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.