(Informal) learning in the age of digitisation Google as an education facility

Using digital media in lessons
Using digital media in lessons | Photo (detail) © Rawpixel- Fotolia.com

Learning is still almost exclusively associated with classrooms and exams.  But you can also learn by researching on the net: Google, YouTube and Wikipedia are education facilities. Online resources are increasingly in competition with schools. Or can schools make use of informal learning?

How do I calculate the area of a triangle? How can I learn to dance like Beyoncé? What do I cook for vegans? And: what does “vegan” even mean? Nowadays young people and adults use the internet as a matter of course to search for answers to millions of questions such as these on a daily basis. They go on Google, YouTube or Wikipedia when they want to learn something. If an ambiguity crops up in conversation, they all pull out their mobiles to find out more.


People who learn on the internet often do so without realising. Yet in some ways informal learning is more “real” than learning in the classroom, for instance. Nevertheless, concerned voices point out one key aspect: if you learn on the net, you are constantly exposed to the temptation of being sidetracked or losing your way. After all, in the digital space, several stimuli have to be processed simultaneously. This leads to a change in the way attention span is handled. Traditional concentration focuses on one stimulus while all other stimuli are blocked out as far as possible. Digital concentration on the other hand has to process several stimuli at the same time. Dealing with this productively remains a challenge.

Nevertheless, implementing digital tools productively is worthwhile. The fact is, informal learning with digital Media fulfils numerous educational requirements when it comes to content-rich learning. It is

  • motivating: learners want to learn or to know this very thing for its own sake more than ever now.
  • active and self-directed: learners decide about the learning cause, learning route and learning materials.
  • situated, specifically relevant and authentic: learners can define the timing, cycle and locations of learning for themselves.
  • directly useful: learners can evaluate their own work.

This also applies to the acquisition of a foreign language, where informal learning has become much more diverse as a result of digitisation. For instance, if you want to learn Mandarin, you can start by doing it completely on an audio basis with a smartphone. Words and sentences are spoken and repeated. Following on from this there is a whole range of apps for learning the characters, which can be adapted to the needs of the students. Language courses on Youtube can be given more depth with personal contact via Skype. And there are sophisticated online courses that facilitate self-directed learning with outstanding material.


These new opportunities mean that schools, with their learning materials and learning methods, are losing their exclusivity as a learning setting. The assumption that a group of people must be present at the same time in the same room to be able to learn is becoming increasingly untenable. It is no longer space or time defining the learning process, it’s the network of information.

But that’s precisely why informal learning should also play an increasingly important role at the schools themselves. If learners are encouraged to use their digital devices for lessons, they have access to their entire repertoire of private learning in the classroom as well. So it is the responsibility of a future-proof school to support young people with their self-directed learning and guide them so that their learning is more reflective, more straightforward and more cooperative. But how could this be made to happen?


The opportunities are manifold here. The simplest step is probably to keep formulating open-ended tasks that have to be solved using informal tools:

  • “Chat to someone in the language you are learning at the moment.”
  • “Why does cream become stiff when you whip it?” 
  • “What is the difference between politeness in Peking and in Berlin?” 
  • “Where do developing countries get more money: from development aid or from cash transfers sent by emigrants in industrial countries?” 
  • “Find profiles of experts in the subjects we are working on at the moment. What interests them? What are they writing about?”

The results of these tasks then become subjects of discussion during lessons, but also the experiences and tools used. This allows learners to realise that their informal learning processes have some significance, but also that there is potential for improving them and using them for lessons.

Using informal learning for lessons Using informal learning for lessons | © paylessimages - Fotolia.com The next step could be for teachers to develop an online presence. This might be low-key at first: publishing links to the lessons on a Twitter profile; maintaining a Facebook page; providing additional information in a teaching blog. This can be used to flag up supplementary material. At the same time students realise how important learning is to their teacher. That is a key factor in learning success.


Information, expert knowledge, student groups and learning methods are available from any location via portable devices. Schools can and should take advantage of these. Computers and smartphones are not a threat to learning in the classroom, for the most part they facilitate and enhance lessons. It means that tasks set by traditional education institutions can be outsourced to the internet. This allows schools to focus on other tasks: for instance strong relationships can be built up between teachers and students. Different learning methods can be offered for different learning types. Or the media competence needed for informal learning processes can be established.


Wampfler, Philippe: Generation »Social Media«. Göttingen 2014.