Role of the Instructor in Non-Formal Learning Environments

September 28, 2009

I’ve managed to catch up (finally) from missing last Tuesday night’s class… my apologies to one and all, I had technology issues. My router took a nose dive less than an hour before class was due to begin. No kidding. Talk about bad timing. Anyway, I’ve had a chance to listen/view the synchronous session I missed and I had prepped myself before the class by reading Dr. Schwier’s article on the creation of community within virtual learning environments. I’ve had some time to reflect and consider the role of non-formal learning in our lives as both learners and instructors.

As an adult basic education instructor, I’ve found that I need to validate the non-formal learning situations that my learners come to my class with. In fact, I find that in general, adult students who have experienced a break in their formal learning due to a variety of life circumstances devalue the things they have learned in non-formal settings. It takes some work on my part to try to outline the value and benefits to them and to assure the learners that indeed they HAVE learned valuable things, even if they haven’t earned a “credit” for it. Part of being an effective adult educator is the ability to incorporate real life experiences of the learner and use those experiences to contextualize any learning that occurs in a formal classroom. Adults will learn what is important to them and what they can relate to or see a use for.

I love the way adult learning has been conducted at the Parkland College campus I work at. We’ve traditionally had face to face students who come into the classroom on a continuous basis throughout the academic year and we start instruction based on where they are when they come in and work toward what they need to be able to further their education or to obtain better employment. There is a lot of flexibility in this form of instruction as each learning path is individualized. Because the learning path is different for every learner that walks through the door, a lot of non-formal practices can be introduced into the classroom successfully.

One thing Dr. Schwier talked about both in his article and in his Elluminate presentation was the issue of trust. I think a lot of instructors are reluctant to utilize non-formal learning environments because they are concerned about covering the mandated learning outcomes that surround formal courses. Also, I think instructors in general may not give their students enough credit for knowing how best they learn and that they are reluctant to give up control of determining what will be learned, when, and in what sequence. I see the same sort of thing happening when it comes to assessments and evaluations that are conducted in formal learning classrooms as well. So many of my colleagues are still reluctant to use peer or self-evaluations, to use project based assessments versus the standard paper and pencil tests that still abound. Learners are best served, in my opinion, when they leave the classroom knowing how to learn. What they learn in terms of content is variable, but if I can help them to build a learning community, and teach them how to use a variety of learning tools, non-formal and otherwise, to continue their life-long learning journeys, then I am doing the very best job I can as an educator.

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9 Responses to “Role of the Instructor in Non-Formal Learning Environments”

  1. starkg said

    I’m with you Michelle! Great thoughts! I ike application projects as well – yes you can tell me you know something – but can you apply it? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a student learn how to do something on their own, of their own choice, and then be able to demonstrate it to the class and get credit for it? Sounds like something I have to try out…

    • Michelle Clarke said

      That is a fabulous idea Greg!! And exactly the sort of thing that appeals to adult learners. No need to worry about the learner staying “on task” with this sort of a project, since one would hope the learner would pick something of interest to him/her. Knowledge is applied and communicated to someone else.. sounds ideal to me and I suspect a LOT of learning outcomes would by default get covered.

  2. Sue Waters said

    As someone who also works with adult learners I’m interested in how you plan to ‘build a learning community, and teach them how to use a variety of learning tools.’ Do you have specific tools that you are planning to use?

    • Michelle Clarke said

      Definitely. I hope to utilize the power of forums, blogs, wikis and multi-media sharing tools such as YouTube, Xtranormal, Delicious, RRS feeds, Twitter, FaceBook, (and so on.. there are so many to choose from and I won’t use all of them all at once. I’ll likely start small and then implement new things bit by bit) to far greater effect than I have been able to in the past, largely because of my need to learn about and play with some of these tools. That is one of the things that I am finding SO incredibly exciting about this particular course I’m taking. Here I am being introduced to these tools (well I’ve heard of all of them prior to this class but really didn’t “get it” or grasp entirely how they could be useful for my instruction) and I’m being given TIME and encouragement to go ahead and use them, to see their potential application for my own learners. (Time is more precious than gold to me, as I’m sure it is for most of us.)

      I can also see these tools being critical for me to enable me to create and maintain my own professional learning network once this course finishes. There are so many connections just waiting to be made, so many Aha! moments to be had and shared with others. There is no reason to think that learners in the classrooms couldn’t be creating these sorts of networks for themselves too. They already love to socialize.. what could be better than getting to socialize at the same time that you are learning something new? 😀

      • Sue Waters said

        Thanks. Starting small definitely helps. Also the more you use all these different tools, and see how it changes your learning, the more able you will be to see how to use with your students.

        Can you tell me what area you are involved with (i.e. what subjects do you teach) as I may have some ideas that might help?

  3. Michelle Clarke said

    Sure, Sue! I’d appreciate any insights you’d have to share with me. I teach ABE courses, traditionally all of them for both Level 3 and Level 4 learners (Adult 10 & 12) and these students were a mixture of face to face and online distance learners but this year I’ve had a shift of duties and I’m strictly an online instructor/course designer.

    We have enough student demand to require two instructors devoted to online instruction and my partner takes care of Level 4 English and Social Studies while I am in charge of Info Pro 30, Law 30, Psych 30 and Biology 30. Right now I’m also in mid-development of an online Physics 30 course.

    • Sue Waters said

      Being totally online is the aspect that you need to carefully consider. If you never see them face-to-face how you can structure the learning has different considerations from if you see them f2f. With f2f you are able to provide a different level of support.

      Entirely online means you need to focus on remembering that individuals will have a wide range of technology skills. You need to make the process and what’s involved really easy for them to understand and work with.

      A reminder that my aquaculture students gave me was remember we are here to learn about fish farming not necessarily technology. So I do whatever I need to do that achieve what’s needed to be achieved. This post here gives you an idea of some of the different approaches I use.

      • Michelle Clarke said

        Thank you Sue! These are very good tips indeed, and I agree with everything you have said, both here in your comment as well as in the blog post you linked. At the college I work for, we’ve spent a lot of effort and time doing precisely what you suggest, creating an electronic help manual to try to assist students with using our course, inventory surveys to determine readiness to learn online, inventory surveys to determine comfort levels using a variety of software programs (which, thanks to your blog I’m going to increase to include the social networking tools I want to implement in the courses), the use of summative course evaluations (I’d like to have some formative ones too, but just haven’t built in the mechanics for that just yet.. there are only so many hours in a day!) as well as providing either face to face or individual phone orientations.

        I’ve tried to apply the K.I.S.S principle to everything I’ve designed and provided options for students when it came to creating assignments/projects, etc. as I believe the demonstration of knowledge is what is key, not the medium used to display it. Fortunately this has been an evolutionary journey both for me and the college and our practices have changed over time in an effort to meet student needs. You’ve given me some great suggestions to keep on this path and some excellent points have been raised that I will definitely keep in mind. Thank you again for all your helpful feedback!

  4. Sue Waters said

    No problem and glad my feedback helped you.

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