establish parameters and structure to their learning design.

After all we have to remind ourselves that informal learning is the primary mode of learning. Formal learning is event based, episodic; informal learning is lifelong, continuous. Learning come in many forms, as does learning structure, and control. We just have to be willing to explore all the options available to us.

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