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Is “informal” the same as “unstructured”?

Q. In your view, as you have adopted Sefton-Green’s criteria, would the term “informal” be equivalent to “unstructured”?  What do you see as the elements of “structure” applicable to curriculum and setting?

It depends on how you are defining structure, but in my definition, yes I would say that they could be equivalent. Julian Sefton-Green is a Principal Research Fellow at University of Oslo working on projects exploring learning and learner identity across formal and informal domains, and is someone that I have started reading over the past year. (Appendix A) In fact in his literature review, Sefton-Green (2004) takes this idea of informal and structure a step further and says that, “the distinction between informal and formal learning…, can more clearly be made around the intentions and structure of the learning experience” (p. 6, emphasis added). As Sefton-Green points out, there is a quadrant when looking at informal learning.

One of the contributions that Sefton-Green adds to the definition of D.W. Livingstone (2000), is that Livingstone refers to only, “the curricula of educational institutions.”  I still follow this definition as it does encapsulate my work, but adding the quadrant of Sefton-Green provides more clarity and focus.Image

For example, two years ago my W210 students and I helped facilitate a “passions project” at the local Bloomington Project School.  The passions project was a three-week project where we helped the students learn about Lego Mindstorm robotic kits.  These were 6th -8th grade students in a classroom setting, with an instructor, and visiting education majors from IU.  In other words, this was a pretty formal setting.  But the activities and curricula were very unstructured.  The objectives for the project were to work in groups and pick something to build out of the lego kits, and ultimately program the object to move or do something.  Each group could set their own objectives. One group made a car that could change directions when it hit an object. One of the kids was much more interested in learning about the computer programming of the object while others had more interesting in building the car and making it stronger so it wouldn’t break. These activities were less structured, but still in a formal setting. These could also include the Boys and Girls Club or a neighborhood Computer clubhouse. My minor advisor Dr. Kylie Peppler from the Learning Sciences, has done extensive work in researching the role of informal learning at the intersection of the arts and new media in these spaces.

Contrast this with someone participating in something like the Virtual Choir, which would be lower on the scales of curriculum and setting. Online learning, or some MOOCs might be informal settings as you can participate from your home or anywhere, yet have highly structured (more formal) curriculum with set assignments and objectives

Traditional K-12 schools would be generally highly structured and highly formal.  Adventure Learning, which I mentioned before, might be right in the middle of both scales.  Some AL projects start with a designed curriculum, in a school, but they may deconstruct that curriculum and iterate on it during the project depending on the findings of the explorers and researchers. Students may follow the curriculum during the school day learning about an ‘animal of the day,’ but they also interact with the adventurers/researchers after school or by following along on blogs, webcams, or webcasts. There are many other examples that I could place on this, but these are ones that I am most familiar with.

This is a pretty long way of showing how yes; I do think that structure could be viewed in the same way as informal.  But this explanation has also shown how the different definitions of informal learning are important. Sefton-Green’s definition built on Livingstone and provides clarity.

Since I am also following Sefton-Green’s definition, structure is a part of both curriculum and setting.  So I think that as they relate to curriculum and setting, it is not a simple question of marking something as ‘yes, this is informal’ vs ‘no, this is formal.’ They are degrees and there are times and situations where each may be more or less appropriate depending on the learner.  In some cases more structure may be appropriate, where others it would be less appropriate. This is an area where my background in IST may help to understand how more structure could be beneficial in some informal learning environments. It’s all about creating structures for learners. These structures may be dependent on age, familiarity with the context, may be more structured at first then become less structured at the end.  The environment needs to be able to be flexible and so does the structure.