Society’s Growing Need for Non-Formal Education

Our traditional system of formal education – with a teacher or professor in front of a classroom of passive listeners, backed up with a blackboard and lots of chalk – is becoming increasingly unfit for purpose. It’s generally good at tackling the basic needs of a fairly homogeneous group of people – mainly children and young adults from 6 to 18 with the possibility of ‘extension’ to college or university for those who ‘performed well’ in the first two levels of the system. But today’s world needs so much more.

In a fast-changing society with substantial technological advancements and unlimited global connectedness, lifelong learning has become a necessity, often long after people have left the formal education system. What’s more, the needs of specific groups of people don’t fit well in the current system and should be targeted in different ways.

 

Credit: Lamaip/iStock.com

Photo/Credit: Lamaip/iStock.com

 

As an example, we can think of the immense group of refugees who have arrived in Europe over the last five years with backgrounds ranging from an unfinished high-school education to advanced degrees in engineering, medicine, information technology, languages and so on.

There are also many contemporary challenges – such as migration, global warming, radicalisation and inequality – that are extremely complex and need a holistic and interdisciplinary approach. In turn, this requires very specific combinations of skills and knowledge. But the traditional education system is focused on disciplinary specialisation, rather than interdisciplinary combinations of skill sets.

 

The need for non-formal education

I believe that ‘non-formal education’ is the way to fill the growing gap that results from today’s more advanced and heterogeneous educational needs. Compared with formal education, non-formal education is less focused on the general and overall public needs of large groups in a society. It has been described as a complementary ‘educational activity carried on outside the formal system to provide selected types of learning to particular subgroups in the population, adults as well as children.’

Informal education – which encompasses all acquisition of knowledge, skills and attitudes from any kind of experiences – is an even broader, but also more ambiguous, form of education. Hence, compared with informal education, non-formal education happens in a more organised and structured way.

This distinction is significant, as non-formal education therefore requires a minimal level of resources to support an organisational structure. It can also be applied to focus on a particular group of people or niche activity; and it can be strategically managed in order to reach particular educational goals for such target groups.

Consequently, non-formal education is mainly provided by civil society and/or non-profit service organisations, and it can fill the gap between what is left open by formal education and what is naturally transferred through people’s daily social interactions. Given its organisational structure, it can be actively managed to provide educational solutions for concrete and tangible problems. 

Non-formal education has different functionalities. A major one is participant functionality. This means that non-formal education brings direct benefits for its participants, such as skills, experiences and personal networks.

Non-formal education also has social functionality, as it enables people to engage in society and it provides a platform for discussing and tackling local, regional and global problems. For example, in a study of the global scouts movement, I find that the social functionality of this non-formal educational movement is perceived very differently across countries.

 

Some questions for researchers and practitioners

Starting from the growing gap between the traditional educational system and desirable social outcomes, several questions for researchers and practitioners can guide us to shape the future of non-formal education:

  • First, can a full-scale non-formal education sector exist in addition to the traditional formal education system without both sectors being in too strong competition for the same resources?
  • Second, can both sectors strengthen each other, where the strengths of one sector compensate for the weaknesses of the other? For example, should the ‘efficiency’ of one sector be traded-off against the more adjusted targeting of the advanced and heterogeneous needs of the other sector? Or can accreditation, certification, evaluation of both sectors and the skills acquired in each sector be integrated. A starting point lies in a seminal set of first recommendations.
  • Third, how can non-formal education organisations – which are often operational as non-profit and/or social profit organisations – increase their legitimacy and public reputation to assure long-term resources for their mission and achievements?
  • Fourth, what steps should researchers, funding organisations and policy-makers take to quantify the needs and benefits of non-formal education? More and better data on non-formal education – similar to the PISA efforts for formal education – would be likely to result in more robust scientific insights and better policy recommendations.
  • Finally, how can participants/students improve their short- and long-term wellbeing through combining both educational systems in their lifelong learning path?

Why and How Should We Communicate Economics?

Picture/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Picture/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

 

Advice for young economists by Bob Denham and Romesh Vaitilingam

Communicating economics to audiences beyond the ivory tower has never been more vital for policy and public debate – nor have there been more opportunities to reach those wider readerships. This column provides some advice for the younger generation of economists.

It should be obvious why communicating economics matters: take any big issue of our time and even the slightest scratch beneath the surface will reveal the economics underneath.

What is less obvious is why economists themselves need to be better communicators. Isn’t that the job of the media? Isn’t that the job of the communications department at their university or research group? In our work at the intersection between economists, the media and policy-makers, we have found all too often that economists don’t think it is their job to communicate.

But if it’s not their job, then whose is it? Last year saw economists’ expert advice ignored by large chunks of the public as they voted first for Brexit in the UK and then for Donald Trump as American president. Whoever is responsible for communicating economics is falling short.

We believe that economists – including the younger generation – can and should do more to communicate their analysis and evidence to a wider audience. Understanding why and how to develop an effective communications strategy is not hard. What’s more, the communication opportunities offered by the internet and social media make it easier than ever to reach readers who will value your insights.

VoxEU – the Centre for Economic Policy Research portal for research-based policy analysis and commentary for leading economists – as well as the blog of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings are good starting points for young economists wanting to write about their research for readers beyond their narrow specialism.

Founded ten years ago, the site features daily columns by established and emerging members of the profession, which are accessed by a wide range of readers. The main target audiences in academia, thinktanks, finance ministries and other government departments, central banks, international organisations and the media usually have at least a little economics training. But the idea is to avoid the equations and write in a succinct and readable way, with the key findings and policy implications upfront.

Similar ‘multi-authored blogs’ open to new contributors include Ideas for India and The Long Run, recently established by the Economic History Society – as well as several sites in languages other than English, including the influential Nada es Gratis in Spain, and the original economics policy portal Italy’s La Voce, first set up by Tito Boeri in 2002.

One of the best guides to using the new technologies to communicate with an even broader audience has just been published as book by current and former members of the London School of Economics (LSE) blog team, Communicating Your Research with Social Media: A Practical Guide to Using Blogs, Podcasts, Data Visualisations and Video.

The LSE blogs themselves – which cover economics, business and politics in a number of regions of the world – are written at the level of, say, The Economist or Financial Times, and are generating a broad global readership. The editors are very open to ideas from young researchers looking to try their hand at writing for non-specialist readers.

An overview of the LSE team’s advice on blogging can be found on the LSE Impact blog here; and their list of ten ways to use social media to get your research noticed is here.

More advice on communicating economics through blogs, Twitter and so on is on the new website that we launched earlier this year, including this piece on getting your work seen and understood outside academia by economic historian Judy Stephenson.

Of course all the principles of effective research communication go back well before the internet became ubiquitous. Whatever the communication channel, the best place to start is to write a short summary of the key findings of your research in a way that’s accessible and appealing to someone who isn’t trained in economics – something that you’d be happy to give to your mother or a non-economist friend.

The notes we’ve long used on how to write a press release or ‘media briefing’ summarising your working paper or conference presentation are here; and economics teacher Mariana Koli gives her tips on how to listen, know your audience and avoid jargon are here.

Finally, we should mention film and video as tools for communicating economics. Video Vox carries short films made for a number of organisations, including Lindau, the most recent of which collects advice for young economists from Nobel laureates.

Our communicating economics website features a series of posts on making videos, as well as how to perform well in front of camera whether you’re being interviewed by colleagues or a big broadcast organisation like the BBC.

We welcome requests for advice on communicating economics, whether in written, audio or visual form and off- or online – and we look forward to meeting the young economists of the 6th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences in August. If you’re tweeting, remember to use the hashtag! #LiNoEcon