Informal learning in vocational education and training – a meaningless myth?


What role plays informal learning in vocational education and training worldwide? International researchers and experts exchanged on this topic at the regular annual conference staged by the German Research Center for Comparative Vocational Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.), which is based at the University of Cologne.

“There is no such thing as informal learning in VET.” Alison Fuller from University College London used this statement made by the Australian educational researcher Stephen Billet to open the G.R.E.A.T. conference and to instigate a lively debate. Speaking on behalf of the conference’s organising body, the Chair of Economics and Business Education at the University of Cologne, Professor Matthias Pilz invited participants to reflect critically on the notion of “informal learning”, a term which is both common and multifaceted in equal measure. In her keynote introduction, Fuller addressed the issue that many educational researchers focus on a supposed hierarchy of types of learning:  from formal learning in the education system as the optimum to non-formal learning, e.g., in part-time courses, to informal learning as the accidental product of everyday life. However, she stated that it was much more relevant to investigate whether jobs were conducive to learning. On the basis of her thesis, Fuller concluded that “expansive learning environments” that encourage informal learning by creating their own impetuses in the work process lead to the greatest benefits for companies and individuals.

Roger Harris from the University of South Australia and Hugh Lauder from the University of Bath went a step further by critically questioning the purpose of the certification and formalisation of informal learning. Lauder also pointed out that knowledge which tends to be acquired generally – without being characterised by a specific learning environment – results in a higher degree of worker mobility. For this reason, the investment made by a company in general education and training could easily dissipate, including via the poaching of staff by other companies. By way of contrast, special knowledge meant that employees remained with the company. Tacit knowledge, e.g. know-how relating to the execution of a particular regular process or action, was especially important in this context. Certifying this tacit knowledge was a challenge, and there was also a fundamental need to weigh up whether formalisation would be to the benefit or detriment of the employee. In certain circumstances, companies could use this knowledge to automate a work process and thus to replace the job of a worker.

Informal learning as expansive learning

The keynote addresses given on the following days emphasised the value of “experience learning”. Kenneth King, Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, explained how curiosity and free thinking leave their mark on educational biographies, especially if pathways are not precisely planned and are geared towards a qualification. The historical perspective also reinforces the argument that informal learning must not be viewed as being inferior. It should instead be recognised as original human learning that evidently maintains continuity regardless of any formalisation. Several speakers highlighted the fact that separating formal, non-formal and informal processes was scarcely possible, particularly within the work-based learning that occurs in VET. Manuel Souto-Otero (University of Cardiff) presented validation models which could establish a stronger link between formal, non-formal and informal learning. One vehicle for this would be a greater opening up to alternative sorts of learning by educational institutions which do often focus on formal learning.

Recognition of competencies acquired by informal means

Professor Silvia Annen from the University of Bamberg, a former BIBB staff member, has been investigating different mechanisms for the recognition of informal learning as part of a research project which has taken Canada and Germany as examples. She discovered that the recognition mechanisms exhibit a dual information asymmetry. On the one hand, recognition bodies seek out certain competencies in a targeted way whilst neglecting others (screening). On the other hand, the competencies of applicants need to coincide with the requirements for qualification recognition. They must be formulated proactively and transmitted to the inspection agency (signalling). Professor Annen explained that the interplay between these two aspects produced very different recognition mechanisms in various sectors and countries.

Ralf Hermann and Julia Olesen from GOVET presented the recognition mechanisms developed by other countries by using South Africa and Ghana as examples. In their paper, they compared the educational policy approach to “Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL)” in these two countries. Over a period of 20 years, South Africa has established an RPL policy viewed as an instrument of post-apartheid transformation. In Ghana, however, such a policy was not introduced until 2021. In both countries, RPL is understood as a mechanism for recognising competencies obtained by non-formal or informal means and for facilitating better access to the labour market or to further education and training routes for the persons concerned. This is particularly successful if validation and formalisation are embedded in ongoing learning guidance and support rather than merely serving the purpose of evaluation of competencies. Stefan Wolf from the Technical University of Berlin added a further country perspective to the discussion via the example of Nigeria. He explained that informal learning in VET in Nigeria extends as a kind of continuum, in which a person frequently encounters and experiences various degrees of formalisation and structuring during the course of their vocational education pathway. This ranged from unstructured and informal training in the workplace to structured and informal training programmes and further expanded to include a structured traditional training contract. However, new approaches towards structurisation were playing an increasingly important role in traditional training formats, for instance via digitalisation. Within this context, Léna Krichewsky-Wegener from the Institute for Innovation and Technology in Berlin and Lukas Brück from the GFA Consulting Group showcased the results of a study that they conducted on behalf of the GIZ in Ghana. When investigating the use of digital media in informal training programmes in Ghanaian trade and industry (i.e. non-regulated or non-recorded programmes), they uncovered a great willingness to integrate videos and further media as transmitters.

Informal learning in vocational education and training will remain an exciting area in the future

The multifarious ways in which the topic of informal learning can be considered and investigated became very clear during the three-day conference, which featured over 50 specialist presentations. It also became apparent that the transition between informal and formal learning is much more fluid than some textbook typisations would lead us to assume. The proportion of informal learning is high and very valuable in VET in particular, because it equips learners with special knowledge of the occupation, the workplace and the company.

In his capacity as organiser of the G.R.E.A.T. conference, Matthias Pilz commented that research often failed to describe the true nature of informal and non-formal learning. Despite the steep initial thesis that there was no such thing as informal learning, he summed up by stating that the discussions very much seemed to have arrived at a consensus regarding the existence of informal learning – at least within the sense that it appeared important to examine the relevant terminology in greater detail and to undertake critical scrutiny. The participants agreed that they wished to continue to shed light on the significance of informal learning for vocational education and training.

The G.R.E.A.T. at the University of Cologne

The German Research Center for Comparative Vocational Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) was founded in 2010 at the Institute of Vocational, Economics and Business Education (Chair, Professor Pilz) at the University of Cologne. It devotes itself to comparative research, development and implementation support and to the provision of guidance in international VET cooperation. The Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB) is represented on the Advisory Council by Birgit Thomann, Head of The “VET International” Department.

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