ERG SES D 04, Interactive Poster Session
Interactive Poster Session
This paper focuses on why and how to research informal learning by people with intellectual disabilities, a topic that has been very little researched.
Academic and policy interest in informal learning has increased incrementally over recent decades, driven by interest in the economic role of informal learning in knowledge-based economies, and by its potential to empower marginalised individuals and groups.
The term 'informal learning' is broadly used to refer to a human process that is supposed to occur in all contexts and across the lifespan. A key example is first language acquisition (Callanan, Cervantes and Loomis, 2011), which conveys the importance attributed to this kind of learning in human culture and development. By contrast with educational emphasis on explicit learning at the individual level, informal learning is construed as a social and collective process that is embedded in other activities (e.g. Colley, 2003). For this reason and importantly from a methods perspective, it is the hidden aspect of learning (Eraut, 2004).
There are known conceptual and practical difficulties in researching a process conceived as ubiquitous and largely invisible (Eraut, 2004; Lave, 2011). The institutions, processes and programmes of formal learning (schools, teaching and curricula) and its concrete outcomes (qualifications) make formal learning visible, but informal learning is typically subsumed in the activities and interests in which it is embedded. As it is under-recognised by learners and in society (Golding, Brown and Foley, 2009), the difficulty of ‘making tacit knowledge explicit’ are formidable (Eraut, 2004). If informal learning is woven into human culture and behaviour, identifying and separating out meaningful episodes for discussion and analysis is also challenging (Livingstone, 1999; Eraut, 2004).
Research on informal learning is cross-disciplinary and spans macro- and micro-level analyses. One strand attempts to measure participation in informal learning using survey methods. Because of the difficulties of scoping and recognising informal learning estimates of participation vary widely by population, in ways that are difficult to interpret (for example, European Union (EU), 2017). Some factors affecting the reliability of estimates are discussed in relation to survey methods (for example, Livingstone, 1999) but the key difficulty remains, that responses may be based on different understandings of what constitutes learning. Concepts and language relating to learning may vary specifically between social groups (Sawchuk, 2003), compromising the reliability of comparisons.
Ethnographic approaches to informal learning have been critical to the development of the field (for example, Lave, 2011; Rogoff et al., 2016). Interview and observational research in work environments is a major strand in the literature, and also links the economic and humanistic aspects of informal learning research. Video has emerged as an important tool in education and workplace studies, for its capacity to capture for analysis the environmental and interactional dimensions of learning. Qualitative approaches with an emic perspective have been important in exploring social and emotional factors in informal learning and its significance in terms of identity (Illeris, 2014).
Informal learning is conceived as particularly relevant to vulnerable and marginalised populations (for example, McGivney, 1999; Cullen et al., 2000) as a potential route to economic, individual and community empowerment. For example, it may enhance learners’ social capital and social inclusion (Foley, 1999; Coare and Johnstone, 2008). In the disability context, this potential is critical. Full participation and equality of people with disabilities is a key aspiration of EU policy (Waddington, 2018). People with intellectual disabilities are amongst the most socially excluded groups (Grover and Piggott, 2015; Mencap, 2012; Beart et al., 2001) and may stand to benefit significantly from opportunities for informal learning. Research on this question could inform policy and debate relating to social inclusion.
Research with people with intellectual disabilities raises particular political and ethical concerns. Some of these can be addressed by working inclusively, giving participants some control over the research process. Working inclusively is also likely to produce better outcomes in terms of quality and validity when research questions need to be answered from an emic perspective (Walmsley, Strnadová and Johnson, 2018). Researching informal learning by people with intellectual disability however raises specific methodological questions. Qualitative interview methods are well suited to exploring the process of informal learning and its possible outcomes, but such methods are less likely to be successful in the context of intellectual disability (Nind, 2008). The key difficulties relate to articulacy (variable language skill levels and the presence of high anxiety and low confidence); unresponsiveness in open questioning; difficulty generalising and thinking in abstract terms; and conceptual difficulty around time (adapted from Booth and Booth, 1996). Consequently, researchers have recently sought to engage people with intellectual disabilities using visual methodologies (Kaley, Hatton and Milligan, 2018) to reduce reliance on verbal mediation. As demonstrated by its currency in workplace studies, video is a method well suited to capture the participative and contextual aspects of informal learning. Video also provides a valuable record of non-verbal behaviour that is particularly relevant in the presence of reduced verbal ability. Reviewing the rich record of events and interactions provided by video may support the memory, attention and cognition of participants with intellectual disabilities, enabling them to reflect on their informal learning and its significance. It is proposed that selected episodes of video will provide the stimulus and support for thinking and discussion of informal learning by participants, in an adapted version of video stimulated recall, reflection and dialogue (Nind, Kilburn and Wiles, 2015). The selection of episodes will be made by participants, according to their understanding of what is significant for their learning and their purposes. The possibility of repeated viewing and segmentation of episodes may make the elusive phenomenon of informal learning more amenable to analysis. Using this method allows participants with intellectual disabilities to make an essential contribution to data analysis through the process of selecting and making sense of video clips. This contribution will be substantial and will not constitute co-production of analysis ‘for its own sake’ (see Nind, 2011). Video records of the video stimulated discussions will constitute the data for qualitative analysis.
The method of ‘video stimulated recall, reflection and dialogue’ is proposed to meet the challenges of researching informal learning itself and as an adaptation of methods appropriate to the characteristics of participants with intellectual disability. Using video to support recall and discussion may mitigate the challenges that arise in recognising instances and episodes of informal learning, while increasing the potential for participants to influence the research process to a significant degree. Using these methods, it is hoped to contribute to a literature on informal learning by people with intellectual disabilities that will inform policy and debate on social inclusion.
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