Seeking education outside of formal institutions is gaining ground in both formal and non-formal education environments. It is also one of the strongest cases of popularizing and reducing the cost of education as American students face the highest tuition prices yet in higher education;# however, the dearth of informal sources using an experiential learning approach significantly dampens the effect and is not yet enough to fully replace formal education. By examining how formal education’s models have a step above those of non-formal sources, this paper will explain how to implement better models of learning in existing sources of non-formal education to be a tenable supplement or alternative. Formal education can also continue to improve its own models of education and thus justify itself in cost, social value, and students’ commitment vis-à-vis non-formal sources, which are often free and require only personal responsibility.
Current models of learning in higher education
Formal sources of education are standardized so that its users may attain some goal defined by a predetermined curriculum; common examples include public education institutions and universities. These formal sources excel at providing consistent, standardized levels of education in periodic levels of grades or years, with each subsequent level building upon the previous. While most primary and secondary education is based in general knowledge, post-secondary education focuses curricula on a discipline, meant for a popular career field. In the U.S., students in public schools and 4-year institutions usually spend a full working day in the classroom or on campus, allowing them continuous and guaranteed opportunities to interact with educators.
While this seems to indicate that learning is a process of creating knowledge by the reconstruction of experience in previous years, much current educational practice is based on the “transmission” model of learning# whereby the knowledge is expected to be learned from the teacher disseminating it. This model relies on the behaviorist notion of a teacher reinforcing the student if it succeeds and punishing if it fails, often on the basis of grades. Compare this to the findings of an experiment by Edward Tolman: rats who were allowed to explore a maze without conditioning were subsequently able to navigate it as successfully as those who were conditioned.# Creating this knowledge of the maze through the transformation of experience, as Kolb and Kolb define “experiential learning,” requires the student to be more of an actor rather than a receiver. Experiential learning is seldom achieved in the lecture format of most formal education institutions on all levels. It does occur via brief discussions or graded labs, but it is more often incorporated into the ethos of homework and projects assumed to be completed outside of class hours and thus outside the engaging environment that formal education excels at.# However, if the student is more preoccupied with the conditioning, grades, then would the student be responsible enough to actually learn, not just as a result of cognition but by engaging in the holistic process of integrating their knowledge with new, more refined ideas?
Shortcomings in models of learning in non-formal education sources
Informal learning reverses this, first requiring the student to take full responsibility for the subject, goal, and process of learning. The content of informal and non-formal education can be derived from myriad sources and delivered by whoever maintains its platform; however, most non-formal learning resources lack the critical factor of engaging with fellow students and educators on the level that formal education allows. Notable sources of non-formal education, especially online like Coursera and Codecademy, have received wide news coverage and encouragement from public figures,# leading to a very large user base to counter aforementioned effects of lack of engagement. However, over the last several years of these resources existing, they have only just started to effectively bridle this large user base to encourage engagement and expand the model on which non-formal learning can succeed. Most importantly, it should allow students to observe and reflect on knowledge, to abstract out fundamental concepts, and to have creative license and technical ability to actively experiment.
For example, the interactive programming lesson web service Codecademy provides a striking approach via the mode of active experimentation. Users navigate subsequent screens featuring a particular task in building a program, and they operate a command line interface using the programming language of the particular lesson. While programming-savvy students may apply their preconceived abstract concepts to this particular language, the service fails to back up the experimentation with abstract concepts and opportunities to reflect on related material necessary to users who are completely new to programming. Codecademy alone is too reductionist to learning computer programming, assuming the user will “master a topic or language,” according to its website, just by active experimentation and forgoing more conceptual and observational approaches in favor of the user taking responsibility to formulate them alone.
In comparison, Georgia Tech’s “Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming” class incorporates all these modes into the curriculum for students with any level of programming knowledge. The main class period is a lecture, where the professor mostly dictates and lightly interacts with the students on the abstract concepts of object-oriented programming. During the recitation period, teaching assistants cover more concrete examples and allow the students more opportunities to observe and reflect on the material there and from what they remember during lectures. Outside of the classes, homework allows the students to apply what they’ve learned and usually take some creative license via suggestions for bonus features, such as extra functionality or particularly well-written code.
Merging formal and informal education and using a complete model of learning
While Codecademy and its ilk may fail on its own to touch all the bases of experiential learning, it can either borrow from formal education or be absorbed into formal education as a resource. Recently, formal education institutions have started to absorb these as extracurricular or co-curricular resources, even having them endorsed by accrediting institutions for inclusion in curriculum.# Communication platforms like Piazza and OpenStudy allow students to passively interact with other students and educators outside of normal class hours, and massive open online courses (MOOC) like Coursera and edX have partnered with universities to provide their unique strengths to match those of formal education. Stanford University’s implementation of Coursera is among the most popular, with tens of thousands of participants not formally affiliated with the school enrolled in one of its online courses. In ongoing courses, students are bound to typical course proceedings: new material is on a rolling release, assignments are assigned and due regularly, and a final grade is calculated per student at the end. In this situation, all modes of experiential learning are touched, but only shallowly; lectures are released rather than discoursed, assignments are individual or shared between complete strangers, and the grade has little social value.
However, a unique characteristic of a MOOC is how a course functions after the class is formally ended, yet still available. OpenCourseWare (OCW) Scholar courses from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology combines the organization and robustness of a formal class in an asynchronous format. That is, all material like video lectures, assignments, and other resources are available even outside of the courses’ active period, unlike Coursera and edX which revoke access when the course ends. Furthermore, whereas the live interaction with fellow students and educators is somewhat muted, OCW Scholar courses use OpenStudy to facilitate peer-to-peer communication and archive past communication. That way, frequently asked questions can likely be searched, and new questions can conversations can be posted for other students who happen to be taking the course. Allowing prospective students the freedom to passively take a course for as long as they want, complete some tasks but not others, and to proceed through the material out of sequence can yield a sort of Zeigarnik effect where the student can replace tensions about grades with personal responsibility to complete this course. Similarly, with all the information available at all times, students may happen upon instances of insight learning, where perhaps via casual browsing through material the student may eventually realize some important idea that could achieve the goal of the course faster than the formal structure of the course.#
Although formal education currently has superior models of learning in place, it could greatly benefit from merging with non-formal sources as valuable resources and elements of a formal curriculum. Although, speculating on the future of non-formal sources of education, could these sources become a tenable alternative rather than supplement to formal education? Perhaps the greatest reason to replace formal with informal sources is cost, as most popular non-formal sources are currently free or at a relatively low cost compared to formal institutions. However, what participants in such a system would need is some motivation to seek knowledge. Drawing upon Jackon’s hybrid model of learning#, to succeed on one’s own, the user would need the motivation to learn, mindfulness of end or intermediate goals, and the socio-cognitive capability to understand and responsibly pursue the goals. This personal responsibility must be considered when informal sources of education are the primary means of learning and can, in fact, be conditioned by financially cheap social-value concepts such as certificates, online badge systems, and professional endorsements.
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- Kessler, Sarah. “NYC Mayor Bloomberg Vows to Learn Code in 2012.” Mashable, January 5, 2012. http://mashable.com/2012/01/05/bloomberg-codecademy/.
- Kolb, Alice Y., and David A. Kolb. “Experiential Learning Theory : A Dynamic, Holistic Approach to Management Learning, Education and Development.” The SAGE Handbook of Management Learning, Education and Development, 2009, 42-68. http://learningfromexperience.com/media/2010/08/ELT-Hbk-MLED-LFE-website-2-10-08.pdf
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- “Tuition Costs of Colleges and Universities.” National Center for Education Statistics. November 2011. http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=76.
- Young, Jeffrey R. “American Council on Education May Recommend Some Coursera Offerings for College Credit.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. November 13, 2012. http://chronicle.com/article/MOOCs-Take-a-Major-Step/135750/?cid=at.