Non-Formal Learning

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Promoting non-formal and informal learning using ICTs

Geri-Lynn Ryan, Memorial University of Newfoundland


Traditional emphasis in the education system on formal learning has created an identifiable disconnect between formal and informal learning (Mulder and Schuwer, 2009). Formal learning is now acknowledged as a much smaller percentage of a learners’ overall experience (Bryer and Chen, 2012). The process of effective learning can happen outside the confines of conventional learning (Lai, 2011), yet a holistic connection between formal and informal learning does not exist (Ankerstjerne et al., 2009). Many workplace learning interventions are imposed and do not consider or measure informal learning (Straub, 2009) and students find themselves in more informal situations than in an official classroom (Chen et al., 2010).

The limitations of formal learning to the rigorous demands of a structured classroom (Fombana and Pascua, 2013) restrict the opportunity to broaden the learning experience outside of the physical boundaries of the classroom and does not provide time or space for reflection (Cumming-Potvin, 2012). Participants indicate informal learning opportunities as an essential factor in their continued development (Lopes and Pereira, 2012).

Lack of participation and decreased levels of engagement in formal education are influenced by a number of factors, including physical conditions (time, distance to travel, expense) and circumstances (career, family commitments, expectations of performance) that can determine a students’ willingness to pursue formal learning (Berger and Croll, 2012). To support lifelong learning, “more learning needs to be done at home, in offices and kitchens, in the contexts where knowledge is deployed to solve problems and add value to people’s lives” (Hall, 2009, p. 31).

Role of ICTs

Through the use of microblogging, self-directed and collaborative opportunities are created that can increase informal learning (Ebner et al., 2010). For successful non-formal learning to transpire, participants are required to demonstrate independence (Schwier and Seaton, 2013) and the availability and accessibility of content via the web allows learners to learn with a self-directed approach (Mulder and Schuwer, 2009).

Web 2.0 technologies are defined as online methods to create and share information primarily through social software (Ankerstjerne et al., 2009). Social media tools include blogs, wikis, social networking platforms (Bryer and Chen, 2012), Wikipedia and You Tube (Chen and Huang, 2013). Social media platforms are being utilized to develop and expedite informal learning opportunities (Dabbagh and Kitsantas, 2012). The communities and resources that result from using Web 2.0 technologies can provide learners with confidence and motivation to compensate when informal learning has limited or no direction or guidance (Baranauskas et al., 2013).

Web 2.0 technologies increase the participation and engagement levels of informal learning by enabling people from across the world to connect and learn collaboratively (Dettori and Torsani, 2013). Participants have indicated that these technologies can effectively close the gap between formal and informal education (Bossu et al., 2012) and provide more opportunities to engage in non-formal learning (Scanlon, 2012) by sharing information in social networking and content-specific learning communities via Web 2.0 (Lai, 2011). Communities of practice for specific disciplines can promote informal learning (Stevenson, 2004) and technology-enhanced communities share and build knowledge with their fellow learners (Lai, 2011). Social media applications can also be effective in joining informal education to a more formal learning situation (Bryer and Chen, 2012) and bridging both forms of learning results in an increased learning experience (Hall, 2009).

The advent of Web 2.0 technologies and the introduction of mobility have opened the area of learning informally via mobile devices (Cook and Pachler, 2012) that support informal learning by providing accessibility and convenience in the students’ location (Hu, 2013). These technologies encourage informal learning that is not restricted by time or physical environment (Chen et al., 2010).

Wikis are an example of a Web 2.0 technology that when used in a formal learning setting can integrate and promote an informal learning element (Lai, 2011). Creating knowledge through a wiki equips learners with the skills to evaluate and disseminate information acquired through informal channels and this ability to learn in an informal context is a requirement for learners in today’s global, knowledge-based economy (Lai, 2011). Blogs are another vehicle that balance organized content with informal learning experiences (Chen and Huang, 2013). In one study, medical students used Facebook to participate in informal learning practices to create a virtual professional community (Grohbiel et al., 2012).


One of the considerations in implementing Web 2.0 technologies to promote informal learning is the challenge of effectively measuring this type of learning and evaluating knowledge that is unstructured (Chen et al., 2010). To balance this reservation, integration of strategies such as maintaining an online journal, contributing to wikis and writing blogs (Beebe et al., 2010), establishing defined performance milestones (Chen et al., 2010) and calculating participation (Bryer and Chen, 2012) should be standard.

Promoting informal learning through ICTs must consider the safeguarding of an individual learners’ online privacy at all times (Lee and McLoughlin, 2010). Some learning organizations will not activate valuable features of Web 2.0 technologies due to these privacy and security concerns (Bryer and Chen, 2012). A solution to this legitimate issue is to ensure that learners are made aware of the guidelines and protocols for safely communicating personal information online (Bryer and Chen, 2012).

Participation in online learning activities is influenced by unfamiliarity with or lack of access to technology (Gray, 2004). To equalize these obstacles, there must be an investment in technology (Bossu et al., 2012) and training (Bryer and Chen, 2012) to ensure that individuals can access and operate these platforms. Alternate technologies can be explored as a solution if internet access is an issue (Countinho and Mota, 2011). The challenge of managing technology to promote informal learning must include ensuring proper hardware and ability to exchange or replace equipment in a reasonable time frame (Blake et al., 2010).

Works cited

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Baranauskas, M., & da Silva, S., & Pereira, R. (2013). Social software and educational technology: informal, formal and technical values. Educational Technology & Society, 16 (1), 4–14.

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Berger, A., & Croll, J. (2012). Training in basic internet skills for special target groups in non-formal educational settings – conclusions from three pilot projects. Research in Learning Technology, 20, 377-398.

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