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Informal Learning via mobile phone and tablet

One of the biggest challenges international policy makers are still facing in the field of education is how and in what to wisely invest the limited resources - informal learning may help to overcome barriers.

The goal of creating a well-educated and highly skilled populace is one shared by governments around the world. Increasingly, information and communication technology devices, including mobile phones and tablets, are being used as educational tools to help achieve this goal.

However, the combination of political will and technology working towards the development of a knowledge society has, until now, had a strong focus on formal learning and education. By allocating most or all of education spending to formal learning, and in the absence of any other learning type in national education frameworks, governments and policymakers have devoted much time, money and attention to traditional learning types to the detriment of an equally important learning type: informal learning.

Informal learning

The cost of education in Kenya is relatively high whencompared to what most people earn.

Informal learning, which is unorganised, can occur over indeterminate lengths of time, and usually occurs in informal contexts, such as while travelling, at home, or in museums. It has not been given much notice because it is difficult to measure – and with few exceptions – no qualifications can be earned from informal learning participation.

Yet, informal learning is one of the most equitable learning types since practically everyone can participate in informal learning as part of a lifelong learning process, regardless of their socio­economic status. Because many more people are excluded from the formal education system in developing countries, informal learning as a means to education participation is even more critical in these parts of the world. Also, given the growth in access to mobile devices in the Global South, using mobile as a tool has the potential to spread informal learning opportunities further and to more people than ever before.

The time a person can spend engaging in informal learning is far more than they will ever spend in formal learning contexts (such as classrooms or laboratories). Learners are provided with opportunities to independently learn things that they care or are curious about. Furthermore, skills crucial for both personal and professional development, such as leadership, collaboration, negotiation and problem-solving, are often refined and practiced in informal learning contexts.

With increasing access to mobile devices, especially mobile phones, informal learning has evolved to become a more on-demand act, with information of interest available any time and anywhere, even on more basic mobile hardware. As governments and policymakers look to stimulate greater access to an education that facilitates holistic preparation for the future of their citizens, informal learning, including with mobile devices, should be a key component of a nation’s education framework.

Informal learning

Informal learning can help people become aware of the full range of their capabilities, helping them to derive pride and self-confidence.

Examples of successful informal learning projects – both bottom up and top down – from countries including South Africa, Ireland and the Philippines demonstrate how governments can take initial steps towards assigning positive value to informal learning. These examples show how meaningful integration of informal learning on mobile devices can become a part of a nation’s education framework.

Furthermore, an extended case study from Kenya conducted by the author highlights how informal learning on mobile devices, even for traditionally marginalised populations, can be a medium of support to cultivating a knowledge society through something as simple as providing access to books.

Based on the “best practice” examples and research findings from the case study, governments and policymakers need to consider the following recommendations in order to help realise the potential of informal learning on mobile devices.

1. Transform informal learning into a visible and valued component of the education system.

The lack of visibility of informal learning in national budgets, policies and frameworks does not nurture equitable education participation in a country that seeks to develop a knowledge society. Developed countries undervalue informal learning. With funding support and development activities directed from the West, developing countries are often obliged to follow suit in this neglect. Changes in this area need to be effected by developed and developing countries alike.

2. Understand ways in which informal learning could be measured.

A barrier to informal learning is that there are no commonly agreed key performance indicators for this learning type. Additional data about informal learning can help governments and policymakers take decisions about where to invest with informal learning, including how the use of mobile technology might boost this activity.

3. Leverage existing and planned national infrastructure to support informal learning.

Take deliberate actions to understand present national resources, and to see what could be reused or repurposed to fit education plan needs. If the country has high levels of mobile device owner¬¬ship, it would be beneficial for policymakers to consider these potential tools before investing in more costly hardware to facilitate informal learning.

4. Establish opportunities for public engagement on the subject of informal learning.

Use of public consultations can provide governments and policymakers with data that can help make decisions on informal learning policy design. Informal learning on mobile devices might also emerge as an important consideration, since mobile devices provide potential distribution channels for informal learning, with the ability to reach people directly regardless of distance.

5. Re-allocate part of national education spending to informal learning studies and initiatives.

The growing evidence for the advantages of informal learning, including with mobile devices, is worth small investments. This needs to be used for further research and investigation, on one hand looking at when and for whom informal learning is beneficial; and on the other hand to scale best practice examples and support new innovative initiatives.