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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



The downsides of digital learning environments

by Simon BROEK
Language: EN
Document available also in: DE ET

Many of us have problems understanding the term ‘learning environment’. There are myriad examples from EU websites: e-learning environments, open learning environments, technology-enhanced learning environments, distributed learning environments, personal learning environments. Is there a way of understanding these different learning environments? Let’s start with ‘formal’, ‘non-formal’ and ‘informal’ learning environments.

  • Formal learning environments involve educational institutions, such as schools, adult education classes and universities, whose objective is to organise learning in order to gain certified qualifications.
  • Non-formal learning environments also involve organised learning, but take place in organisations whose major purpose is not the organisation of learning. It is called out-of-school learning. Football clubs allow people to play football, but they offer training sessions to learn to become better footballers. Employers are in the business of producing goods and services, but most provide facilities for work-based learning so that employees can better contribute to the quality of the goods and services produced. Voluntary organisations organise non-formal learning to support their activities, for example the Red Cross, gardening clubs, churches, trade unions, political parties and even social movements.
  • Informal learning environments cause the greatest confusion. When learning does not fit into formal and non-formal learning environments, it is often dumped in this box called informal learning environments. One solution is to refer to informal learning environments as learning that takes-place in everyday life, or everyday learning.  This learning occurs when I borrow a book from the public library, visit a museum, look for information on internet, buy a self-help book or DVD, talk to a neighbour, or watch a YouTube film to help with DIY problems.

Formal and non-formal learning are the tip of the iceberg of learning. Researchers and policy-makers focus their attention on formal and non-formal learning environments because these activities can be measured by Eurostat and EU Labour Force Surveys. These relate to 30% of learning activities of the iceberg above the surface. 70% of learning is under the surface in informal learning environments. It is difficult to measure the impact of these learning activities and how they improve the quality of their personal lives, family-life, working life, and contribution to their communities; but that it impacts lives is unquestionable. So yes, please let us have more attention for informal learning environments.

What about digital technologies and tools?

Learning environments are no more than different forms of organising learning which bring learning resources and learners together. From this perspective new digital technologies (MOOCs) and tools, such as the smart phone, are learning resources and can be applied in all three learning environments. They are just like any other learning resource (e.g. teacher, a book, a white-board, pictures at an exhibition, a self-help DVD, or a demonstration by my nextdoor neighbour to catch fish like he does), the difference is that digital technologies and personal devices, such as the smartphone, enable learners to combine a much wider range of learning resources in their personal learning environments.

These benefits are not shared by everyone: many learners, especially the low-qualified and in particular older people, still rely on non-digital learning resources. Over-emphasis on digital devices could contribute to the digital divide and persistence of social exclusion in European societies. I can learn to plan my travel by public transport on the basis of information only available on a smart phone (which I do not have!). Will I find my way?


Barry J. Hake is an independent researcher on LLL policies in Europe and previously worked at universities in different parts of Europe. He lives in the Netherlands and France. You can write him a letter (!), but, as he entered the digital age, he will respond to comments as well. This blog is based on an exchange between Barry and Simon Broek on the role of informal learning environments throughout the decades.

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  • Riina Kütt's picture

    Minu jaoks tekkis küsimus, et kas ikka tõesti liigitame me täiskasvanutele mõeldud täiendkoolituse formaalse õppe alla. Mis ajast see nii on? Tõsi, rääkides Eesti kontekstis, seoses uue täiskavanute koolituse seaduse rakendumisega, on täisksvanute täiendkoolitus võtnud märkimisväärse suuna formaliseerumise poole. Samas on seal kõigi formaalste reeglite sees ka piisav vabadus täiskasvanute koolitajatele seatud nõuete näol - peab ju suutma iga koolitaja lisaks formaalsetele eesmärkidele, võtta arvesse ka iga õppija eripära ja õpieesmärke.

    Aga kuidas see ametlik liigitus meil siis nüüd täpsemalt käibki?

    Teine mõte on seotud üleskutsega pöörta rohkem tähelepanu informaalse õppe keskkondadele. Miks niisugune üleskutse? See on ju fantastiline, et inimene õpib kogu aeg ja igal pool ja kõigest ning seda on võimatu kontrollida ja reguleerida. Ning mina usun, et ka digitaalsete õppe keskkondade poolt mitte. Või kui, siis nende sõtluvust tekitava iseloomu pärast. Kas seda ongi silmas peetud?

    Kolmas mõte on seotud artikli lõppsõnaga. Ma ei tea, kas see tuleneb pisut nõrgavõitu tõlkest või millestki muust, aga minu jaoks jääb selle viimase retoorilise küsimuse mõte pisut arusaamatuks.

  • Anete Rätsep's picture

    Täname sisuka kommentaari eest!

    Viimase lause sõnastust pisut muutsime - loodame, et see on nüüd mõistetavam.

    Lisan ka lingi inglisekeelsele postitusele, mille all on mitmeid kaasarääkijaid ning -mõtlejaid, kuhu on võimalik samuti küsimusi esitada ning mõtteid jagada.

  • Martina Emke's picture
    Thank you for connecting this discussion to the topic of digital literacies and social inclusion, Christian. I would like to add to this discussion a view coming from Steve Wheeler. In an interview which was conducted this March ( ) he describes Social Media and mobile technologies as 'game changers', because they enable (adult) learners to access, create and share content anywhere in the world, and they also allow for instant connection with other learners. The potential for social inclusion through these technologies is great, but I believe it is still far from being fully exploited. One of the reasons is mentioned in Keith's post above: adults educators need to be supported to develop an understanding of how digital tools can enhance learning processes of adults, based on sound pedagogical concepts. They also need (training) opportunities to acquire and develop the necessary digital skills to help adult learners exploit the learning opportunities afforded by Social Media and mobile technologies. But foremost, adult educators need to understand that they are learners themselves, and that it is therefore important for them to experiment with these technologies. Only by trying out Social Media and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) tools adult educators will find out about its advantages and disadvantages for adult learning, and could be motivated to reflect upon their teaching in a more critical way than they would do otherwise.
  • Christian BERNHARD-SKALA's picture

    Thanks Martina and Keith,

    may I draw your attention to this Blogpost (avaibale in English, French and German), it treats pretty well what might digital learning might be - it might be also learning how to deal with digital media

  • Keith Aquilina's picture

    Very interesting post and comments. It is true that there are a myriad of different definitions of what a learning environment is. As Martina has indicated in her comment, accessibility may be an issue when providing a digital or virtual learning environment to adults. Many adult educators are probably not equipped to work in a digital environment. They need to enabled to understand that in adult education, learning should be meaningful, accessible and owned by the adult learner. Each individual has his own Personal Learning Environment and thus learning activities, being online, blended or face-to-face, need to cater to the needs of each adult learner.

  • Martina Emke's picture

    While I fully understand the anxieties rapid technological change and the affordances of a knowledge society in terms of digital skills and knowledge development bring about in Adult Education, I am not sure the focus of discussion should still be on the downsides of digital or virtual learning environments (VLEs).

    VLEs are just tools which - admittedly - can foster or prevent learning opportunities, depending on whether these learning opportunities are freely accessible to adult learners, meet their learning needs and truly support them in their learning processes. The latter, however, often is not so much a question of technology but of the pedagogical concept behind the learning opportunity - e.g. a MOOC.

    Therefore it would be beneficial for Adult Education to invest time and resources to develop blended-learning opportunities that help address the anxieties many adult learners (and many teachers working in Adult Education!) have with regard to digital learning and digital skills development and that support them in finding their own way in a digital world. The first step, however, would be for Adult Education to adopt a more positive attitude towards digital learning and to try identify ways in which online tools can enhance existing, pedagogically sound learning opportunities for adults, as pointed out in this blog entry from JISC in the UK: .

  • Christian BERNHARD-SKALA's picture
    Dear Barry Hake, good to meet you here again. I am glad you are particiapting in EPALE. I agree with you in many ways. Taking into condieration the "Downsides of digital learning" as you put it, there is a second aspect of learning in it. Digital media might not be only tools for learning, but also subject and content of learning processes. Low-qualified and the elder learners might feel a subjective - and i do underline this - SUBJECTIVE need to deal with the digital world. In this perspective digital learning means learning, how to cope with the digital world, that challenges us everyday. In a way of life skill learning the digital world might provide a lot of learning contents. These contents can be provided by non-formal-learning organizations. And taking into account PIAACs results concerning digital competencies, there might be need to do so. There were some lithuanian libraries working on this in a project.