In a 2009 San Francisco Chronicle (my local newspaper) article it was reported that due to the state budget crisis at the time the entire California State University (CSU) system of 23 campuses would not accept any new students for its upcoming spring semester. Typically, about 35,000 students enroll in the CSU system each spring. Imagine 35,000 students not able to enter that college system. At the time, this was all being done to cut $584 million from CSU’s budget. In spite of an improving economy, it hasn’t gotten much better for students. What does this say about our current higher education system? I say it’s broken. Badly broken. Of course, CSU is by no means the only educational institution or system in serious trouble, then or now.
As I read the newspaper article I at the same time reflected on a book I’ve read, Recovering Informal Learning: Wisdom, Judgement and Community (Lifelong Learning Book Series), by Paul Hager and John Halliday. The book’s main premise is that society as a whole has given formal education far more weight and importance than informal education and that the dominance needs to shift to informal learning if we’re to educate our citizenry best. This has been my contention for a long time and it’s always nice to see others concur.
So what can we do to help fix a broken higher educational system while providing individuals with the education (and proof of such education) that they need?
I would suggest a bold program that I like to call Honoring Self-Education be undertaken to address this issue and I recommend such programs be implemented at local levels. This would counter what appears to be a growing problem of high cost and sometimes outright inaccessibility of higher education for many potential students. So what might such programs entail? Here’s what I propose as possibilities.
- Respect for Informal Learning. First of all, the programs must be organized, strategized and implemented from a mindset of full respect for the value and efficacy of informal learning (self-education or guided self-education). If this sort of respect for more casual and unstructured forms of learning does not exist from the start, any program will inevitably fail.
- Centralized Learning Hubs. Cities, metropolitan areas and perhaps groupings of smaller communities need to have a centralized way to informally organize information, learners and resources to facilitate such self-education and informal learning. Technology has given us the web and a website is the most cost-effective and efficient way to do this. Such sites might contain sections on the variety of learning methods, learning groups, a database of the subject matter expertise each site member can offer to others, internship and on-the-job training opportunities, self-education aids such as personal learning contracts, and anything else that might offer resources or networking for self-learners. Particularly well funded local programs might have actual physical locations with an administrative office and meeting rooms. Libraries would be a logical location for such facilities.
- Business Community Outreach. While the ideal of learning for its own sake is a worthy goal, the perceived practical value of such local programs will be in how well the education translates into job skills and career empowerment. To do this the local organizing body must reach out to the business community to foster their agreement that, at least for certain job categories, they’ll accept from their job candidates alternative proof of knowledge and skills apart from the traditional degree and certification methods.
- Proof of Education Strategies. While offering information, strategies and resources to students engaging in self-education, there must at the same time be some mechanisms in place to prove such learning. Why? Practicality necessitates such proof. Since the goal of education is often (but thankfully not always) to procure a better job or career, employers will typically need some form of proof of informally attained education. The education portfolio is one way to do this and I’ll write about this in future postings.
- Funding. Whether it comes from community fundraisers, government funds, private industry support or other means, such programs take money. Perhaps a small staff needs to be kept employed, but at the very least the website will need content maintenance and a board or other organizing body will need to direct the program.
- Community Outreach. Once a preliminary program is in place, it won’t do anyone any good until community members know about it, know what its benefits might be to them, and know how to access the program’s network and resources. Creativity is in order here. Low-cost methods like online social media, news releases, blogs and other free outreach methods should be employed before resorting to more expensive means of program advertisement. Where appropriate and fully funded, more aggressive advertising campaigns through more traditional venues can be employed.
Standardization should be resisted. Guidelines for local programs should be kept generalized and allow for each community to come up with creative solutions to the educational needs of their community members. That way each program can learn from the successes and failures of other programs so that all programs could be modified and improved over time.
So imagine this scenario. You want to learn something. Let’s say you want to improve your office administrative skills to improve your chances for employment or to get a promotion. Typically you would have three potential options. You can try to find all of the education you need through formal schooling or training. You can try to learn what you need to know entirely through self-education. Or you can do some of both.
For this case, let’s imagine money is tight and the self-education option is your best choice. You log on and access the Honoring Self-Education (or whatever it’s called) website. You register as a user and create your education profile. Your profile contains information about what you want to know and what you already know. This allows you to better interact and network with other self-learners on the site. Maybe the site then presents you with a short questionnaire and based on your answers presents you with information and learning options tailored to your individual needs. Perhaps it produces a learning guide you can save or print. Or maybe each subject area has its own community-created (open source) learning paths that everyone on the site as well as program organizers can contribute to.
The site may direct you to specific reading materials. Networking can be leveraged by connecting you with others within the learning network who already possess the knowledge and skills you want to acquire. They can guide you and maybe mentor you during your learning. For topic areas where discussion fosters the best learning, learning groups who meet in real time or over phone/web conference meeting tools might be identified.
On the business community/learner connection section of the site you discover a local business that provides non-paid (or perhaps paid), short-term internships that allow you to learn in a real-world setting. As you talk with others in the field you discover that understanding how to use certain software programs is vital. A non-profit job center listed on the site offers free classes on those programs and you sign up.
As you do all of this learning the site encourages you to download their education portfolio template and you begin to create your own portfolio as you learn, using a 3-ring binder to contain and organize it all (or the computerized virtual equivalent). This portfolio becomes your self-created proof of your education and skills and you’ll use this along with your résumé and other job-seeking collateral when applying for and interviewing for future jobs.
Anyway, I think you get the idea. I’ve only touched upon a few of the many possible aspects such a program might offer to learners. The community’s collective imagination can come up with many more I’m sure.
Until local communities begin to officially embrace and facilitate such informal learning programs, the formal college, university and training center systems will dominate the culture. Unless challenged, formal schooling and training will continue to push out any hope of establishing informal learning’s place within the accepted educational methods you can use to improve yourself and to improve your employability.
If anyone knows of such programs already in place, I’d love to hear about them. And if you have any ideas you’d like to contribute, I’d like to hear those too.