Last night I went to Education Unbound 2008, a debate on ‘how social technologies are blurring formal and informal learning‘. The panel comprised Dan Sutch (Futurelab), David Noble (Hillside School, Fife), Andy Gibson (School of Everything) and Catherine Howell (Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technologies). It was chaired by Matt Locke, Commissioning Editor at Channel 4.
(This is not a detailed report of the evening; it is my resultant thoughts, combined from the debate and the informal chatter afterwards.)
Informal learning happens already, without any intervention. Steps can (and should) be taken to encourage it and to encourage its methods within formal education structures, but informal learning should not become formalised. If we try to quantify it – at least using existing measuring tools – then the informal becomes formal, and vital aspects of it are lost.
Times will change, as the technologies become more pervasive and the education system is managed by those with longer and deeper experience of them. So I don’t think there’s a great problem with bringing the informal into the formal, providing those involved continue to chip away at the barriers and continue to ask challenging questions.
For me the issue is much more about how we harness the educational value of our relationships, both online and offline (something that School of Everything is trying to address).
It’s interesting that most of the discussion about ‘social networking’ still refers to websites, or at least to identifiable locations; and indeed that seems to be how the providers of these services see them. MySpace and Facebook, for example, seem to be understood primarily as locations rather than services for connecting relationships (Twitter, on the other hand, seems to be used via a much greater range of tools: many users access it without using the website, and mix it with other services).
But even Twitter could well have ceased to be in vogue within the next few months. Therefore concentrating on helping people traverse a steep learning curve for specific tools seems a little misguided; but helping them to understand the nature of online relationships, how they relate to offline ones, and how to harness the benefits of both, seems more fruitful.
One problem is how to identify those relationships. How can a blogger, for instance, make sense of the relationships between people who leave comments? Users of online networking services (such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace) tend to have flat relationships: in other words, everyone is a ‘friend'; there is no mechanism for identifying hierarchies or nuances within the relationship. As Andy Gibson complained: there is no way in Facebook of defining one person as a learner and another as their mentor.
In theory this is very simple to rectify: taxonomies already exist, such as XFN – now used in the ubiquitous blogging platform WordPress – which allows the labelling of such information. It could just be a case of suggesting that the list of relationships it identifies is extended to include ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’ (or something similar).
There are (at least) two issues though. Firstly, how do we define the taxonomies and languages? As Dan Sutch pointed out, labelling a resource for two different curriculum subjects will require different taxonomies, although the resource itself may be valuable to both: how then should a teacher label that resource?
The subsequent issue then, once the taxonomies are agreed, is of encouraging developers to build simple ways for users to apply them (as WordPress implements XFN). But, in fact, a lot of this work is already being done (see Microformats).
And of course the relationships already exist. Understanding that and helping teachers make sense of it is, I think, where the value is for the formal education sector. Of course that means helping to bring down technical and beurocratic barriers, but it also means encouraging them to just do it: to help them identify tools to augment their relationships with other teachers, institutions, etc, and to get involved in discussions with the informal education sector.