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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Interview with Sarah Elaine Eaton, University of Calgary: Innovators in E-Learning Series

Understanding how informal learning occurs is critical in e-learning. Welcome to an interview with Sarah Elaine Eaton, whose research has focused on how, where, and when people learn in informal settings including e-learning and mobile learning.

1. What is your name, affiliation, and connection with e-learning?

Sarah Elaine Eaton, Principal Consultant of Eaton International Consulting Inc. and Research Associate of the Language Research Centre at the University of Calgary. My connection with e-learning began in around 1999 or so, when I began using Blackboard in the Spanish classes I was teaching.

From there I went on to learn Centra and Elluminate. My first intensive experience with e-learning was being part of a multi-university team that was developing a comprehensive online English as a Second Language program for international students. I've also worked on projects involving video conferencing, You Tube, Skype, Moodle and Slideshare, and other types of e-learning tools and platforms. As part of my work now I give professional development webinars on learning and leadership to educators, program directors and administrators. I gave one in May of this year on using Skype in ESL and Literacy classes. There were participants there from all over Canada and the US and even as far away as Egypt and Kyrgyzstan. I have no idea how those folks found out about the webinar, but it was super cool that they were there. I just love e-learning because it allows us to transcend so many boundaries.

Sarah Elaine Eaton

2. What are your thoughts about informal learning?

I'm fascinated by the notion of informal learning. Over the past couple of years I've done more and more research into the areas of formal, non-formal and informal learning. I suspect that informal learning isn't sufficiently acknowledged because people overlook it or take it for granted.

I think, bold though it may sound, that we are on the brink of a major paradigm shift. This shift will dramatically change how we view learning and how we value it.

Such a paradigm shift may well pose a threat for schools, colleges, universities and other formal learning institutions because it will challenge the very foundation of education. Traditionally, formal learning has been revered and valued deeply. In the "olden days" only clerics were taught to read and write. Books and formal learning were reserved for men (and a very few women) of the cloth and for those trained in law and medicine. Learned people held positions of authority and were greatly respected. Today, you can't help but have respect for the 13-year old kid who knows how to fix your computer - and he taught himself or he learned how to do it on the Internet. His skills are highly valued and you just know he's going to get a job, if he doesn't already have one "informally".

Old notions of formal learning have been turned on their head in the past 25 years. We are beginning to value informal learning more and more. People understand on some level, that our notions of learning and how we acquire vital knowledge is changing. I'm not quite sure how universities and schools are going to deal with this, but I do know when I talk to my colleagues that there is concern. And the very least, they're perplexed. Some feel challenged that the "quality of learning" diminishes as the level of formality diminishes. Again, I refer back to the 13-year old who can teach you how to do something new on your computer. Has the quality of his learning been diminished because he didn't learn it from a book? It'd be hard to claim that when you need their help and they fix it for you in no time flat.

3. In your opinion, where and how does informal learning take place in an online environment?

Informal learning, I think, takes place in an online environment every day. Anytime you have a question, where do we turn today? To the Internet. We look up words we don't know at sites like We ask questions at sites like AnswerBag. If we want to learn the steps to do a particular task, we turn to sites like For those who prefer video or audio sites like YouTube, Vimeo and other video sites offer clips that teach people how to do new things. And the number lectures and learning opportunities available by podcast now is astounding.

The Internet offers us an opportunity to immerse ourselves in all kinds of learning, every day. And not only that, it allows us the opportunity to make those learning opportunities mobile. Today, you can look up all that same information on the move with a Blackberry or iPhone. It's great. I literally "learn on the run" because I load TED talks or podcasts onto my iPod and listen to them while I'm out running or walking. The Internet has transformed how we learn, how we access learning and how we want to learn.

4. Can informal learning be structured? How? Where?

The very nature of informal learning is that it is unstructured. I like to explain it like this: Formal learning is very organized and structured. It is offered by schools and institutions and guided by a curriculum. So, formal learning is very structured. Non-formal may or may not be arranged by an institution, but is usually structured in some way, even if it is loosely. Since there are no formal credits granted or earned, in non-formal learning, there's less need for structure. And then there's informal learning. Rather than being guided by a curriculum, it's much more spontaneous.

In the case of informal e-learning, I'd say it's much more learner-driven, too. People download podcasts or watch YouTube videos on things they're motivated to learn themselves, not because someone told them they had to do so. Once I was a bridesmaid for a bride who requested that all of her attendants wear fake eyelashes on the big day. I'd never worn fake eyelashes in my life, so I looked up videos on YouTube on how to put them on. I was motivated to learn (albeit for a specific and limited purpose), so I went on line and learned how.

Having said all that, I don't think the categories are as cut and dry as I've explained them here. Think of it more like a continuum. Formal, highly structured learning is at one end and at the other end there's spontaneous, impromptu learning. Non-formal learning is somewhere in the middle. So it could be that there are some types of learning that may be classified as informal, that are still a little bit structured. For example, when I shoot a YouTube video, even if it's only a few minutes long, I plan it, script it out and then do a few dry runs before we shoot it. So, it's not exactly spontaneous, but the result is meant to look spontaneous. For anyone who watches one of my YouTube videos, I hope they look informal and spontaneous. That's the point. :-)

5. What are some of the projects you've been involved with that you would like to share?

This project taught me so much about how we learn, how we can learn and how we value learning. My entire career has been spent in education and this project has literally transformed how I understand learning. I used to value formal learning to the nth degree, thinking that it was the only "real" type of valid learning. Now my understanding has both broadened and deepened. Despite the fact that I have a PhD, I believe that there are many more opportunities in the world for non-formal and informal learning. Not everyone has the means or opportunity to pursue formal education, but that doesn't mean that they are incapable or disinterested in learning. On the contrary. Thanks to the Internet, there are hundreds of thousands - likely even millions - of opportunities to learn new things every day - most of them for free.

The project started out small. It focused on languages and literacy, because that's my background. For anyone who's interested, the final report, "Formal, non-formal and informal learning: The case of literacy and language learning in Canada" is available free of charge at:

I became so intrigued with the concepts of formal, non-formal and informal learning, that together with a research assistant who was a trained scientist with a background in geophysics, I began exploring those same notions in different disciplines. After languages and literacy, we started one on science, which is the one you graciously and generously lent us your expertise on. We're just wrapping that one up and it's much more comprehensive and robust than the first report. Now I'm starting to look at the same notions in business and entrepreneurship, together with another research assistant who has a background in business. By the time we're done, we'll have a set of reports that examines formal, non-formal and informal learning across the disciplines. I'm totally pumped about it!

6. What do you see as three new directions in learning?

1. Mobile learning. I think the iPad, and products like it that haven't even been invented yet, will replace desktop computers, particularly in schools. Textbooks will give way to "learning on the go".

2. Multi-sensory, interactive learning. We used to talk about "book learning". Books only involve visual learning - either words or pictures, but mostly words. The days of "book learning" are going-going-gone. Today people are after interactive, multi-sensory learning. They want to see it AND hear it. They want to write their own comments and questions. They want to ask questions in real time. And with the gravity sensor in the iPhone and the use of technology like SMART boards, we can now incorporate touch into our learning experiences, too. This is transforming learning in amazingly cool and effective ways.

3. Individualized learning. I truly believe that people are hungry to learn new things. But traditional learning confines us to stiff, stagnant curricula that are outdated and boring. If we temper rigid structure with some freedom, while still providing challenge and guidance, learners' motivation soars. I believe that people become more engaged when they have the ability to shape the experience themselves a bit. Learning will become more individualized and yet, more interactive at the same time.

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