blending student technology experiences in formal and informal learning

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  • Blending student technology experiences informal and informal learningK.-W. Lai,* F. Khaddage & Gerald Knezek*University of Otago, Dunedin, New ZealandDeakin University, Burwood, Melbourne, Victoria, AustraliaUniversity of North Texas, Denton, Texas, USA

    Abstract In this article, we discuss the importance of recognizing students technology-enhancedinformal learning experiences and develop pedagogies to connect students formal and infor-mal learning experiences, in order to meet the demands of the knowledge society. TheMobile-Blended Collaborative Learning model is proposed as a framework to bridge the gapbetween formal and informal learning and blend them together to form a portable, flexible,collaborative and creative learning environment. Using this model, three categories of mobileapplication tools, namely tools for collaboration, tools for coordination and tools for com-munication, have been identified as pertinent in blending formal and informal learning, andthey can be connected seamlessly to provide an effective learning mechanism to support thelearning process.

    Keywords ICT and pedagogy, informal learning, learning ecology, mobile technologies.


    With the huge increase in accessibility of digital andmobile technologies in the last decade or so in theeconomically advanced countries and also to someextent in some less economically advanced nations(e.g., with the uptake of mobile phones), there has beena drastic change in the way young people play, social-ize and communicate (Ito et al., 2008; Sefton-Green,2004). This high level of accessibility also providesopportunities to gain powerfully motivating andintense learning experiences (Osborne & Dillon, 2007,p. 1444). Young people develop their experience andknowledge of digital and mobile technologies prima-rily in out-of-school settings, and the way they usethem is clearly different from how they use technolo-gies in school (Sefton-Green, Nixon, & Erstad, 2009).

    For example, a recent report published by the KaiserFamily Foundation (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010)shows that in the USA, children and young people(818 years old) spent on average 90 min/day in 2009text messaging, in addition to 82 min being spent invoice communicating, listening to music, playinggames and watching other media on their mobilephones. They also spent on average an hour and a halfdaily using the computer, with the three most popularactivities being visiting social networking sites (e.g.,MySpace and Facebook), playing computer games andwatching videos on websites (e.g., YouTube). So intotal, children and young people in the USA spentalmost four and a half hours daily using digital tech-nologies out of school. A survey conducted byMediappro (2006) in nine European countries andQuebec reports similar findings, showing that 12- to18-year-olds spent much more time using the Internetat home than in school, with on average 67% ofthe respondents using the Internet either daily orseveral times a week, compared with only 26% of the

    Accepted: 28 June 2013Correspondence: Kwok-Wing Lai, University of Otago, Dunedin9054, New Zealand. Email:


    doi: 10.1111/jcal.12030

    Special issue

    2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Journal of Computer Assisted Learning (2013), 29, 414425414

  • respondents using the Internet in school. The preferreduses of Internet at home were instant messaging, visit-ing websites, listening to music, playing games anddownloading materials. Bransford and his colleagues(2006) have estimated that children and young people(aged 516) only spend 18% of their waking hours inschool, and in a persons lifetime about 80% of thelearning occurs in informal environments.

    Research in informal learning is not new. Scribnerand Coles (1973) work was one of the first to starttheorizing the relationship between formal and infor-mal learning in the early 70s, and in 1987 Resnick(1987) in her American Educational Research Associa-tion presidential address raised issues with learning inand out of school. However, it is primarily due to theadvent of the Web 2.0 technologies that the educationalcommunity has been challenged to pay greater atten-tion to the relationship between technology and infor-mal learning, and to rethink the nature of learning ininformal settings, and how informal learning caninform formal learning (Motiwalla, 2007). The purposeof this article is to discuss how everyday learningacquired from informal mobile technological practicescan be transferred or mapped onto educational prac-tices that are formal, and vice versa (Merchant, 2012).The article is based on ideas generated from the EDU-SummIT 2011 discussion (Knezek, Lai, Khaddage, &Baker, 2011), as well as from the literature.

    Conceptualizing formal and informal learning

    Formal learning, sometimes also called school learn-ing (Resnick, 1987), refers to learning that takes placein formal settings such as schools or tertiary institu-tions and is highly structured in its curriculum, learn-ing activities and assessment (Eshach, 2007). The endproduct of formal learning is usually a qualification(Organisation for Economic Co-operation andDevelopment [OECD], n.d.) It is more difficult todefine informal learning, as there are complex concep-tual and methodological challenges (Hofstein &Rosenfeld, 1996; Osborne & Dillon, 2007). Informallearning is often conceptualized in terms of the loca-tion of the learning settings, and in this perspectiveinformal learning refers exclusively to learning thatoccurs outside the school (Callanan, Cervantes, &Loomis, 2011; Sefton-Green, 2004). Other researchers(e.g., Eshach, 2007; Laurillard, 2009) view informal

    learning primarily in terms of the structure and processof learning, as well as the relationship between theteacher and the student. This perspective views infor-mal learning as a self-directed, intentional interest(rather than curriculum-based), non-assessment-drivenand non-qualification-oriented endeavour. Yet anotherperspective focuses on the purpose of learning,viewing informal learning as learning that happensaccidentally, spontaneously, and it is unpredictable andseen primarily as a spin-off from leisure activities(Kerka, 2000; Marsich & Watkins, 2001; Sefton-Green, 2004). We view learning as a continuum, withthe degree of formality or informality determined bythe extent that the learner can frame, classify andevaluate knowledge (Bernstein, 1971). As described byFurlong and Davies (2012), it is a matter of the degreeof control teachers and learners have over the selec-tion, organization and pacing of knowledge transmit-ted and received (p. 52). If the learner has morecontrol on the opportunities to learn, as well as havingthe freedom to choose what to learn, and how learningis evaluated, then learning is more informal. We willfollow Laurillards (2009) definition of informal learn-ing, which focuses on the learner as the centre of thelocus of control. Laurillard maintains that in informallearning:

    there is no teacher, no defined curriculum topic orconcept, and no external assessment. The informallearner selects their own teacher, who may be a peer,or may not be a person; they define their own curricu-lum, as what they are interested in learning about; andthey choose whether to submit to assessment by others.(p. 12)

    If learning experiences acquired in informal contextsare valuable experiences, how best can these experi-ences be transferred from one context to the next, tomake seamless learning (Rushby, 2012) also possiblein formal learning settings?

    A new learning ecology

    There is a growing recognition that a semiotic relation-ship exists between formal and informal learning. Thislearning ecology perspective (Barron, 2006) suggeststhat while students learn differently in school and out-of-school settings, learning can take place acrossboundaries, and what has been learned out of schoolcan help shape what is learned in school. Conversely,

    Blending student technology experiences 415

    2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

  • what is learned in school can motivate students to learnoutside the school (Greenhow & Robelia, 2009). InGreenhow and Robelias (2009) case studies, it hasbeen shown that students informal learning could betriggered by their work done in school. They also foundthat high school students from low-income families inthe USA who interacted through social networkingsites outside of school allowed students to formulateand explore various dimensions of their identity anddemonstrate 21st century skills (see also Voogt, Erstad,Dede, & Mishra, 2013, in this issue), but they did notperceive a connection between their online activitiesand learning in classrooms. In informal learning situa-tions, while learners will use the forms of learning thatthey have already learned from formal settings, theyalso use strategies that are not normally used inschools. Furlong and Davies (2012) call these infor-mal learning practices. Referring to the use of infor-mation and communication technology (ICT) at home,Furlong and Davies research has shown that studentshad access to a wider range of learning resources, strat-egies and skills. Adopting the learning ecologyapproach requires a cultural shift, as suggested bySefton-Green (2004) in his review of out-of-school useof technology:

    that in their leisure, at play and in the home with theirfriends, young people can find in ICTs powerful, chal-lenging and different ways of learning. The emphasis ison sharing, working together, and using a wide range ofcultural references and knowledge . . . unless educationpolicy makers can find ways to synthesis learning acrossformal and informal domains, our education system willbecome the loser in the long run. (p. 33)

    There is a disconnect between