Fostering a friendly, empathic, relaxing environment is critical
It is important to put the learner at ease with unfamiliar tasks and create an environment that encourages learner interaction and peer to peer learning across different groups of learners
“… we bring them in to the learning environment by being very welcoming and friendly. We reassure them that it's fine to be a beginner and to feel hesitant. We promise no jargon or long technical words! We use gentle humour and empathy, and basically try to imagine ourselves in their shoes.”
“ W e try and encourage a friendly and welcoming approach to visitors… it is this atmosphere that fosters peer to peer learning, and by ensuring learners are comfortable with their surroundings. ”
“ One of the things that our learners value the most is the flexibility that we offer them and a relaxed environment.”
Type of informal learning is dictated by the type of learner that visits the centre. Overall, main types of learning mentioned were:
Basic computer and internet skills (e.g. typing up a document, using a mouse, emailing, browsing websites)
Older learners are particularly keen to learn about ICT to learn about the things their friends and family do, to ‘keep up with the changing face of communication in the modern world’ and as a way to keep in contact with people
Used by some to improve job prospects, build up confidence before moving into formal learning
Job-related (e.g. help with online job applications, job searching and preparing CVs)
Other commonly mentioned types of informal learning were:
Practical tasks such as digital photography
Learning about family history , recording memories
This was mainly among older learners who use this task as a way of picking up ICT skills.
Lifestyle & ‘home management’
One centre runs a Lottery funded project based around healthy eating and active lifestyle, another centre provides guidance on aspects on independent living such as food safety, budgeting, renting a property etc
One centre mentioned that help with purchasing airline tickets was a key draw to the centre as the centre was based in an areas with a high Polis population that regularly travel to their home country
Other informal learning takes the form of ‘one-off’ tasks , such as entering a competition online, looking up a recipe seen on a TV programme or searching for benefit advice.
Types of informal learning carried out (3) In our centre, informal learners would like to be able to learn all kind of what is classed as 'leisure' courses, e.g. home management , photography, digital photography, basic computing skills . We often put informal courses on in response to demand such as: Spanish conversation, card making, digital filming and editing and Family History workshops. People come in to check and purchase tickets , especially airlines so online shopping/payment is supplied. We have an agreement locally with Jobcentre plus , who direct jobseekers to us for assistance with CVs, Jobsearch and basic computer skills . The important activity for these visitors are generally email, web browsing and typing up documents . We are running a Lottery project based around healthy eating and active living . … we use computers to look at self catering, food safety, savings, renting property, budgeting etc. Examples of informal learning mentioned We get a significant number of people visiting for help with online job applications , preparing and printing CV's and Jobsearch .
Delivery of informal learning tend to follow a similar pattern across centres…
Integration into informal learning via one to one discussion with a member of staff at the centre (could be face to face or over the phone)
‘ We start the new learners with a one to one tutorial before starting them on the course’
‘ We listen to learners as they say what they want to get online…I think this stage (over the phone initially and then at the start of the session) is valuable as it sets the scene for the learning process’
… followed by more intense period of support…
… before they move on to learning at their own pace
(within this, the learners may start asking peers for help)
Members also discussed the social impact of the centre; many learners form close friendships as a result of attendance, and interaction with different learner groups facilitates community cohesion
… many people have founded friendships as a result of regular attendance at informal learning opportunities. I think the indications are that it does contribute to social cohesion . It’s important to encourage friendliness and communication between people from different walks of life , ages and ethnic/cultural backgrounds. You can’t push this but I like to encourage respect and a different way of seeing each other.
Volunteers are used by many centres and tend to be existing learners/students although some are recruited externally
Key benefits of using volunteers for centres:
Funding does cater for demand for informal learning, particularly for certain groups (i.e. older, retired learners and those that want to take part in non work-related activities/learning)
If a volunteer is an existing learner, there is no need to provide additional training (time and cost effective)
“ Recruiting volunteers from existing learners seems to saves us a lot of time on additional training that we have to provide when recruiting a newcomer”
There are also are benefits to being a volunteer themselves in taking up the role:
Increased learning, confidence and sense of achievement
Helps people that have been unable to or not been in work for some time to gain real practical work experience
“… this opportunity is promoted to learners wishing to progress within their own personal development and people registered with partner organisations such as local Community Volunteer centres, for work based training opportunities and work experience.”
Engagement with this topic was low. The main reason for this seemed to be because some smaller centres do not use anything more than basic computers.
Among those that did contribute to the discussion:
All recognise the importance of using technology in informal learning
Smartboards received a couple of mentions, and some centres use digital cameras and mobile phones . One centre mentioned there is scope for using SatNav in informal learning
In terms of software used in informal learning, network tools were mentioned, with centres using these to create digital environments /communities for learning
Myguide and multimedia presentation software (e.g. PowerPoint) were also mentioned
We developed the concept of A Digital Village … where the interests of the learning community set the agenda for what they learn. This was done using Community Media and innovative use of ICT , particularly open source software and web2 applications . We have a Smartboard , which is endlessly useful , and promotes interaction within a group . Our software includes network tutor tools , enabling us to create a virtual classroom environment . Smartboards are also an excellent tool.
‘ [conventional formal] classes were quite formal with little opportunity for social interaction. In our centre they can practice their social skills . They make the whole visit a day out by eating lunch in the cafe and playing sports too.
‘ I suppose you cannot ignore the social aspect of informal learning. We have found that many people had founded friendships as a result of regular attendance at informal learning opportunities.’
‘ I have noticed in our centre that some of the learners, especially the older ones, tend to form a group and discuss their learning experience on coffee breaks.’
‘ Our sessions are attended by a a very wide range of people - from ethnic minority backgrounds, disabled people and those on long-term incapacity benefit… I think…that it does contribute to social cohesion .’
‘ I feel it's important to encourage friendliness and communication between people from different walks of life, ages and ethnic/cultural backgrounds… I like to encourage respect and a different way of seeing each other .’
This is the main barrier to delivering the types of informal learning that there is a demand for (particularly in smaller centres)
Key issue is that older / retired people are one of the main groups of informal learners (and one of the most digitally-excluded groups), yet funding is not directed at this group, but rather at employment-related learning
Lack of funding means that demand cannot be met, resulting in:
Limited resource (tutors, computers, time)
‘ I too work in a small centre, with funding being our biggest problem... i am not always able to spend the whole time with the more competent users’
In some centres, learners are put on waiting lists until enough people sign up for them as cannot afford one to one sessions
‘ I have had to ask people to wait until I have enough to form a group and by that time some no longer want to do it. With hard to reach learners you need to be able to grab the chance while you can not send them away until you meet the target group size.’
Lack of childcare provision is a barrier for some learners, many of whom are unemployed or on benefits
Many smaller centres do not have funding or cannot accommodate crèche facilities
‘ Learners with young children are also a big issue as it is impossible to find childcare.’
Predominantly a funding issue
‘ in this area there are also a lot of low skilled unemployed who we would like to encourage to come in more, but of course it comes down to funding - or the lack of it - as the main barrier they have is childcare.’
Difficulties engaging certain groups in informal learning
‘ We provide accommodation for young mothers and their children, domestic violence victims and homeless families. Therefore the majority of the people are hard to reach and it is difficult to keep them interested in training.’
‘ We work very hard to persuade our community and the parents that education is valuable, as we have found that parents are not keen to come into school, also the school building is not easily accessible to our catchment area’
One member mentioned that some learners are wary of putting their name to anything on the internet as they were afraid it might affect their benefits
Whilst measuring progress is seen to be beneficial to both the learner and centre, there are a few issues with measuring informal learning:
Some difficulty measuring certain informal learning targets, such as health and well-being, which are seen as ‘successes’ but perhaps not easily measured
Due to lack of funding, some centres do not have sufficient resources to actually use the information they collect from measuring informal learning to further develop centre work
… informal interest based learning can improve health and wellbeing… It is very difficult to quantify and thus track and report on these so called 'soft targets'… We collect data from these via feedback and initial progress form. But we do not have the staff available to turn this into a full set of courses and create individual Plans and progression charts for learners as yet.
Limited funding impacts on the delivery of informal learning:
Demand for courses cannot be met due to limited staff and technological resources
Limited staff means that learners cannot be given the amount of one to one attention they need – with one or two people in smaller centres fulfilling all roles
Certain groups continue to be excluded:
funding is primarily targeted to employment-related learning
Childcare / crèche facilities cannot be provided thus excluding those that do not have available childcare
How can funding for informal learning be improved? (1)
Offer more long-term funding
One member commented on how much success the centre had achieved with funding but was then stuck when the funding came to an end. They were worried that if they had to let tutors go, learners would leave as well.
One member, while supporting long term funding was anxious about how this would affect how they were assessed on meeting targets.
Offer funding that allows individual to choose a course that interests them rather than being target-driven
Offer funding to groups other than those that fulfil the ‘worklessness agenda’. Funding is focused on unemployed people but excludes those that want/need help in their everyday life
Ensure balance between funding for marketing and actual delivery of courses in correct. No point marketing a course if it cannot then be delivered well
How can funding for informal learning be improved? (2) Current frustrations include a lot of funding being poured into support materials and marketing for initiatives but very little available for delivery … I think it would be great to have funding available for the individual so that they could chose a subject they are interested in; not target driven … With hard to reach learners you need to be able to grab the chance while you can not send them away. … a lot of the Government contracts seem to concentrate only on short unemployed or facing redundancy people and the ones wanting to learn ICT for use in their daily lives are finding it very difficult to find any funded courses. What we need is long term funding to enable us to support informal learners. We were lucky to receive money … which means we had lots of new people but then it ended and we had to look for more money to support tutor costs. Once the tutors go sometimes the people leave too as they get attached to a particular person.
Informal learning is valuable for a wide range of learners, particularly those excluded by conventional, formal learning and technology, and those that need to further develop their skills to be able to move forward with their lives
Informal learning also provides a channel for social interaction (with a diverse group of people) and can improve well-being and health
As lack of confidence is often prevalent among informal learners (and can be a barrier to uptake), fostering a friendly and empathic environment is critical
Informal learning can take several forms, from more organised workshops to casual drop-in sessions. Much of informal learning is conducted on a one to one basis in response to specific requests
Peer to peer learning is an invaluable resource to centres as it enriches the learner experience and provides a more comfortable channel for asking for help for certain learner groups
Some informal learners eventually become centre volunteers, which can help with resource issues in centres, but also provides the learner with work experience, and further learning opportunities.
However, limited funding continues to be the main barrier to delivering valuable informal learning, and unless funding systems for informal learning change, certain groups will continue to experience exclusion or delays in the receipt of informal learning.