Where Does Informal Learning Fit In?

With so much rich information for learners available and accessible on the Internet -- everything from how to play the guitar to applications of the Pythagorean Theorem -- how can the formal education system leverage all this within schools?

There are tremendous obstacles in the way. A shortage of high-quality K-12 STEM teachers, dwindling interest on the part of learners, inequalities in tech-enhanced opportunities, a fragmented research-and-development community, and outmoded high school and college facilities are just a few of the obstacles, according to Roy Pea, co-director of the Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning at the the Cyberlearning Tools for STEM Education conference to figure out strategies.

But the huge cultural shift brought about by the Internet and Web 2.0 ethos -- participatory culture, wikis, blogs, podcasts, virtual worlds, and new values around harnessing collective information -- is helping ameliorate the challenges, and can be a crucial bridge.

"Every minute, 35 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube," Pea said. "There are 700 billion videos up, and many of them are about learning."

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It's all part of the engagement question. How do you engage learners best? It shouldn't just be about bright lights and activity; it should have a clear learning purpose, said Daniel Edelson. "We need to stay focused on the purpose of those activities," he said.

Which begs the question: How do you measure engagement? How does this kind of informal, out-in-the-world learning connect to formal learning in schools?

"We don’t know what we need to about this," Pea said. "Over 90 percent of research is done in formal environments. This area is unexplored."

We’re comfortable with structured and guided learning environments with designed artifacts, like after-school clubs, organized sports, field trips to museums. But we don't know anything about learning outside these confines, and the social ramifications of those learning experiences, he said.

"There are many people in our society who simply don’t like the 21st century," added Chris Dede, professor in learning technologies at Harvard University. "The only place they can pretend the 21st century hasn’t happened is in the school system."

We have  along history of making ingenious things that aren’t used because we haven’t been able to convince the community -- and many educators -- about new models of teaching and learning, he said.

There are evolutionary, transformative, and disruptive ways to get to 21st century school system. "It will happen first in developing countries. They'll leapfrog the current systems, and we need to be watching them and learning from them," he said.

Elliot Soloway, founder of GoKnow, went so far as to predict that every student will have a mobile device within four years. "At some point, the schools are going to have to say, 'Ok, you can use it.'"

"We can’t give up on schools. They might not change, but we can’t give up," Soloway said.