Experiental. Self-directed. Intercultural. Non-formal Learning meets Online Learning

Experiental. Self-directed. Intercultural. Non-formal Learning meets Online Learning

Image: “Hard work with a book” by Victor Hanacek via picjumbo.com


Diving into the first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) is like an online learning awakening. Inspired by Designing a New Learning Environment (DNLE), “Non-formal Learning meets Online Learning” compares and draws parallels between course elements, its underlying values and philosophy, and elements of intercultural and non-formal learning in the field of International Youth Work. The thoughts and insights inspired by DNLE provide an interesting contribution on how to awaken and Learning in in open online environments should include experiental, self-directed and intercultural learning experiences.


We all have a passion for learning

When I started the Designing a New Learning Environment (DNLE) course, I was convinced that I would spend a maximum of 3 to 4 hours per week on this. This was the amount the course description suggested and this was all I was able to handle. At least I thought so. After one week, I corrected my course profile information, after the second week I did it again until I met the ’10 hours and more’ category and stopped counting how much time I really spent there.

What happened? I got engrossed in it. Individual and team assignments, wandering around in the course forum, connecting with others and engaging in discussions, looking for inspiration, helping one another or just following my own curiosity while checking out the work of fellow students, the whole course dynamics and student interactions were a great surprise and inspiration.

At the beginning I had to revise the image I had of online learning. To my astonishment the DNLE course did not follow at all the expectations I had. Instead, my experience with DNLE led over and over again to a discovery that “The way they do things here is exactly how I do things!” This thought only slowly worked its way to the surface. I realised that online education can be very close to my own work in the field of Non-Formal Education, which includes experiential, self-directed and intercultural learning. It was both, changing my image of online learning and discovering these parallels to the field of Non-Formal Education that triggered my online learning awakening.


Images of online learning

My idea of an online course was that the necessary knowledge, theories, models, technologies would be provided by the course itself, its instructor(s), teaching assistants, facilitators. Surprisingly, this was not the case. It were the students who brought in their knowledge and expertise and generated the main content of this course. And from those other students I learnt the most. The content provided by Paul Kim, the course instructor, consisted of information that set a frame and gave a general direction that would be filled in by the knowledge that students would bring in, share and develop throughout the course. The given content could be rather seen as impulses and inspiration that introduced students to the underlying values and philosophy of designing engaging online environments.

My second surprise was about the platform. When reaching out for online learning opportunities, I expected to find an ideal online platform that would enable and facilitate students’ individual learning, sharing, discussing and collaborating with others. Whether it is an individual learning journal, a knowledge base for interesting bookmarks and useful materials, a thematic forum for sharing information and knowledge, virtual meeting rooms for chatting and discussions, online collaboration tools, etc. I was sure the platform would provide the suitable tools and technologies for that. What I experienced was quite the opposite. As soon as the teams were built and ready to start, most of them disappeared from the platform. Where did they go? What tools and technologies did they use to communicate and cooperate? The answer turned out quite simple: They used these tools and applications that they felt most familiar with. Individuals and teams created their knowledge base with Diigo, Evernote or Springpad, communicated with emails or chat programmes, within google+ communities or facebook groups, via skype conferences or google+ hangouts, they organised their team work with calendars, to-do-lists or project management applications like trello, and they published and shared their results as slides, prezi-presentations, videos, animations, mock-ups or websites.

As I am writing this, it seems obvious that people use these tools that are closest to them and are tried and tested. This sheds some light on a side effect of online learning, especially if this is the first course you are taking. A lot of learning during a Massive Open Online Course is happening – strictly speaking – outside the course frame or platform: getting to know new technologies, trying them out and/or testing them together with other team members, using them for your individual learning as well as for team collaboration is part of an enormous learning curve that contributes to an unforgettable online learning experience.

Third, I found more freedom of choice than expected. A lot of online courses put their students in the back seat. Students can decide when and where to work, but the rhythm and content of assignments define quite clearly how to get to the final stop of this ride. The DNLE experience felt more like sailing: by choosing your own educational challenge, the project you wanted to design, students defined their course aim. And every student was sailing to his/her own harbour, choosing the composition of the team, the team project and the means and tools how to get it done. Straying off course is an essential part of sailing, provided the overall course is heading towards the final project.

It only later occurred to me, that the first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) I chose was a a connectivist MOOC (cMOOC), a course that focused highly on project-based learning, self-directed learning and team collaboration. And if it hadn’t been to be that I ended up in this course, I may have missed my online learning awakening.

Learning awakening

My first learning awakening happened during my studies of Psychology. Until then, looking back at my school times, it doesn’t seem a compelling story to tell. School just passed. Without any bigger ups and downs. No fireworks. Learning was not for me, only for some abstract and far away future. A future I had no idea what would look like. My studies suddenly woke me up. A high degree of freedom to design my own learning path completely changed my attitude towards learning. Learning was suddenly something proactive, something I had in my own hands and I could take ownership of.

Re-discovering learning was influenced by the philosophy of Humboldt. Long before Universities in Germany started to introduce European comparable Master studies, Higher Education was still under the impact of Humboldt’s understanding of Bildung, which is usually translated as self-formation or self-cultivation. In modern terms Bildung could be understood as self-education and self-development. According to Humboldt, an indispensable condition for self-education and self-development is freedom. This includes the freedom of choice what you learn and how you learn, what goals you set for yourself, what learning plan you design for yourself, what resources you make available for yourself and how you assess your own progress. In the field of Non-Formal Education and International Youth Work within Europe, these skills are summarised as the ‘learning to learn’ competence, which is often seen as a meta-competence necessary for individual learning and development.

My second awakening took place online. The thing that triggered my online learning awakening most are the similarities I discovered between a connectivist MOOC and my field of work within Non-Formal Education and International Youth Work.

From the perspective of European youth mobility programmes formal learning is mostly provided by educational institutions. Learning is a structured process that is externally evaluated and leads to certification. Quite on the opposite side stands informal learning, a process that is internally-motivated, rather unstructured and based on experience. Informal learning is natural and organic and takes place in everyday situations where people deal with challenges or tasks in a given individual, social or cultural context. In-between formal and informal learning, one can identify a third learning dimension called non-formal learning which is based on conscious intention, voluntary participation, personal interests and needs of the learner (Brzezińska-Hubert 2013). Learning takes place in various environments, situations and activities, such as sports and youth clubs, associations and organisations. Learners are in the centre and take responsibility for their own learning process. They are facilitated professionally by youth workers and youth trainers or voluntarily by youth leaders or peers.

Non-Formal Education has become one of the fundamental issues of various European strategies in the context of youth mobility programmes as well as lifelong learning, both from the perspective of personal development and employment possibilities. Due to its various definitions, approaches and features, non-formal learning is still strongly discussed in the European youth field.

It is probably not possible to draw the line between formal, informal and non-formal learning. After some years of ideological disagreements, it became a more interesting question to examine the interrelations between them (Colley et al. 2002). In fact, learning in European youth mobility programmes “focuses on non-formal learning as a relevant part of youth work with links to informal learning as well as to formal education.” (Friesenhahn et al 2013, p.6). Formal, informal and non-formal learning overlap in practice and this can be very well observed in open online learning environments.


Non-formal learning and connected learning

During the DNLE course I discovered a lot of similarities between cMOOCs and my work in the field of Non-Formal Education and International Youth Work. Some terms used might be different, but the key concepts, the underlying philosophy and values are very close to one another.

There are three key similarities I would like to point out in this article. They are all part of Non-Formal Education and focus on different dimensions of learning: experiential, self-directed and intercultural learning.

Experiential learning

“When there is a higher level of learnable moments and a higher level of active engagement, you are more likely to be able to apply your learning experience in a new situation or to solve a new problem.“
Paul Kim, Design Principles II

Various activities and methods used within Non-Formal Education are based mainly on experience. Learners actively participate, create and discover. They engage, interact and collaborate with other learners. Learning is a holistic process that involves the whole person with their unique beliefs, attitudes and emotions. And learning is “a collaborative process, one in which people critically examine the ideas they use to make sense of ‘experience’.“ (Reynolds & Vince 2007, p.7)

Although experiential learning refers to a wide range of learning practices, approaches and methods, they all have in common a multiple step process described by David Kolb: A person reacts to and reflects on experiences, draws conclusions and forms concepts, generalises from his/her experience and uses, applies and tests them in new situations. Learning is both emotional and reflective, theoretical and practical (Kolb 1984).

The experience can be based on real life experiences or mediated through exercises. Various activities of youth mobility programmes like short-term youth projects, youth initiatives, youth exchanges, meetings or training courses often include a project that young people carry out together. Project-based learning offers a huge potential for experiential learning. Most projects reflect real life situations and therefore represent their whole complexity. They introduce models, concepts, in-depth knowledge to learners and involve them as a whole person. Projects increase learners’ involvement, build and deepen connections with other learners and initiate collaboration in interculturally mixed teams.

Projects offer various learnable moments on different levels. To turn these learnable moments into a valuable learning experience, students need self-directed learning skills and intercultural competence.

Self-directed learning

“Online learning requires a high level of self-regulatory skills.”
Paul Kim, Design Principles III

Non-Formal Education places the learner in the centre. Learners take responsibility in initiating, planning, monitoring and evaluating their own learning. They take responsibility for the learning process. They have ownership about what and how they learn, what resources they make available to themselves and with whom they engage during this process.

It is obvious that students in an open and unregulated learning environment need to be highly aware of and skilled at managing their own learning. Self-directed learning (Knowles 1975, Gibbons 2002) helps to identify skills necessary for learning. It draws also a clear picture of the facilitator’s role and tasks in the learning process and it gives recommendations that help translate self-directed learning into an instructional design to enable deeper learning.

Malcolm Knowles identified eight skills of a self-directed learner that are also highly important in open, unregulated online learning environments. Knowles’ list follows mainly the process of learning: starting from the ability to diagnose one’s own learning needs and formulate learning objectives, followed by the ability to identify and make use of resources to accomplish them, to design a learning plan and carry it out systematically, and finally, the ability to assess the learning progress, apply necessary corrections and evaluate learning outcomes.

My favourite is the first one he mentions: “The ability to develop and be in touch with curiosities.” (Knowles 1991) This is one of the main forces that make students dive deeply into a connectivist learning environment. It includes curiosity and passion as motivational factors, as well as critical, divergent and/or complex thinking.

Another ability, which is essential if students want to engage and connect with others and learn from one another is the ability to give and receive feedback. In a cMOOC, every student can connect to everyone and learn something from everyone. This fact also contributes enormously to one’s own learning curve. Connectivity is not a one-way relation. Learners find themselves quickly in a situation where they do not only learn something from others, but others start learning something from them. Learners become teachers. And teachers become learners. Everyone can be a learner, teacher, mentor, facilitator at the same time and thus be an inspiration for others.

To increase engagement and learning within open online learning environments, one has to find ways how to empower students and support them in developing self-directed learning skills. From a self-directed learners’ point of view, this refers not only to the individual learning, but also to the interaction and collaboration within a team.

Intercultural learning

“When you learn to collaborate, you get to do things you couldn’t possibly do alone.“
Paul Kim, Design Principles II

Massive Open Online Courses define themselves as open and thus they embrace the diversity of their students: different individual, social and cultural backgrounds, differences in age, gender, education, professions, etc. enrich the learning from one another. Diversity is probably one of the most fascinating and attractive elements of open online environments. The massive number of fellow students guarantee that at the same time you may connect to students with similar personal interests, points of views and shared world views or students who challenge and extend them.

Diversity can be very inspiring for team collaboration and enormously fruitful for the quality of the project results. But diversity alone will not lead automatically to positive effects of synergy. Diversity can also slow down or even block the interaction and collaboration within teams. Differences in language performance, communication and cooperation might lead to potential irritation, tensions, misunderstandings and conflicts. Team members might leave their teams and projects, or even drop out of the course.

In cross-cultural encounters, students need to learn how to manage this diversity and how to communicate and collaborate successfully and appropriately. Developing one’s own intercultural awareness and competence is one of the keys for a successful project that is carried out by students with different individual and cultural backgrounds.

Awakening learning

A high level of engagement and learning within open online learning environments comes across a lot of barriers. One of them is the openness of the learning environment itself. An open and unregulated learning environment like in cMOOCs is highly complex and might bring along a certain element of chaos. This complexity/chaos should not be reduced by the instructional design of an online learning environment. It has to be managed by the students. For a lot of students this might be a great challenge.

The challenges of a cMOOC also reveal students’ previous learning experience in formal education: How has their formal education prepared them to manage themselves and their own learning? And if not: How fast can they recover from their education and re-discover learning for themselves? How do they integrate informal and non-formal learning with their formal education?

I believe that the more students are familiar with experiential learning practices and methods, the more independent and self-directed they are in organising their own learning, the more interculturally competent they are in communicating and collaborating in their teams, and the better they manage the challenges of an open online learning environment.

Learning in a connectivist MOOC confronts students with the need to learn on several levels: individual, team/group and project, within the globe of a broader learning community. To manage these challenges, students need to develop experiential, self-directed and intercultural skills. This can be facilitated and supported through recognition, encouragement, facilitating and stretching (Robinson 2009, p.179ff). In a connectivist learning environment anyone can take over the role of a teacher, mentor, facilitator or coach for other students. What they do is:

  • recognise or acknowledge other students’ efforts,
  • encourage students in their further engagement,
  • facilitate other students in their learning process and
  • stretch the minds and skills of other students through challenging them with new ideas.

Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, once realised that his job was to awaken possibilities in others. In a cMOOC this is the job of everyone, but especially of the course instructor and the course assistants. This means creating a learning environment that allows and enables people to learn in an experiential, self-directed, intercultural way within a bigger learning community, and also guiding students through this learning environment through mentoring and coaching.


We all have a passion for learning. But not everybody found theirs yet.

What we need to do is to create more opportunities that awaken learning in others.



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Colley, H., Hodkinson, P. & Malcolm, J. (2002): Non-formal learning: mapping the conceptual terrain. A Consultation Report. [online] Leeds: University of Leeds Lifelong Learning Institute. Also available in the informal education archives: http://www.infed.org/archives/e-texts/colley_informal_learning.htm [Retrieved 03.09.2013]

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Knowles, M.S. (1991): Lifelong Learning: A Dream; Dickinson, D. (Ed.): Creating the Future. Perspectives on Educational Change; New Horizon 2002 [http://education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/future/creating_the_future/crfut_knowles.cfm Retireved: 10.09.2013]

Reynolds, M. & Vince, R. (Eds): The Handbook of Experiential Learning and Management Education; Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007

Robinson, K. (2009): The Element. How finding your passion changes everything; Penguin Books, London

Scheitza, A., Langley, P., Bandini, S., Herbst, J. & Danysz, E. (2004). Intercultural youth work. A workbook for youth work with multicultural groups. Metz: STIC Project Group.

Smith, M. K. (2001). Self-direction in learning; The encyclopaedia of informal education. [http://infed.org/mobi/self-direction-in-learning/ Retrieved: 10.09.2013].

Zander, B. (2012): How to give an A. (The Art of Possibility) Teachers TV [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTKEBygQic0 Retrieved: 10.09.2013]