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The 3 Principles for Successful Informal Learning

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Games are all about teaching and learning. As a designer you build a game so that the player can learn the game world, learn its rules, learn what the goals are, and therein explore the strategies and potentials it provides. As a game company with a focus on education we’re even more focused on learning. We put a lot of time, thought and effort into how people learn and how best to teach, so here we’re sharing our three principles of successful informal learning.

So what is “informal learning”? Obviously it’s the inverse of formal learning. We covered the difference in another article “Formal vs Informal Learning” so to give a shorthand here it’s learning outside of school or direct instruction. Things like visiting a museum, exploring a science centre, practicing a hobby are all good examples. Games can often be a great source of informal learning. Even non-educational games often have some level of opportunity to learn. Games like the Civilization series are a prime example, where players learn many concepts of history, politics, culture and society while playing the game. People get to simply explore topics and concepts at their own speed in their own way at their whims. This is obviously a great way to learn, but it does mean lacking a direct teacher or mentor, so it’s a trade-off, more flexibility but less guidance and support.

Anything involving learning and teaching is of course a complex subject, full of pedagogy and cognitive theory, but here we’re going to share three simple principles to consider when designing and implementing informal learning.


Engage

The first step to successful informal learning is engagement. They can’t learn from something if they never engage with it. Seems pretty obvious, but look around, there’s plenty that wasn’t designed with engagement in mind. Now of course it’s hard for everything to be engaging all the time. There’s a time and place for different styles. Too much hyper-engagement and you just create a cacaphony of overstimulation. Two of the secrets of great design is balance and flow.

Engagement is more than just bells and whistles. We’re looking to build awareness and understanding, not a casino. Good learning material does need some curb appeal though. Initial presentation is important, despite the advice folks do judge books by their covers. Materials need to quickly convey what they are about, and what style of material they are. You should be able to convey what kind of experience something is with whatever catches peoples eyes first, a big graphic, largest text, video sequence, it should be an obvious sign so the right audience can know its what they’re looking for, and just as importantly, people that aren’t interested know they can move on so they don’t waste their time, tie things up, and have less time for what they did want. Sometimes good engagement is about moving folks on so the right people get the right content.

Engagement isn’t so much about winning everyone, as it is being upfront and easily deciphered by passerbys what is on offer. The great secret to marketing is speaking the right message to the right audience. If you’re building a display about gut health that’s all about the gross-factor as a draw in for 10 year old boys, then run with it, know that’s the audience and speak to them specifically. No content speaks to all people. Know your audience and speak authentically to them. Don’t write scientific papers for 8 year olds, don’t use baby language for adults.

Video games are great for engagement. They can use dynamic visuals and sound to showcase whatever they’re about. The multimedia potential gives you so much to work with. Importantly any game display in an attraction should be active. Don’t have a still screen waiting for people, that screen is your chance to engage, so show people something about the game! Have it active and moving, highlighting something about the content or experience that awaits players.

While learning types have been called into question as an effective and desirable model of education, the principles behind them can still be valuable thought exercises. Designing materials that speak to people in different ways can help to examine topics from different angles, and offer different experiences to informal learners. It’s great to offer parents some physical tactile activities for young learners, but also some quiet more passive options once the energy wears off. Thinking about informal learning design through the lens of Kolb’s learning styles (Accomodator, Converger, Diverger, Assimilator) or Fleming’s VARK model (Visual, Aural, Reading/Writing, Kinesthetic) for example can help us think about ways we can convey information differently and offer different experiences for learners. We don’t know what will make a lesson click with a learner, in formal learning a teacher or mentor can be there to try and try again, in informal learning we often don’t have this human approach, instead our designs need to accommodate multiple paths to success.


Inform

Of course the heart of any education is the conveyance of knowledge. Inform is about what we convey – facts, concepts, models, theories, methods, principles, skills or even virtues or rights. Inform is the heart of the knowledge transfer. This is often the focus of any educational development, and it might be obvious, but lets take a moment to reflect on what it means and can be, especially in an informal environment.

Informal learning in attractions like museums and science centres is often based around two things – presentations (like wall panels where text, pictures and diagrams are presented for reading) and interactives – things that can be manipulated physically or electronically to tangibly interact with concepts. To a lesser degree we see audio and video components, or even live human interaction. Text and diagrams are a great way to convey information and done well they can provide not just pertinent information, but meaningful narrative to a user’s journey. Differing scales and placement of panels can provide a varied level of depth and grade level to the information provided, allowing users to glance, scan, or study depending on their interest level and desires. We can see that inform isn’t simply about the information provided, but it can have a dimensionality and depth and good design will utilize this.

Conveying information is the most basic level or concept of education. We use the term “Inform” for this principle for a very specific reason. We don’t believe simply presenting information is adequate, even when read, to provide true learning. Inform is about integration of knowledge. The learner doesn’t simply intake information, they incorporate it and allow it to inform their future actions and further learning. This requires moving past what panels (or audio or video) can provide, into the realm of interactives. The learner needs to be able to put the information into practice, to use it, to incorporate it into their perspective, predictions, actions and skills. Interactives are about allowing this development. The learner is given the opportunity to practice, trial and error the incorporation of this new information through practical use. Games are a great way to provide an interactive with instant clean up, durability, small floor space requirements, personalization, replayability and incredible potential for both breadth and depth. They can also be an incredible way to incorporate even deeper learning potential with mass content with scrollable, searchable data at a users fingertips for them to choose to explore or ignore. Games are a perfect way to provide trial and error practice to incorporate information and develop thinking around new information, with many common tropes and methods to provide exactly that experience. People look to games to explore, learn, try, retry and succeed. Video games are perhaps the best tool we have to empowering learning and transforming educating into informing.


Inspire

Our final principle takes us from the initial engagement and conveyance of information into the future. Good informal learning will inspire a learner, to think of the possibilities of what they’ve learned, of how they can change themselves or the world with it. Our goal as educators shouldn’t simply be to regurgitate information, or even to ensure it’s duplication and survival, it should be to create empowered, inspired and engaged learners. To make our students better versions of themselves. To give them not just the information and the skills, but the opportunity and drive to be the best they can be.

A fun part of this can be to ask questions. Not just quizzes about the content presented, but to engage learners with possibilities and engage their sense of agency. They should be shown that whatever the situation has been, or is now, it will continue in some manner into the future, inspiring them to imagine the future and it’s many possibilities. Youth won’t be challenged by the troubles of today, but by the troubles of tomorrow. We need them to think towards that future world, in both it’s good and bad potentials. We can and should provide optimism, but we also need to ensure they see the need for work, diligence and invention, and recognize the opportunities and responsibilities of the world they’re growing towards.

Of course, not all inspiration is future forward. The amazing people, feats and moments of the past can provide an almost infinite source of inspiration too! Wonder is a powerful tool. There’s so many great sources of it to explore and showcase to learners. It’s easier for students to think about the future when they can understand the past and how previous inventors, discoverers, scientists, humanitarians, leaders, artists and others have changed the world before them. Time is a hard medium to work with, but can be amazing to explore. Thankfully digital interactive can provide tools for users to swipe and scale through time and space to explore the full potential of history. Games also provide a sense of agency, perfect for setting the stage for thinking about one’s own potential and role. Roleplaying games can provide the personal perspective of becoming their future self – astronaut, explorer, inventor, artist or something else. Strategy games can give them a sense of leadership and planning, helping them explore development, resource management, politics and the burden of power, while giving them control over ideas and structures far beyond the individual. If we want our youth prepared for the world of tomorrow, providing them sandboxes in which to explore and play with those potential realities is one of our best bets.


The Bottom Line

Informal learning is a difficult field. Without direct supervision and guidance any learning material developed has to be able to stand on its own two feet. Predicting what an audience will want or do is a very challenging task for a designer. By considering these principles we can at least create a resilient plan to try live up to the challenge. Working with good designers, who understand education and can deliver digital interactive is a great way to help ensure an informal learning environment’s success. Massive Corporation is here to help, we’re not just digital interactive developers, but we’re also educational experts. If you’ve got an informal learning project you want to bring to life, drop us a line and we’ll be happy to help! We offer free consultations for digital interactive development and love working with educational partners, formal or informal, so give send us an email today!

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