Informal Learning for a Better World

By Michael Furdyk

The Weight of the World

Environmental degradation, poverty, and conflict — these are just some of the pressing global issues that remain unresolved today despite decades of effort by governments and international organizations. While progress has been seen with respect to certain global challenges (such as maternal mortality and malaria), deterioration has been seen where others (such as climate change and inequality) are concerned. The international system has been largely ineffective in developing long-term solutions to global challenges, paralyzed by self-interested states driven by short-term electoral cycles and the slow, bureaucratic development of treaties and conventions.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the work of shaping a better world cannot be left to government bodies alone. As pointed out by former vice president of the World Bank Jean-François Rischard in his book High Noon, we need to develop a new “global citizen mindset” – especially amongst young people, who have inherited these problems and on whose shoulders the weight of the world is heaviest. 

Youth: An Immense Resource

With almost half of the world’s population under the age of 25, today’s youth are a major demographic force. According to the United Nations, this generation of young people is the largest and best educated in history. And, as the leading creators and earliest adopters of ICTs, young people are also the driving force behind the emerging global information society. In an era of rapid change and complex global challenges, it seems only logical to empower the world’s largest, youngest, and most tech-savvy generation to change the world for the better. The sheer size of the youth demographic reflects its potential for widespread impact, while the fact youth are just that — young — means the effects of engaging them are likely to last a lifetime.

Bridging Informal and Formal Learning for a Better Tomorrow

As more information and people move online, the web offers ever more new, effective, and personalized ways for individuals to learn, connect, and collaborate. Informal learning is critical to building the global awareness and citizenship needed to shape a better world. While estimates vary, it is clear that most learning is informal in nature — meaning that it takes place outside of traditional learning environments and does not involve a curriculum. The fact that the majority of learning is informal speaks strongly for its power and potential impact. What is more, studies indicate that informal education significantly increases engagement by giving learners an opportunity to direct their learning. This is particularly important considering that research on the learning that takes place in schools isn’t engaging students, with most dropping out not because of academic failure but because they do not see what they learn in school as relevant to their lives.
Informal learning should not be seen as a threat to the formal education system, but as a challenge, model, and important counterpart. With the rise of the open content movement, some of the world’s best educational content — from TED talks to MIT’s OpenCourseWare — is now freely available online. Rather than compete with the web as a content provider, the formal education system should critically consider its role and value in the information age and consider shifting away from providing content to facilitating student-driven learning experiences and supporting the acquisition of key skills and abilities.
Educators and schools should try to replicate the personalized nature of informal learning by giving students more opportunities to direct their learning and make decisions that affect them, their classroom, and their school. Educators can leverage informal learning in the classroom through a challenge-based learning approach that sees students working collaboratively to develop innovative solutions to issues that matter to them, using the Internet to access information, tools, resources, and expertise and to communicate what they learn. Challenge-based learning incorporates the best aspects of problem-based learning (such as the teacher acting as a guide and facilitator, and the focus on real-life problems), but is much more focused on collaboration, with students working together to refine research questions, investigate the topic, and develop, identify, and publish solutions.
By utilizing informal and challenge-based approaches to learning, educators can help students identify their interests and navigate the vast landscape of information and media available to them, laying the foundation for students to learn outside of school. In this way, formal learning can help to improve and strengthen informal learning and support the development of lifelong learners who know how to ask important questions, seek out relevant information, and think critically.

TakingITGlobal: Informal Learning for Global Citizenship

I established TakingITGlobal (TIG) with my friend Jennifer Corriero in 1999 to help bridge the gap between how young people live and learn. The mission of TIG is to empower young people understand and act on the world’s greatest challenges. Often described as a “social network for social good,” our multilingual, award-winning online learning community offers a diverse set of educational resources and action tools intended to inspire, inform and involve. Since being founded as in 2000, 40 million people have accessed the website to learn, grow and realize their potential.
Informal learning centered on global issues and community engagement, such as what takes place through TIG, is critical to developing the global citizenship mindset that Rischard identifies as the key to resolving today’s big challenges. TIG allows all youth to learn about issues that interest and matter to them, and connect with the information, resources, opportunities and people they need to contribute to solutions and drive change. Don Tapscott, author of the best-selling book Wikinomics has identified TIG as “one of the world’s best examples of how N-Geners are using digital technologies to transform the world around them.”
At TIG, we view our work and impact through our Theory of Change — a model that can be used to understand how change happens, from the inside out, when youth have the motivation, ability and opportunity they need to meaningfully engage with their peers, communities, and societies. The theory consists of a 4-phase cycle that starts with youth development, which contributes to youth participation and action, which builds social movements that in turn shape societal beliefs and behaviors.

We recently surveyed of our members to better understand how participation in our online community contributes to offline behaviors associated with civic engagement and leadership. Yielding over 3,300 complete interviews, it revealed the following impact measures:
Youth Development

  • 93% indicated TIG increased their awareness of issues globally
  • 89% increased their awareness of different cultures through TIG
  • 88% indicated TIG has increased awareness of opportunities and resources

Youth Action & Participation

  • 68% indicated TIG has helped to gain or refine skills
  • 78% credit TIG with enabling them to express thoughts and ideas
  • 75% indicated an increase in the frequency of their conversations about local and global issues after joining TIG

Social Movements

  • 45% collaborated, and 42% have done so cross-culturally through TIG
  • 66% indicated involvement with TIG increased their level of volunteer activity
  • 20% have attended events as a result of TIG

Societal Values

  • 33% have connected with governmental or organizational leaders as a result of their involvement with TIG
  • 36% have been in touch with an organization listed in the TIG database

As our world becomes increasingly interconnected and interdependent, students will be required to both compete in a global knowledge-based and technology-rich society and collaborate and cooperate in a global society grappling with a range of serious challenges. Today’s youth have the greatest potential to employ the power of technology to collaborate and innovate for positive global change. It is integral to our common future that both formal and informal learning support young people to use the tools and information available on the web to learn about issues that matter to them, connect to peers, and work together to create positive change.

Get Involved!

Visit today to learn more about how we are empowering youth to build a better world. And, stay tuned for a subsequent blog post about our work in global education!

Michael Furdyk is the Co-founder of TakingITGlobal (, which provides innovative global education programs that empower youth to understand and act on the world’s greatest challenges.

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1 Comment

Doug DeMaio

The research being done on learning in schools doesn't strike me as something that would or should be engaging to students. That sentence is so poorly worded that it no longer means what you want it to mean.

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