Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

The Serious Matter of Informal Learning

Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

The Serious Matter of Informal Learning

Article excerpt

From the development of learning spaces to a broader understanding of the entire campus as a learning space.

Universities are places of learning. The ensemble of buildings and spaces we call the modern campus does not easily or naturally establish a sense of place, let alone a sense of an environment of learning or intellectual challenge. (Edwards 2000, p.vii)


University life continues to be constructed around the conduct of formal academic programs in classroom settings that largely reflect and maintain longstanding educational practice. The serious matter of formal learning is centered around the lecture theater, the tutorial room, and the laboratory. A great proportion of the campus consists of the traditional facilities created to conduct formal instruction, comprising both discipline-specific and general purpose classrooms.

Research into teaching and learning in higher education is slowly changing the way universities design and conduct formal educational programs. Many in higher education now recognize that knowledge is not "delivered" to the student, but rather constructed by the individual, and that learning is a social process requiring active engagement with others in meaningful experiences (Biggs 1991; Gibbs 1981 ; Jaques 1991 ; Marion and Saljo 1976; Prasser and Trigwell 1999; Ramsden 1992). Consequently, there is growing acceptance within universities that new-generation classrooms will be needed to accommodate the formal learning activity associated with the shift toward a more student-centered pedagogy.

Nevertheless, large classes are still the mainstay of a timetable based around the availability of traditional lecture theaters, in which the emphasis is on the transcription of content delivered by the teacher. Eventually, the campus is likely to comprise a mix of formal classroom types, with traditional-style spaces for more didactic, larger classes and new-generation spaces for more collaborative, active learning approaches.

In contrast, "informal learning" has been regarded as a less serious matter to which the university has consequently committed far fewer resources. For the purpose of this article, "informal learning" is defined as course-related activity undertaken individually and collaboratively on campus that occurs outside the classroom and does not directly involve the classroom teacher. Informal learning is generally viewed as those "other" activities students do to learn between formal classes, including course reading, class preparation, and assignments and project activity. Learning, of course, involves social interaction, and it is not easy to separate purely student social activity from that which is learning-related, particularly as both forms of peer-to-peer engagement often take place in the same campus settings. Typically, informal learning has taken place in the library, the student refectory, cafés, and other social spaces.

While historically the university campus has been shaped by the emphasis on traditional instructional methods and the classrooms this has required, the future campus will be determined to a large extent by the university's response to informal learning. The balance of formal and informal settings will need to change as students are required to be more self-directed. This article examines a particular direction that many universities have followed to create a more effective informal learning environment on campus: the development of campus learning centers. The article also proposes the need for a more nuanced campus development strategy informed by a subtle understanding of informal learning.

The Development of Campus Learning Centers

Although universities have developed only a relatively small percentage of their formal classrooms to accommodate the shift toward a student-centered pedagogy (Jamieson 2007; Scott-Webber 2004), there is considerable evidence that universities are now treating the issue of informal learning much more seriously. …

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