Comparing Formal, Open and Self-directed Learning

In thinking about ways to improve not only the quality, but also the cost effectiveness of learning systems, it seems current learning models can be classified into three basic models or systems. Formal and usually classroom based learning models, open learning models and non-formal or self-directed learning models. Each of these models can be used to construct instances of effective learning. However, each has relative strengths and weaknesses. In this posting I classify and quantity these differences in a comparative table. I conclude by noting the potential for open learning to be the most valuable model upon which to build education and learning systems and the need to enhance the social component of this model so as to have it reach its greatest potential.

First a few definitions:

Formal Institutionalized Learning: This model is characterized by campus based delivery system with formalized learning outcomes and high emphasis on credentials and credibility. The model is used extensively for all levels of education (adult, children, trades and academic learning). It is most common in prevocational education but also the predominate model for continuing education and for industry and trade based training. It is usually place based, but can be distributed by the traveling teacher moving to a location that is accessible to a group of learners, or less frequently by video or audio distribution of discourse. The learning sessions are nearly always synchronous though many are using asynchronous resource and interaction tools in so called blended learning applications. Formal classroom based learning usually places high degrees of emphasis on credentials, and credibility so as to maintain exclusive control of both formal and hidden curriculum of educational outcomes.

Open Learning. Open learning models are confused by the different use of term to describe education and learning systems with quite different qualities and characteristics. UNESCO defines open learning as “instructional systems in which many facets of the learning process are under the control of the learner. It attempts to deliver learning opportunities where, when, and how the learner needs them”. The “attempts to deliver” indicate the continuum of learner control that defines many operational Open learning systems. They generally have the following characteristics, with particular institutions highlighting some subset of the following:

-open admission (few or no prerequisite courses) required

-uncapped admission and enrolment

-high levels of learner choice on program curriculum

- recognition of prior formal and non-formal learning

-low or no on-site and institution-specific residency requirements

-continuous enrolment and self-pacing

- low cost

Open learning is often associated with distance education, but using the criteria above, one can find examples of distance education programs that are not ‘open’ and conversely campus based systems that are open.

Finally, Open learning systems are usually credited and credentialing function is also very important to students and open learning institutions.

Informal or Self Directed Learning

Informal learning is by definition unsystemized and depends upon learner’s self motivation to direct their own learning. Sometimes referred to as autodidactism, informal learning is the most common type of learning, in fact it is so common that many participants do not even recognize that they are learning when they investigate or research a topic of interest. In a self-reported survey of 1562 adults in 1998, Livingstone (1999) found that Canadians were averaging about 15 hours a week in informal learning activities. Self-directed learning is however rarely credential zed or recognized by accrediting bodies, professions or employers. The recent and continuing availability of learning and information resources on the Net has created opportunities for very significant improvements in the capacity to engage in informal learning (Candy, 2004). Proponents of Self-directed learning often hold antagonistic attitudes towards formal education systems which they see as monopolistic, coercive and inefficient. This sense was captured by Alberta Einstein’s famous quote that “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”

In the following table I qualify characteristics of these systems and give quantitative value of 3 if the characteristic is an important quality, characteristic or component of the learning model, 2 if it of medium importance and 1 if of low or no importance.

System

Freedom Location & Time

Freedom of Pace

Freedom of Content

Freedom of relationship

Formal

1

1

1

3

Open

3

3

2

1

Self-directed

3

3

3

1

System

Guidance &

Support

Credentialing

Cost and Scalability

Total

Formal

3

3

1

13

Open

3

2

2

17

Self-directed

1

1

3

15

From the table we see that Formal (usually campus based learning) scores very low on freedom of learner to study where, when and at a pace that meets their needs. They also are usually quite restrictve in terms of the content that is to be studied. These systems though focus on their credibility and credentialing capacity and go to great efforts to convince themselves and others of the quality of their educational product. They also effectively serve to socialize participants in the sense that new acquaintances can be forged and one learns to act and talk like an “educated person”. These systems are also not scaleable as demonstrated by the very low levels of access to this type of learning in nearly all developing nations.

Open learning systems are obviously strong in allowing for freedom of location and time. They may also support freedom of pace and continuous enrollment; though many of the most famous open learning institutions such as the Open University of the UK are very restrictive on the entry and completion schedules. Open Learning systems usually assume a very heterogeneous population of learners and so often allow learners to apply their learning to content of personal or vocational interest. However, they offer very low opportunity for learners to meet each other and develop relationships –especially if the open learning institution supports self pacing and continuous enrollment. They do however provide high levels of guidance and usually student support. Open Learning systems usually offer credentials and most are accredited by some type of regulatory authority. However, their reputation ranking is often lower than traditional institutions. The success of the “mega-universities” (Daniel, 1996) demonstrates the scalability and cost effectiveness of many Open universities.

Self Directed Learning of course scopes very high on allowing freedom of time, space, pace, and content – since each is exclusively under the control of the learner. However, like open learning systems the opportunity to meet and socialize with other learners is restricted. Likewise capacity for guidance and support is limited and usually restated to those whom the learner can find and sustain on their own initiative. Credentialing of the learning experience is also severely restricted though there is renewed interest in competency based assessment models in which the results rather than the process of learning is emphasized. Finally self directed learning is scaleable and cost effective especially in those regions of the world where access to the net is ubiquitous and relatively low cost.

Discussion: The tables above are individually not surprising nor original; however they point to areas, in which those interested in maximizing learning, might focus to improve the learning potential for individuals and for larger groups. Of particular personal interest is the capacity for Open Learning systems to increase their acceptance and attraction to learners by providing opportunities for social connection –even while retaining control over the pace, place and time of that learning (see Anderson, 2005). The increasing participation by formal campus based learners in various types of Net enhanced ‘blended learning” will also raise the credibility of Open learning as teachers and students release through personal experience the efficacy of net based learning. The table also reinforces the need for all types of formal learning to integrate self directed learning accomplishments into their credentialing systems and to develop ways (such as portfolios and competency exams) to recognize self directed learning and its inherent cost effectiveness.

Reference List

Candy, P. (2004). Linking Thinking: Self-directed learning in the digital age. Canberra: Austrarlian Government: department of Education, Science and training. Retrieved April 2005 from http://www.dest.gov.au/research/publications/linking_thinking/report.pdf.

Daniel, J. S. (1996). Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media: Technology Strategies for Higher Education. London : Kogan Page.

Livingstone , D.W. (1999). Exploring the icebergs of adult learning: Findings of the first Canadian survey of informal learning practices. Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education, 13(2), 49-72.
Retrieved Jan. 2006 from http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/depts/sese/csew/nall/res/cjsaem.pdf



One Response to “Comparing Formal, Open and Self-directed Learning”

  1.   Jeremy Says:

    Fantastic post — maybe the concepts aren’t surprising, but I love the way you’ve clarified the differences between these types of learning.

    “Proponents of Self-directed learning often hold antagonistic attitudes towards formal education systems…”
    I lapse into this attitude frequently, perhaps because for me the contrast between my own self-directed learning and my formal learning has been so stark. The latter (an online graduate program) has been mostly frustrating, always expensive, and probably useless to me other than the credential. In the same three years I’ve been plugging away on it, I’ve been pursuing my own learning online — some of that pursuit is manifested by the writing I’ve done in my blog, but much of it was simply reading, commenting and reflecting on the thoughts of colleagues on the web. It feels more fruitful, almost free and applicable to real-world problems.

    My experiences would indicate that the values you’ve stated for freedom of relationships should be reversed. When I’m in a course, I’m thrown together with 25 other people with different goals and approaches to the topic. Maybe it’s because I’m somewhat introverted, but I’ve found it very difficult to initiate and maintain relationships in online courses. In the network that has emerged around my blogging (reading, commenting, posting) there seems to be much more freedom — the potential networks includes anyone in the world who is interested in the same things you are. And unlike courses, where classmates scatter every four months, the online relationships I’ve made persist as long as the common interest is shared.