VLE vs Informal Learning

Oct 13, 2008

Miles Berry

An interesting conversation on Ferl’s splendid VLE discussion list over the last couple of days sparked off by Leon Cych’s observation that institutions generally exhibit a lack of awarenes of the ad hoc and informal networked learning that’s taking place.

Leon certainly has a point. His blog post earlier today about the way mobile technology and ubiquitous networking is making it possible for individual’s to connect, create and collaborate in ways previously impossible, when applied to schools, suggests that things are indeed different now – yes, we’ve always had informal learning alongside the formal, with informal learning not always encouraged institutionally in the secondary phase, but the range of resources and the extent of the network available to the former are now orders of magnitude greater than ever before. As he says:

It’s all personalised, they have complete ownership of their devices and connectivity and they sure know how to use it!

Roger Broadie’s take is a bit different, drawing a comparison between web2 (I think understood principally in social networking terms) in schools and the enterprse, with the institution there to provide the “guided attention” that compliments the personalisation implicit in an informal appraoch, with the VLE having a role in focussing attention and stimulating the sort of use that teachers are looking for.

I think even in Leon’s more radical take, there will for a while yet, remain a role for the VLE and the school/college/university. Wonderful as informal learning, personal learning networks and the resources of the web are, let us not lose sight of the fact that educational institutions and their staff are part of the learner’s learning network, and for many the most important part. Thus the institutionally provided learning space (virtual or real), will continue to be important for the learner.

So what role is there for schools etc in a radically personalised, networked future?

  • The Open Content initiatives that we’ve seen from MIT, the Open Univiersity and iTunes U is one possibility, with institutions making their courses, their lessons available digitally to any interested – scary stuff for those of us in the business of running schools if providing courses is all we do.
  • Another interesting possibility from the HE model is that of the institution as the awarding or examining body – providing some sort of certification and assurance of a minimum standard, if not in terms of students learning (which I guess the exam boards do for us) then perhaps in terms of teaching.
  • Another role, as my own pupils recognise, is as a place where the social networking takes place – I’m not certain, but I think the social networking, collaboration and creativity that’s at the heart of learning 2.0 are skills that are aquired or learnt, even if they’re not always taught, in schools – we bring young people together, we give them (or perhaps forece on them) shared experiences and challenges, intellectually, culturally, physically and they learn to work and learn together, as well as all the content stuff. If one takes out this (enforced) social dimension of education and just leave personal choice and voice, I doubt whether we’d see quite so much learning taking place.
  • Finally, but also firstly, there is the sage on the stage and guide on the side stuff that we teachers do, and yes, I think this is a both/and situation. Coaches, mentors, tutors, whatever, the knowledge, wisdom, intuition and care that a teacher brings to their students are things which it will be difficult to replace by informal networks.

In tech terms, whilst I’m all in favour of students using the right tools for the tasks they want to do, from both sides of the wire, and would certainly see some value in a PLE as a way of pulling these together, I think there remain roles for the VLE as the place where the institution and its staff provide the content, the accreditation, the core of the learning network, the shared activities and the 1:1 nurture/challenge.