During the 2010 edition of the Open EdTech Summit, the people that attended the meeting we debated around
Campus Life! Rethinking the Online Campus Life of the 21st Century and ended up drafting a call to action with ten strategies for change. These ten strategies dealt with personalization (flexibility, personal tools, decentralization), connections amongst people (real-life connections, relationships between one’s different social spheres and acquaintances) and platform considerations (portfolios, pathways, portability and open source solutions).
Underlying beneath many of these concepts was the ever-present concept of multitasking, most of the times understood in a negative way: too distracting, shallow in its use of information, etc. While I agree that multitasking can definitely be a problem, I am not sure that we are talking here about multitasking or task-switching. And, if this about task-switching, whether we are talking about beginning everything and not finishing anything, or about yet another thing.
I believe that there is an increasing set of learners that are heavy switchers that do not actually hop from task to task, but that understand the process of learning as a trip through different learning objects, and not as staying bound to a single learning space. As some industries do by having some piece of work done in a succession of countries, same happens with some learners learning through a succession of learning objects and, by doing so, going in and out formal education.
What is informal learning?
Mark K. Smith has collected an interesting bibliography around the topic for his Informal Learning article at The Encyclopaedia of Informal Education, but I’d rather choose the short, straightforward and clear definitions by Jenny Hughes in Defining Learning.
Nevertheless, it is my opinion that most definitions are too much focussed on the context (how) and not on the nature (what) of formal, informal or non-formal learning. Following the idea that Jenny Hughes points at about structured vs. unstructured learning, I suggest to speak about planned vs. just-in-time learning, and goal-set vs. serendipitous learning. The relationship, concepts and examples are pictured in the following image:
According to the planned/just-in-time and goal-set/serendipitous axes, we find four categories of learning:
- Formal: Planned and curriculum-based learning, like the one that usually happens at school.
- Non-formal: Planned but less structured learning than formal learning. It will usually take place in formal spaces, but with a less tight framework.
- Informal: Like non-formal, it has no structured goals, but it happens outside of formal institutions, like the workspace.
- Self-taught/autodidactic: Also focussed at achieving some specific goals, but more short-term- and competence-aimed instead of long-term- or generic-knowledge-aimed.
Of course this categories have blurry edges and they are more a guide, a conceptual framework rather than a faithful depiction of what takes place in reality.
But what is interesting about this categorization is not its definition in itself, but how the different categories “interact” with concepts like the syllabus, the Personal Learning Environment (PLE) and the different kinds of existing “learning objects”, which we group into formal (e.g. the usual textbook), open (e.g. a piece of formal opencourseware) and informal (e.g. a blog post).
The following image presents five types of learning (the preceding four plus open formal learning, which is formal learning that uses open content). Blue pieces indicate formal learning objects, green ones open and red ones informal.
We can see that there is a normal transition from formal content through open content to informal content as long as we move from formal education to informal education. This is how things have always been.
The existence of open (formal) content brings in a new scenario, where this content can be both used inside the classroom (formal education) and outside of it (informal learning).
I would like to witness, in a not-very-far future, two more scenarios.
The first one, here labelled as translearning, would include not only open content in the classroom, but also acknowledging that informal learning is possible on a formal environment. Credit recognition is a first way to do so, but being those credits not from e.g. other universities but from informal learning such as work experience.
The rational behind the “trans-” part of the name is that Information and Communication Technologies have made possible what trucks, trains, planes and ships made possible in an industrial society. Still in many industrial sectors, multinational corporations are but performing transnational commerce: cotton is collected in one country, weaved in another one, cut and sewed in a third one and sold in a last fourth one.
Translearning is just about that: the learner begins in the classroom, at their handbook table of contents, then shifts to an informal environment, then to some open content and at last back to their classroom for final assessment (the scheme and its order can grow as complex as you’d like).
The good thing about translearning is its openness beyond the classroom’s and the syllabus’s boundaries. The bad thing about it is, still, structure, planning.
The PLE in translearning is a heavily monitored, piloted, top-down driven one, even a Hybrid Institutional-Personal Learning Environment (HIPLE).
Open Social Learning
A next step towards a more un-structured scenario is shifting from translearning to (fully) open social learning. In this scenario, a sort of syllabus can be agreed, but the inner structure is totally free. The learner can actually choose from a wide range of resources that will make up their PLE. Accreditation of what’s learnt can requite — as we saw in translearning — a first and last formal module. But the rest is totally free.
As said, this is where the Personal Learning Environment can really develop its full potential, as it is the learner, self-positioned in their own environment, that has full responsibility of their own learning path.
Now, coming back to where we started. One of the increasingly common complaints from educators is that their students continuously switch tasks, that they attention time-spans are narrowing, that they are bored, that they’d rather work in what they want or, especially, the way they like. On the other hand, learners are increasingly aware — this is even truer in adult learners and/or in informal learners — of the many possibilities they have to reach knowledge, to acquire it, to share it and to improve it by feeding back rich conversations with peers onto their own learning process.
Heavy switching is definitely an issue. And in many cases, an issue that might be solved but directly fighting against it.
Notwithstanding, heavy switching — call it, even, multitasking — might be leveraged to enrich one’s learning process by diversifying or opening up one’s learning path.