The scope of valued learning outcomes for informal learning activities should include social, emotional, and developmental outcomes as well as content knowledge and should include learning by groups and whole projects as well as by individuals. [p 54]
Assessment must also be so organized that it can recognize unanticipated valuable outcomes and processes … [p 55]
-- from Documenting and Assessing Learning in Informal and Media-rich Environments (MIT Press 2015)
In 2010, along with my co-authors Michael Cole and Robert Lecusay (LCHC/UCSD) and Vera Michalchik (SRI/Stanford), I was asked by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative (DML) to convene a series of expert meeting and review the state-of-the-art in documenting and assessing learning in informal settings (including museums, after-school programs, community centers, and online communities).
Our final report, now published as a book by MIT Press (2015), presents the framework we developed across a series of three invitational meetings with more than two dozen research experts across the US, along with an extensive review of published research and our final recommendations and conclusions.
Two of those conclusions are highlighted above. Together they reflect our own and others’ experience with doing and studying informal learning to indicate why demonstrating the value of informal learning is a challenging task. Not because there are not plenty of valuable outcomes to be seen, but because they are often not the kinds of outcomes that educators, funders, and policymakers are initially looking for.
The traditions of formal education bias our assessments towards looking for predictable increases in knowledge by individuals. Schools have curricula that set fixed goals for everyone, so tests are designed to see if those goals are met. Informal learning is more improvisational and its outcomes are less predictable. It also encourages learning by whole groups and often results in learning by whole projects and organizations. Creative work leads to learning how to collaborate better, how to persist in a task and overcome obstacles, and how to pose your own questions and follow-through. More often than not, assessing informal learning means looking back afterwards to see valued outcomes you never expected in your original planning.
There are many other important conclusions from our project and I will review them in future posts here. For the book, click on the link above or the cover image.
Wider discussion of these issues by all the authors will happen on a new blog:
Assessing Informal Learning