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Education Ecosystem: Three Forms of Education

By 21/06/2018 No Comments

Education is one of the most powerful instruments for human development. It is also a holistic and continuous process, and the product of a wide range of influences. In socio-economic terms, education moves people out of poverty and improves quality of life. In cultural terms, it enhances our creativity and makes it all the more possible for us to achieve our potential as individuals, with our unique talents. Education affects the economic, social and cultural development of every nation and is, therefore, often a highly political and politicized issue in most countries.(Wright)
In order to look at the landscape of online learning, which we’ll be exploring as part of Project Ungoverned?, it is important look at the overall education ecosystem.

Three Forms of Education
Education can happen in a variety of settings, and one of the first questions is: where does education take place? At home? At school? Both? In a church or mosque? The three forms of education are:

  1. Formal education – organized learning and teaching that is enabled by official or recognized educational institutions (e.g. schools, colleges, universities, online universities);
  2. Non-formal education – organized learning and teaching as enabled by institutions or agencies that are not normally recognized as part of the educational system (e.g. the armed forces, companies, NGOs); and
  3. Informal education – teaching and learning that is enabled by gratuitous, causal or indirect contact (e.g. community, family, edutainment, volunteer tutoring program).

These three forms constitute provision of education in any country, and should all be considered. As we’ll soon see, online learning initiatives can be part of all three forms of education. Often times, an education initiative involved cooperation across the forms; considering all three may inform a partnership strategy.

Let’s look at the example of Education as a Humanitarian Response.

Figure 1: Education as a Humanitarian Response (HER)
(Brock & McCorriston, 2008, p.7)

The concept of Education as a Humanitarian Response (EHR) “is a fundamental response to the needs and entitlements of all people for an appropriate educational experience in terms of both technical and diffuse skills”[2] and comprises all forms of educational activity. Examples include education for refugees or in emergency situations – following natural disasters or in areas of conflict. Flow A illustrates a good relationship, or cooperation, between home and school. Flow B might be cooperation between a school and businesses. An example of Flow C might be an NGOs delivering an education program, working in partnership with communities.

Now that we’ve reviewed the three forms of education, let’s look more closely at each in turn to prepare you to examine online education.

Formal Education
Many education entrepreneurs say they want to change “the system,” but what does this mean? Aspects of formal education – the school buildings, university tuition fees, teaching hiring processes and salaries – are common examples. This is usually focus on the “four essential circuits within the education system”:[3] curriculum (what is taught, including teaching materials); pedagogy (how something is taught, or the teaching itself); organization (staffing of the school, funding of the school, organization of the day); and assessment (tracking how faculty and/or students are doing).

In their seminal work, Mark Bray and R. Murray Thomas (1995) proposed a detailed framework for examining formal education, which “refers to all studies that inspect similarities and/or difference between two or more phenomena relating to the transmission of knowledge, skills, or attitudes from one person or group to another”.[4]
This is a three-dimensional way of looking at education: geographical/locational levels, aspects of education and society, and non-locational demographic groups. The geographical/locational levels include: (1) world regions/continents; (2) countries; (3) states/provinces; (4) districts; (5) schools; (6) classrooms; and (7) individuals.

Aspects of education include: curriculum, teaching methods (pedagogy), educational finance, and management structures (of the education system). In addition, they also consider two aspects of society: political change and the labor market. The non-locational demographic groups include: ethnic groups, age groups, religious groups, gender groups, ‘other’ groups and the entire population. As they proposed, the framework could be used in comparative studies. For example, “the shaded cell represents a research comparing curriculum plans for all varieties of educational programs (entire population) in two or more provinces”[5]. This framework might also be used as a way to think about and compare different types of online learning.

Figure 2: A Framework for Comparative Education Analyses
Bray & Thomas, 1995, p. 475

Does the online learning program use a curriculum at the state /province level, or might be at the school level – one specific school? How might one program be different from another that focuses on a different population?

In summary, formal education happens in an organized, structured environment – such as a school, or formal workplace training. The learner intends to learn, and there is a clear aim – for the learner to acquire knowledge and skills, which typically lead to a certification.

When we talk about the formal education system, we also have to address the issues of access and equity. Access is the provision and update of educational opportunities, which includes enrolling in school, staying in school, and completing the learning program. Equity is about ensuring that all people who are eligible to have access to schools can do so.

Informal Education
Information Education could be seen as at the opposite end of the learning spectrum from formal education. Informal education occurs in informal settings and through unstructured activities. It is often referred to as “learning by doing” – through everyday activities related to work, family and home. The learner does not set out with the intention of learning in the activity, but learning happens as a byproduct, and as such people are constantly exposed to learning. Informal learning does not result in a formal qualification. And as such, the real outcomes of informal education often are often overlooked or under-research; its value is arguably underestimated. One of the challenges for those who develop informal education activities is to try and develop ways to articulate and even measure outcomes and outputs of informal education. This, in itself, requires some innovative thinking. The recognition of both informal and non-formal education is on the agenda of policy makers, as a strategy to demonstrate social, economic and educational benefits.

Non-Formal Education
If informal and formal education are at two ends of the spectrum, non-formal education spans the activities in between. As such, there are a few definitions: location-based and activity-based. Looking at non-formal education from a location-based perspective, as mentioned earlier, non-formal education involves organized learning activities, but they do not take place in formal institutions of learning (schools). Examples might include mobile classrooms delivering education to nomadic populations, distance learning programs to teach isolated populations, community schools, adult and non-formal education, NGO-based learning, or online tutoring programs.

Another way to look at non-formal education is with an activity-based lens. Non-formal learning is sometimes also defined as the learning that happens alongside of formal learning. For example, when you take a formal course at school, you might also learn about your own initiative, team work, and what we often refer to as “soft skills”; it’s the learning that is incidental to other activities that have concrete, educational objectives.

A few examples include:


[1] Brock, C., & McCorriston, M. (2008). Towards the Concept of Education as a Humanitarian Response in the Context of a UNESCO chair / UNITWIN network. London: UK National Commission for UNESCO, p.7.
[2] Brock, C., & McCorriston, M. (2008). Towards the Concept of Education as a Humanitarian Response in the Context of a UNESCO chair / UNITWIN network. London: UK National Commission for UNESCO, p.4.
[3] Ball, S. (1994). Education Reform. Buckingham: Open University Press.
[4] & [5] Bray, M., & Thomas, R. Murray (1995). Levels of Comparison in Educational Studies: Different Insights from Different Literatures and the Value of Multilevel Analyses. Harvard Educational Review, 65(3), p.475.