Online informal learning

Create a terrific informal learning experience. Ready, set, go.

Q. If you were going to help an instructional designer create a terrific informal learning experience today, what would you advise that designer to differently than for a formal learning experience?

My first piece of advice for anyone designing formal or informal experiences is to simply be aware of the potential for informal learning.  Not all learning occurs during the structured portions of the experience.  But more specifically for designers of informal environments, I would encourage a high focus on learner autonomy and meeting intrinsic motivation. Recognizing and reinforcing individual interests by providing opportunities to share and connect with others would also be key.  Some of the recent changes within the Virtual Choir were largely regarded as positive by most participants. They enjoyed having guide tracks to assist them with learning the voice part.  However, some participants lamented the fact that more guidance was given about wearing a dark shirt with a plain background in the final video.  One participant spoke of really enjoying seeing the backgrounds of the individual videos on the first projects almost as if it let you into their homes.  On this recent one, he felt that he had lost that connection with others and it became a bit sterile, therefore not as exciting.

It is a difficult balancing act of having enough structure and support to encourage learning, yet still allows each individual to feel as though they are contributing something significant.  Even simple instructional design techniques such as rapid prototyping can be employed as they encourage iteration and flexibility, which would be appropriate in an informal learning environment. Other instructional design models such as van Merrienboer’s 4C-ID model for complex learning would also be useful as it draws attention to four components of Instructional Design:

  • Learning tasks
  • Supportive Information
  • JIT Information
  • Part-task Practice

While the approach and the structure would be different, these Instructional Design techniques and models can be used to inform informal learning environments.


How did you validate your study?

Q. How were the categories used in your survey developed? Validated? Analyzed? How do you carry out thematic analysis?

The categories in my survey were developed and built in part, based on a larger survey developed in our larger research group with Dr. Bonk that has been with a variety of populations.  We had 159 participants respond to the larger survey after Dr. Bonk’s MOOC last summer and we had over 1,400 survey responses to users of MIT OpenCourseWare. My study questions and categories, however, were meant to be a simpler version of the larger survey. We established face validity, which is a qualitative measure of validity, through multiple rounds of review within the research group, as well as expert review from Dr. Bonk.  To be clear, the survey was simply meant to guide participants and inform the participant interviews, which would go deeper into investigating the research questions. The survey responses were analyzed primarily using descriptive statistics only as this was a limited sample size and face validity is not quantified with statistical methods. This is a clear limitation of the first part of this study that I want to improve on in future research.

The thematic analysis that is ongoing follows Braun and Clarke’s, 2006 paper that outlines a 6 phase guide to performing thematic analysis. This is also a recursive process that involves constantly moving back and forth through the phases, and as I am finding out, may take longer than initially expected.  (The six phases are 1. Familiarizing yourself with the data. 2. Generating initial codes. 3. Searching for themes. 4. Reviewing themes. 5. Defining and naming themes. 6. Producing the report.) I am currently in the coding phase and moving into the themes phase.  Some of my initial codes relate to elements of the survey such as “global nature of the project,” or “I love Whitacre’s music,” but other emergent codes have emerged more directly related to specific singing techniques such as “improved breath control,” or “learning about American styles of choral singing compared to classical European styles.”

Is there structure in the Virtual Choir project?

Q. Part of the Virtual Choir experience seems, as you describe it, very structured — in what ways do you see the project as being an example of informal learning?

As with many informal learning experiences, some structure is necessary and is a good thing.  Perhaps the single most important aspect of choral singing is following the cues of an instructor.  In this case, having a recorded instructor track with an accompaniment helped to keep singers together and singing in the same key.  There were also good guidelines of how to record and upload the video.  Maintaining correct file formats for the videos and a logical submission process is critical when dealing with thousands of people from around the world.

The informal learning that was unstructured occurs first as this is outside of an educational curriculum, as defined by Livingstone. Also the methods of learning the music were very unstructured.  You could use the guide tracks that were provided, but based on my study, many people learned the songs by watching other postings and following along.  Some printed the music and practiced at a piano.  The setting is also informal and unstructured, which would put this down in the bottom of Sefton-Green’s quadrant. One participant from the most recent project is a deaf & mute singer that participated in the project by submitting a video of herself signing along with the music.  Even though she didn’t fit the original mold, she created her own learning and changed the structure.  Her contribution touched many people that participated in the project.

So while there was some initial structure to the project, both the setting and the curriculum would be considered informal.