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Informal learning – linking the University to the outside world

December 14th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

One frequent comment I get from teachers when talking about the use of new technologies for learning is the need for examples of effective use in practice. And all too many projects, national and European, talk about changing practice but from a research or theoretical perspective.

The ICONET project has taken a different route. Based on the earlier ICOVET work, it sought to take a basic tool for identifying and recognising informal learning with socially disadvantaged young people, and implement it in different situations with different groups of learners. In the UK we worked in two quite different contexts, although both were located at Salford University. The first, called Cartoon Planet and working with Salford Young People’s University, has already been published on this blog.

The second sought to embed the process within a Personal Development through Enterprise initiative. In this report Helen Keegan explains the background and results of the project work.


“The University of Salford is a Widening Participation university, with a student body largely made up of ‘first generation’ students – that is, students who are the first in their family to enter higher education. For many of our students, studying for a degree is particularly challenging. Students often fail to see the bigger picture in terms of the acquisition of invaluable life-skills, preferring instead to take an assessment-driven approach where formal learning is prized (i.e. what needs to be remembered/prepared in order to pass a module) at the expense of informal learning and skills development. However, in terms of pedagogy and public policy it is increasingly acknowledged that informal skills are equally as important (if not more so) than formally learnt curricula through the course of one’s life, where participation in a rapidly changing, networked society demands significant informal competencies which lie outside of mainstream curricula.

Finding ways of developing learners’ informal competencies alongside subject specific knowledge within mainstream curricula is therefore crucial. The Personal Development through Enterprise initiative focuses on developing informal competencies alongside Enterprise within the curriculum, through nurturing reflective practice on learning that goes on outside the classroom, alongside a core suite of 21st century competencies which are recognised as being essential attributes for the successful lifelong learner. Ultimately we want to equip our learners with the skills to self-direct their learning for life, through a process of meta-learning, critical reflection, and the ability to recognise their informal skills and how these enable them to become lifelong learners.


Personal Development through Enterprise focuses on the development of innovative learning activities and teaching and mentoring methodologies as to foster the development of informal competencies and reflective skills alongside formal Enterprise curricula.

Over many years teaching in the classroom, the tutor had noticed how students appreciated being asked about what they do OUTSIDE the classroom – that is, their interests and activities in their spare time. Many of these activities have real value, and yet the students don’t think of their informal learning as being valuable as it is not being assessed. The aim was to recognise what people do outside the classroom, getting the students thinking about how the skills developed through their off-campus interests can be used across different contexts – valuing their informal learning alongside formal, and integrate the two.

Alongside this was the problem of the student’s perception of Enterprise in the curriculum. While entrepreneurial skills (and even more so, INTRAPRENEURIAL) are commonly seen as being essential skills in the workplace (the ability to lead, make decisions, and drive change from within), many students are resistant to the idea of Enterprise teaching as they see it as something which is only relevant to those who want to start their own business. This is a common misconception, but one which needs to be addressed and the skills required for Entrepreneurship are required in nearly all walks of life.

Piloting the programme

In order to engage the learners, encouraging them to reflect on their informal learning and how this leads to a set of behaviours which are transferrable across contexts – including organisational – we wanted to address the perceived lack of relevance of informal skill sets through active pedagogy and experiential learning rooted firmly in the real lives of our students, in order for them to realise their potential in the wider world as lifelong learners.

We wanted to make the classroom more dynamic, giving learners control in terms of how the sessions were run – and even what content they covered. There was a strong emphasis placed on peer mentoring.

The class were split into groups and each week a different group would lead the session. Suggested (and covered) topics were:

  • Organising
  • Leadership
  • Working across cultures
  • Assertion and negotiation
  • Using broadcast materials for presenting
  • Business ethics

Each group was only given a brief outline of the topic/goals for the session and they had to create the lesson themselves, sourcing information and using examples from their everyday lives and first-hand experiences.

They were asked to design classroom sessions which were fun and interactive – some of the things they came up with included games, debates, role-playing and even a song competition!

There was an emphasis on imaginative uses of technology to support their sessions and learning, e.g. wikis, videos, audio, visual aids and props. They were encouraged to use idea creation techniques such as brainstorming (both within groups for session planning and in the sessions they actually led). The students developed skills in using and managing information, particularly in the sense of synthesising their informal learning into what they commonly thought of as ‘learning’ (which tended to be formal). They communicated ideas to others using multiple forms of media and technology (which involved them developing a fundamental understanding of the ethical/legal issues surrounding the access and use of media), and reflected critically on their learning which helped them to develop the ability to self-direct their learning.

As in the case of Cristina Costa’s Cartoon Planet project (one of the other ICONET studies), the curriculum criteria were based on three broad aspects of teaching and learning:

  • an interactive approach;
  • a focus on informal learning and skills;
  • attractive, diverse strategies for class engagement.

A learning development journal was kept by each student in order to stimulate individual, peer and group reflection, and this gave them a structure within which to translate their informal competences – gained within, but also (and more importantly) outside the classroom – into a ‘CV-ready’ format, enabling them to recognise the links between their informal learning and how this can be reported in a more formalised manner.


As in the case of Cartoon Planet, the outcomes envisaged were:

  1. To stimulate guided reflection about the learners’ strengths and skills through different peer and group activities.
  2. To utilise Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to empower students to communicate their skills and competences in an interactive and personally meaningful way.

However, in this case one of the most empowering aspects of the project was that students were given a brief which was wide open in terms of the way that they used ICT – obviously this is much easier to do when the students are older, as in this case. Through giving the students the opportunity to develop the content and design their own sessions (the main instructions being to base everything on their experiences OUTSIDE of the university and to use whatever ICT they wanted in innovative ways), the students became highly engaged and started to realise that the concepts, knowledge and transferrable skills which are covered in Enterprise teaching are in fact everyday skills which they have been practicing throughout their lives without actually realising it!

Issues around leadership and roles were viewed through the lens of friends and family, then teased out and viewed through the lens of the workplace. Issues around presenting using broadcast materials and business ethics were viewed through the lens of file sharing on the internet (of which many students have first hand experience).

Each group delivered a final presentation outlining ideas for a business which drew on their informal learning (i.e. hobbies outside of university) but informed by concepts covered in class, and they came up with some fantastic ideas based on their informal skills which they wouldn’t ordinarily bring into the classroom environment. By leading workshop sessions themselves they developed real confidence in their ability to stand up and express their ideas, and did so in an engaging and imaginative way.

The personal development journals were particularly effective not only for the recognition of competences, but for the identification of problematic areas (some students reflected on their difficulties with time-keeping and organisation which they had not picked up on before, purely because they hadn’t needed to direct their own learning and be responsible to a team to such a great extent). They developed valuable skills in reflecting on their own learning, both inside and outside the classroom, and how they influence one another.


Feedback from the students indicated that they found their self-directed workshops to be of real value, although at first they were nervous about taking responsibility for their learning in this way. They also expressed surprise that so many of the skills they brought into the workshops were skills that they had developed outside of the classroom. Through being encouraged to work independently in groups, using a diverse range of media, they were able to develop a range of 21st century skills – particularly in terms of collaboration and creativity – based on their informal learning.

Something which worked particularly well was their final presentations, where they were asked to work in their groups and develop an idea for a business and present it without using Powerpoint. This meant that they came up with innovative ways to ‘sell’ their idea, such as panel games and role-playing. One group was made up of boating hobbyists and 2 environmental campaigners (all activities which they were involved in outside of the university), and so they came up with an idea to run water-taxis between Manchester City Centre and a new MediaCity development, cleaning up the waterways in the process. One month later there was an announcement in the local news that a water-taxi business is going ahead in the area – nearly identical to their idea! For them, to be able to bring in their informal learning and present it in a business-like way gave them a real sense of worth, and a genuine appreciation that they had been able to use their informal learning in a formal setting.

The personal development journals worked really well as they helped the learners to reflect and develop meta-skills needed for lifelong learning. Also, the PDJ gave the learners a method for the translation of informal competences into a more formal framework, which is especially useful when it comes to CV-writing.

Overall, the emphasis placed on their extra-curricula activities and ‘accidental’ learning allowed them to see themselves differently, recognising that they have valuable skills which haven’t been acquired formally and therefore valuing what goes on outside the classroom much more than they did before. In this sense, it was transformative.

In summary, the elements which really helped to engage the learners were:

  • Facilitated independence in terms of group work
  • Regular mentoring from the tutor (face-2-face)
  • An environment where they felt free to take risks
  • Socially-oriented learning
  • Opportunities for creativity across a range of media
  • An emphasis on peer interaction and collaboration
  • A sense of fun and play”

The issue of Digital Identities won’t go away

December 11th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

Last week I welcomed Facrebook’s announcement of new fine grained access controls which they claimed would allow users to decide what and iwth whom they wished to share.

On Wednesday they started rolling out the new interface pushing an “important message” to all users:

“We’re making some changes to give you more control of your information and help you stay connected. We’ve simplified the Privacy page and added the ability to set privacy on everything you share, from status updates to photos.

At the same time, we’re helping everyone find and connect with each other by keeping some information—like your name and profile picture—publicly available.”

The new controls are far from simple. And after an hour playing with them it appears they provide far less potential privacy than the original settings. Name, profile picture and as far as I can see your personal wall is set to public and cannot be hidden. So what is behind this? Is Facebook really concerned to protect privacy. It seems a bit too much of a coincidence that the new settings were launched a week or so after the announcement of deals with Google and Microsoft to provide Facebook data for real time search (just an aside – what is the value of real time search – I don’t get that one).

I might be paranoid but I suspect the real point of the new controls is to make sure data is available to the search engines, rather than allowing users more control over their own data. In the discussion over the new settings in the Guardian yesterday, some commentators asked why so much fuss given that it was a free service. Well firstly is Facebook really free. We provide our data which makes the site valuable for advertisers who pay Facebook. That doesn’t sound so free to me.

The question of  access controls will not go away. Digital identities are becoming increasingly important especially for young people. A couple of weeks ago a Romanian CEO of an advertising agency said in a confernce I was at that he would not hire anyone who did not have a good digital identity. Our on line identities are fast replacing the traditional Curriculum Vitae. We have a situation where the main spaces young epopel use to meet. communicate and share their lives together are controlled by private companies who are claiming ownership of our data. That is not a minor issue. OK – we can delete our accounts (although then Facebook still retains the data). But young people are not going to do this. Regulation is probably the only answer, although it is hard to regulate international platform providers. And of course, education on not just digital safety but education about the importance of digital identities and how to develop and manage them.

In my next post I will post a report for the EU ICONET project on a great course developed at Salford University and looking at digital media and identities.

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Cartoon Planet – A Pedagogy of Change

October 6th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

Reflection is a big buzz word these days. But there sometimes seems a inverse relation between researchers talking about reflection and examples of how reflection can be facilitated in practice. For this reason I very much like the work I have been doing together with Cristina Costa and Helen Keegan from the University of Salford in the European Commission funded ICONET project. We have written a paper called ‘Cartoon Planet: Micro-reflection Through digital Cartoons – a Case Study on Teaching and Learning with Young People’. Just to make sure praise goes where it is due: Cristina designed and ran the workshops.

NB Scroll to the bottom of the paper for a downloadable PDF version.


When considering formal and informal learning, we can see that the way young people today play, interact with others and take part in the surrounding world also represents the way they learn (Brown, 2002). Whist young learners in the 21st century are seen as being increasingly independent, simultaneously group skills are more important than ever before. Flexibility and adaptability are key to lifelong learning in a networked society, as are personalised learning opportunities (Green, Facer, et al 2005). However, such approaches may be missing from formal education where the focus on standard content, in a drive to measure and assess learning, means that sometimes there is little scope for learners to participate in school life in an engaging and relevant way. This becomes even more challenging when working with ‘disadvantaged’ young people, who often lack the confidence as well as the opportunities and supporting environment to develop a stronger self-awareness (i.e. awareness of their personal skills and abilities). Educational activities, which promote self-reflection and encourage young learners to engage in a learning journey by mixing fun with pedagogy through web technologies, can provide a powerful recipe in the classroom (Passey, Rogers et al, 2004). It not only increases the level of enthusiasm, it can also boost the pupil’s motivation and help create new ways of fostering learning and social engagement, in addition to new forms of teaching (John, 2005).

This paper focuses on the development of innovative learning activities and teaching and mentoring methodologies as part of the European ICONET Project, which is piloting a range of approaches to the recognition of informal learning in different countries and for different target groups. In this paper, the authors will consider the recognition of informal learning in the school setting, encouraging personal and joint reflection on formal and informal competencies with the use of web cartoons and micro activities supported by a hands-on, exploratory learning approach. We describe how young people were encouraged to use computers as an effective, hands-on, creative medium to develop self-awareness and engage in reflection on their own skills and competences. We also explore the advantages of giving learners access to the web and the issues to be addressed when working with them, and report on how this experience helped the researchers realize the potential of web-based activities to promote active engagement and reflection by young people. The importance of the presence of the teacher/tutor as a mentor to provide personalized support will also be considered as a key factor for the success of this experience. We conclude with suggestions for future research in the area of web 2.0 technologies, new educational trends and innovative practices as a contribution to creative learning experiences.


Education should aim to provide a transformative experience (Torosyan, 2001). With the spread of digital media and social computing this ideal may be seen as easier to achieve. In a society where new technological innovations are released daily, creative innovation in today’s education is to be expected. Yet, the panorama is somewhat different from optimistic predictions by educational theorists. According to the latest IPTS report (Ala-Mutka, Punie and Redecker, 2008), despite the wider availability of technology and the Internet, most classroom practices still fail to provide learners with innovative, creative and social approaches to augment and motivate learning. The ‘educational shift’, grounded on social and personalised pedagogies, as advocated by most of the literature, is still in progress (Williamson and Payto, 2009). Nevertheless, in the last decade there have been numerous policy initiatives, programmes and projects to adapt educational systems and institutions to the digital age (PLTS, 2009). Web based interactive environments can contribute to a shift in pedagogy and learning approaches. Such approaches are not new (the debate on educational change has been long running), but access to social computing offers new opportunities for radical pedagogic approaches to teaching and learning (UNESCO, 2004).

Even so, the transformation of the classroom does not rely so much on the technology as on the instigation of strategic approaches to modernising education and the willingness of the practitioners to adopt such approaches (Travers and Decker, 1999).

A Pedagogy of Change

A pedagogy of change does not mean that teachers become irrelevant. On the contrary, they become more important than ever (Redecker, 2009), in providing and mentoring learning experiences. The construction of new knowledge through collaborative and cooperative activities, which are personally meaningful to the learners, are core to a pedagogy of change (Learning and Teaching Scotland, 2007). However it is often argued that learning, as a dynamic process, is dependent on the learner’s willingness to interrelate with his/her learning in order to develop understanding (Barr and Tagg, 1995), it is equally contended that an effective learning experience is also influenced by those who help foster learning through active methodologies and personalised support.

Modern pedagogy, based on social processes, is not new. The idea that learning develops through dialogue and active processes has been much discussed, although not always practiced (Alexander, 2005). Learning relies both on granting the individual an active voice and creating an environment for collective listening and mutual support (UNESCO, 2002). That is probably one of the most radical changes the contemporaneous pedagogical approach is seeking to encourage. However, education systems are still based on an industrial age with the purpose of delivering mass-education (McLuhan and Leonard, 1967). The use of digital technologies is playing an important role in promoting change in education (Anderson, 2007). Participatory media has focused attention on the idea that teaching and learning practices have a strong social component, and that learning is a dynamic activity and naturally embedded in daily life (Bull, Thompson, et al, 2008). The interactive web not only enables collective understanding; it can also facilitate personal development and reflection through social engagement. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of learning environments is dependent more on human interaction than on technology. A pedagogy of change relies strongly on the actions of practitioners to promote such change, and also on the institutional support that is given to it. (Pritchard and McDiarmid, 2006) Equally it is dependent on the engagement of learners. Effective practices in teaching and learning rely on the commitment of both parties.

Formal education remains important. Whilst there is still a need for learning centres, these centres have to be become less formal, and provide different learning contexts, to remain relevant to those seeking meaningful learning opportunities (Du Bois-Reymond, 2004). This is especially true when working with ‘disadvantaged’ learners who may not relate to a programmatic and standardised education, but who are able to show, and most importantly, realize their potential, when engaged in different and less formal approaches to learning. A pedagogy of change could be rooted in the development of innovative learning activities, focusing on the learners’ personal and collective experience, with tutors/teachers acting as guides and mentors in the construction of knowledge and the understanding of experiences in the communities and networks in which learners participate. The school of life is a good teacher, but the learning from daily activities still needs to be recognized and capitalized as part of a formal education. Social computing can help in this as it can link the school setting with other environments where students learn in a more informal manner.

Innovative Learning Activities – Using the web to bridge learning (formal and informal)

In the recent years there has been a growing acknowledgment of the importance of informal learning (Cross, 2007; Attwell 2007). Life experience is recognised as relevant to personal and professional development, with lifelong learning taking place in a variety of scenarios and settings. Competences and skills are developed through experience and social interactions although frequently are not formally accredited as they remain outside the formal curriculum (Burley, 1990). This can demoralize and alienate those who fail to achieve formal academic qualifications but still possess skills and competences achieved in other contexts. As Cross (2007) points out, most of the skills and knowledge acquired are developed through informal learning. How we capitalize on that acquired knowledge and recognize learners’ skills is something that needs to be addressed, as recent debates in this area suggest[1].

The development of Internet and web environments is providing increasing access to free and informal learning opportunities and communities. Although learning has never been restricted to a classroom, it has met with boundaries, however internet has pushed these boundaries wider than before(Lindsay and Davis, 2007), and now even within the classroom, learning no longer is bound to a single place.

However there remain a number of outstanding issues: how to capitalize on those ‘marginal’ learning experiences, and valorise the competences and skills acquired through daily life, while assisting still learners in reflecting and realizing their full potential. The social web may assist in the development of learning activities which enable the engagement of students with their own learning. However, as pointed out before, the panoply of web applications currently available is not a solution per se. A pedagogical strategy focusing on effective engagement of students and promoting reflection on their learning is fundamental in leveraging the relevance of the technology. The ‘distractive’ side of the Web can hence be converted into a powerful learning and reflective tool. That is partly what the ICONET- Cartoon Planet project approach, described in this paper, tried to achieve. Through the development of a learning strategy ‘camouflaged’ by elements of ‘excitement’, ‘fun’ and ‘play’ with the use of interactive learning activities and digital cartoons for micro-reflection about personal skills and competences, we were able to engage learners in a way that activities with the same purpose, but with different strategies, might have not.


“There’s something wrong when a person is able to do something really very well, but is not considered smart if those things are not connected with school success” (Howard Garden)

The University of Salford is a partner in the European Commission funded ICONET project. This builds on the previous ICOVET project focused on developing and testing validation procedures for vocational skills gained by young people outside the framework of institutional education. The ICONET mission is to build on those experiences and develop new approaches and pedagogical tools for the validation of informally acquired competencies by disadvantaged young people. The main goal is to develop a space within the education system to introduce informal learning methods and pedagogical approaches targeted at engaging the learners with their own learning through active reflection.

The ICONET approach was incorporated into both Year 8 and Year 10 of the Salford Young People’s University (SYPU), a Summer School Programme for 11-16 year olds, providing a first-hand experience of life at the University with an opportunity to meet current students and lecturers. SYPU is a community outreach initiative aimed at young people who traditionally would not tend to go to University. The Year 8 SYPU Summer School is sponsored by AimHigher Greater Manchester, ‘a Government’s initiative to widen participation in higher education in England through activities that raise the aspirations of young people’.

The ICONET intervention was developed in conjunction with the SYPU. The curriculum criteria were based on three broad aspects of teaching and learning:

  • an interactive approach;
  • a focus on informal learning and skills;
  • attractive, diverse strategies for class engagement.

The approach focused on the use of interactive web and game-based reflection to involve learners from the Salford Young People’s University with their own learning in a fun, meaningful and personalised way.

The pupils taking part in this programme were between 11 and 16 years old. Classes were usually comprised of pupils from different backgrounds. However, most of them came from disadvantaged social environments and educational backgrounds, and were considered to be at risk of not pursing further education as it is not part of their family culture. This can often cause them to unconsciously discard Further and Higher Education as a possibility to progress their formal education.

ICONET – Cartoon Planet – Approach

The University of Salford’s ICONET approach was based on engaging the young learners from SYPU in interactive situations that would stimulate reflection about their own skills in a familiar environment, and thus help them realize their own potential. Hence, two-hour face to face workshops were planned and offered by the researchers/tutors. The workshops, entitled ‘Cartoon Planet’, aimed to promote the idea that learning can be exciting. The sessions were organized around activities that were supposed to be fun and stimulate active participation. The aim of the workshops was:

I. To stimulate guided reflection about the learners’ strengths and skills with different peer groups through group activities.

II. To utilise Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to empower students to communicate their skills and competences in an interactive and personally meaningful way.

To fulfil the workshop’s main goals, two different sections were planned and developed as part of the workshop. During the first part of the workshop, the pupils were invited to take part in a set of activities which aimed at introducing them progressively to the topic under focus: the recognition of their skills and competences. These activities were not only designed to prepare them for the second phase of the workshop, but also to involve the learners in discussions and guided reflection around the areas ‘they were good at’. The role of the tutors was to mentor the learners in their discussions and to help them understand and describe their skills in a more CV orientated language, and most importantly to facilitate reflection and self learning.

The second part of the workshop required the use of computers and took place in a computer laboratory where learners were asked to (re)create themselves online, as avatars (a digital representation of oneself), and describe their skills using voice and text. The avatars were later published and presented to the rest of the class at the end of the workshop.


Preparing the ICONET workshop

The researchers worked closely with the SYPU team to diagnose the needs and requirements of the participants. They also attended the training session offered by the SYPU coordinating team for the tutors who would be working with the young people during the summer school. This was useful in providing an understanding of the SYPU coordinating team’s epistemological approach to teaching and learning with disadvantaged young people and an exploration of innovative strategies to reach out to learners through the use of active learning approaches. Ideas from the training session were incorporated in the ICONET – Cartoon Planet approach.

As a result, the workshop sought to create a learning environment focused on personal and group engagement and support, where there would be scope for personalization, and where the learning activities were designed to be flexible and adaptable for the different groups of students that would participate in the sessions. Furthermore, the ICONET – Cartoon Planet design was based on the Mind Friendly Learning Framework (Greenhalg, 2001), which is based on a process of stimulating learning through a series of pedagogical steps developed to enhance learning with ‘more inclusive and powerful experiences which develop learning to learn skills’. The eight steps of the Mind-friendly learning framework are:

1. To create a friendly and positive learning environment through engaging ice-break activities that will pose exciting challenges to the learner;

2. To connect learner’s previous knowledge with new learning experiences;

3. To provide a general perspective on what the learning activity entails;

4. To negotiate the learning process and outcomes to achieve

5. To develop a diverse teaching strategy to enable multi-sensory learning

6. To engage learners actively with their own learning through an exploratory approach

7. To show provide opportunities for learners to share their learning with others

8. To encourage reflection and inquiry throughout the learning process

The workshop was planned and designed to accommodate the eight principles of the framework presented above, offering a variety of learning activities which aimed at creating a lively, engaging learning experience for the SYPU participants.

Cartoon Planet Sessions during SYPU 2008

The Cartoon Planet sessions took place in July 2008 as part of the SYPU 2008 programme[2]. An average of 12 students, both male and female, took part in the daily sessions.

The sessions started with a brief introduction about the aims of the workshop and were followed by an “Introduce Yourself” activity. Pupils were asked to share aspects of their experience that they were proud of and that they would like to share with their peers. This helped to create an environment of trust and provided pupils with the confidence to communicate with one another and the tutor.

Afterwards, the facilitator of the session introduced the idea that people have skills and competences which might not solely relate to their formal school learning activity, but which are all the same relevant to be included in their CV. This was explained in a language that was familiar to them (no educational jargon was used) and learners were prompted to reflect about “things” they were good at and proud of while using their own words. The facilitator explained this would help them later to ‘translate’ the knowledge of their skills into a more academic language, which they could include in their future résumé. The workshop activities proceeded with learners being asked to work in pairs and to take part in an interview role play – playing both the interviewer and interviewee – where they had a chance to ask and answer questions that would lead them to reflect about the topic they were exploring. This activity gave learners a sense of achievement and as the learners progressed in their activities, the tutors could notice the learners’ own excitement and interest in exploring their own skills and sharing their abilities with their peers. A mix of amazement and enthusiasm is probably what best describes the ICONET – Cartoon Planet workshop. As noted down in the researcher’s field notes, ‘the learners were delighted to find about themselves through themselves, and also through the eyes of their classmates’. For example, one of the pupils approached the tutor to ask question about one of her peer’s skills. She asked if ‘being good at doing people’s makeup’ was a skill. Her classmate had reported about such activity and she thought it could be added to that pupil’s skill list. The tutor prompted both pupils to think about what it meant ‘to be good at doing people’s makeup’ and how that could be articulated with one’s competences. Together they concluded that those were relevant artistic and social skills. As the researcher wrote down in her notes, a sense of realisation of that pupil’s potential had been understood by the pupil herself and that shone through the light of achievement in her eyes. Such small anecdotes as this may seem irrelevant, yet are important in developing confidence and recognition about skills and competences developed outside the traditional school curriculum.

This was followed by a group activity. The entire class was asked to form a round table. The facilitator introduced learners to the formal skills concept, explaining what was meant by the terminology used in the EUROPASS CV regarding skills and competences. Afterwards, the interviewers were asked to present the findings of their interviews. At this stage all students were prompted to help their colleagues verbalise their skills. The entire class participated in this joint reflection, contributing to the collective knowledge of the class.

To introduce the second part of the workshop students were given a card where they were asked to write down a sentence which would summarize their skills including interests, hobbies, sports, and social activities. This would be their “passport” to the next phase of the workshop which was the key to the “Cartoon Planet’. The game component added some vibrancy to the activity and learners were still enthusiastic about being in class. Once the cards were completed they were granted access to the Computer Lab and asked to explore the use of cartoons to express what they had learnt about themselves. They were asked to create an Avatar (an interactive, digital cartoon) to symbolize their ‘selves’ and their learning too. [At this stage it is important to note that secure access to the internet was provided through an application called NETSUPPORT limiting student access to the web application used for the avatars. To enable this, special software called NETSUPPORT was used.]

The creation of the speaking cartoons aimed at introducing a fun element to the session. It also aimed at analyzing how these tools can motivate learners’ and their engagement.

The learners remained focused and did not attempt to browse other sites [this had been one of the main concerns of the SYPU tutors, moderators and coordinator, when considering the Internet as a learning tool].

The understanding of the use of online learning tools appeared quite straightforward The participants were enthusiastic and most were proficient in working with computers. Even those with less experience were fast at mastering it.

However there were no assumptions about learners’ digital proficiency and support was provided through brief demonstration of the use of the tool. Nevertheless, participants were quick to understand the concept, although it was the first time they had used that specific application.

Although students were quite fast in reflecting on their strengths, they required help in expressing their competences in the formal or academic language of a CV. They also required support and personal guidance to focus on the task. Reflection was an exercise they didn’t seem to be used to.

In summary, the ICONET – Cartoon Planet approach supports learners in recognising their own skills and competences and thus realizing their potential outside the formal school setting. By providing tools to support reflection, the ICONET approach encourages young learners to tell their own stories in a more confident and exciting way. Furthermore, the reflective component, which can be problematic in a school setting (Reference), seemed to work well. This is probably due to the fact that the concept of ‘reflection’ was not evoked throughout the workshop. The tutors rather embedded this component in the activities in a way so that they were ‘disguised’ by the environment and the different tasks. It is almost the case that the learners were learning without thinking they were doing so. In day to day life learning happens naturally and reflection is integral to that process. It is only when we try to ‘make’ people learn that it often goes wrong.


From the verbal feedback we received from the learners themselves, and the mentors and coordinators who spent more time with the learners, the Cartoon Planet sessions seemed to have been popular. The young participants’ informal feedback indicates this was a successful approach in terms of applying ICONET methodology. Feedback included “this is fun” and “now I can use these skills in my CV”. Learners were reported to have enjoyed the way the topic was presented to them and the way they were asked to explore their skills. The micro activities helped motivate the learners’ involvement in the workshop, whilst also allowing students to learn more about themselves while they engaged in this micro-reflection exercises.

A longitudinal study would be needed to fully analyse the impact of the ICONET tool in recognising informal learning. Unfortunately the workshop was offered only once and the regulations of the SYPU did not permit follow up contact. It was therefore not possible to identity the longer term effect of the ICONET – Cartoon Planet approach. However we believe that this approach can help foster deeper and ongoing reflection about informal skills in an appealing way to learners.

It is our impression that the two different sections of the workshop played a vital role in the success of the session. The personalised mentoring and constant support provided by the tutor to the small group of young people, as well as the freedom they were granted to collaborate with each other while exploring their skills seem to have enhanced motivation and active involvement in the workshop.

The fact that learners were allowed to use computers to create their own avatars appealed to their creativity and reinforced learning from the first part of the session.

In short, we would like to argue that there are a number of key elements that can enable the engagement of young people in this area:

  • Face to face contact – as a strong (initial) component of the learner activity (young people need personalised guidance);
  • The creation of a friendly, flexible and interactive learning atmosphere by the tutor;
  • Tutor’s constant and personalised support to facilitate learners’ engagement with the activities (small groups of students are advisable);
  • The use of ICT to help keep the learners’ interest and motivation;
  • The development of activities based on social learning approaches;
  • The inclusion of a fun component as an integral part of the learning activity.

The approach also raises issues around internet safety. The aim of the workshop was not to focus on digital literacy, but rather to use an interactive web application to enable self and group reflection about informal skills. Hence, net safety was not a focus for the workshop. The workshop provided only restricted access to the internet in line with concerns expressed by the organisers of SYPU. However, if this workshop was to be developed as part of a longitudinal study, with more sessions behind offered over a longer period of time, it would be interesting to develop a parallel strategy on e-safety and digital literacy to build on learners’ computing skills and thus empower them deeper understanding and know-how about both the benefits and pitfalls of social computing.

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[1] See discussions in the SCOPE community as ain example:


Learning about informal learning

May 14th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

I am in Evora in Portugal at a two day meeting of the European funded ICONET project. ICONET builds on a previous project called Informal Competencies and their Validation (ICOVET) which developed an interview procedure for the validation of skills and competencies, a manual, and a programme for further training. ICONET is adapting and trying out the approach and tools in different sectors and different contexts in seven European countries.

The project has now only six months left to run and we have spent the afternoon discussing project dissemination. Mant of the discussions parallel recent talks in various Jisc programmes about how to ensure project sustainability and maximise the use of project outcomes following the end of external funding.

One measure is to design a range of dissemination products geared for different target audiences. New technologies can help gretaly – we havebeen looking at using video and audio as well as the more common brochures and flyers.

But the discussion today has also raised issues about what is realistic to expect from a modestly funded project. The ideas we have explored would require major changes to education systems if they were to be widely adopted. We do not have the infuence to do this. Probably the best that we can hope for is to show the possibilities of informal learning and hope that others will pick up and build on our ideas.

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