Learning is the process of acquiring competence in specific skills and understanding particular knowledge. Learning is complex and can happen in many different ways. However, in Western culture, we generally associate learning with the act of “frontal teaching” (also called “instruction”), which usually takes place in a classroom. Most eLearning is just an extension of this model. It is typically constructed using classroom metaphors and processes to present learning materials and associated activities on a screen. And, because like most classroom teaching, the production of eLearning is dictated by educational or training institutions/organizations, learning this way is often described as formal learning.
Formal learning is usually accompanied by assessment procedures to evaluate how much knowledge has taken place. Summative assessments, such as final exams, are intended to assess a learner’s overall level of success or proficiency at the end of a period of teaching, usually by comparing his or her performance with a standard or benchmark. Formative assessments evaluate performance as the learner learns, and are used to give feedback to improve learning as it takes place. Formative assessments are more like guidance or scaffolding and are used to move the learner to the next step in a learning process. Success in summative assessments is often seen by learners and teachers alike as hurdles to overcome or goals to be obtained.
While classroom-like formal learning can be created especially for mobile devices, it’s only one of many ways that be learned via mobile. Mobile learning, which relies extensively on video lectures, slides, or a lot of text is not an optimal way of using mobile technologies, because the device has a considerably smaller screen. Using mobile technologies this way, while possible, does not use their unique affordances.
Informal learning and implicit learning occur all the time, and these types of knowledge are where mobile technologies can shine. Informal learning is learning that happens outside of institutional structures (think about discussing a book with a friend), while implicit learning involves dealing with complex information in an incidental and non-deliberate manner, through activities and events in life that are not explicitly designed to teach (think about what you might learn by watching someone cook a dish that you like but have never tried cooking before yourself).
Mobile technologies can augment and enable documentation of both informal and implicit learning in that these devices are usually used in the immediate contexts in which a learner is located, rather than in a classroom or conference room. In other words, there is no need for a formal setting for learning if learners use mobile technologies to find what they need when they need it, or if they are learning without realizing it through their immediate experiences in the world around them. (This latter type of learning may or may not be augmented by mobile learning technologies).
But, you may very well ask, what about the assessment of informal learning? And how does a learner get credentials for achieving a specific learning standard? At present, one of the primary roles of institutional education is the provision of summative assessments and the granting of certificates and diplomas that indicate achievement in learning a body of knowledge specified in a curriculum. Good teachers will provide learners with formative assessments as well because it is a lot of work to assess each learner and provided individualized feedback as they learn.
It is essential to state that credentialing by institutions of learning or by learning and development departments is not going to disappear. But, its influence is being threatened by alternatives that may be more useful to learners in the long run. Moreover, not all learning can or should be assessed. A 2010 report from the OECD noted:
People are constantly learning everywhere and at all times. Not a single day goes by that does not lead to additional skills, knowledge and/or competences for all individuals. For people outside the initial education and training system, adults in particular, it is very likely that this learning, taking place at home, at the workplace or elsewhere, is a lot more important, relevant and significant than the kind of learning that occurs in formal settings.
However, learning that occurs outside the formal learning system is not well understood, made visible or, probably as a consequence, appropriately valued…it has also been under-researched. Most research has focused on learning outcomes from formal education and training, instead of embracing all types of learning outcomes; allowing visibility and portability of such outcomes in the lifelong learning system, in the labour market or in the community.
Distrust in credentials is rampant, and employers increasingly do their rigorous intake assessments and look for evidence of do-it-yourself learning as alternative ways of assessing skills and abilities. Mobile technologies that track, record, and evaluate our every behavior are already here and can be used for self-tracking of learning and documentation of achievements. As well, adequately designed adaptive tutoring software on mobile platforms can be used to provide learners directly with formative and/or self-assessments of their learning as it takes place. But, we have not recognized mobile-assisted feedback as a formative assessment because it is often in the form of comments by others, or badges, scores, and levels in games and other online activities. With mobile learning technologies, documentation of learning achievements and abilities are opening up in new and exciting ways. In a recent issue of Inside Higher Education (June 11, 2012), William Durden refers to the tsunami of change that is coming in higher education (which will inevitably sweep over corporate training as well).
The tsunami will come from a notion as old and as distinctive as American education itself. The notion about which I speak is that education takes place not just in the classroom — and now through a computer, iPad or smart phone screen — but literally “everywhere, anywhere, anytime.”
That vision is already happening, and mobile apps such as Float’s Tappestry can document that informal learning and provide peer-based formative assessments. But, says Durden, “imagine that a highly respected, unassailable institution or set of institutions offers a set of completion exams at the bachelor’s level to anyone everywhere, anywhere, anytime.” Then, summative assessments would also be available to anyone without attending a specific institutional setting. “At that moment,” says Durden, ”the sources of learning are severed from credentialing.” That is a moment of radical change. Combined with mobile formative assessments and personal learning portfolios, learning will never be the same.
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