Bridging Formal and Informal Learning Environments (part 3)

A learning environment for the 21st century should mix methods, and practices from the worlds of formal and informal education. It should be participatory, democratic, open, dialogic, multicultural, interactive, networked, dynamic, collaborative, descentralized, student-centered, immersive, and contextual. This learning environment requires an innovative pedagogy that fosters applying constructivism, multimodality, project-, process-, and inquiry-based learning, critical literacy, cognitive apprenticeships, new media literacies, group/team work, critical autonomy, peer learning, experiential learning, hybridity, and distributed cognition.

New media technologies can be leveraged to build  learning environments that bridge formal and informal learning, and support the “new ethos” and the “new technical” stuff in formal education institutions. When educators are allowed to combine the “new technical stuff” with the “new ethos stuff” and the cyberspatial-postindustrial mindset in the design of the learning environments of their classrooms, multiple opportunities open for canalizing the interests and passions of students with the themes and contents of traditional subjects. For that reason, it is critical that educators from different disciplines experiment with the design of innovative learning environments in their classrooms. Without totally renouncing to the core-content and standardized requirements that they are obliged to teach at formal institutions, educators should start to redesign the learning environments of their classrooms to allow students to practice new literacies, collaborate with their peers, pursue their own interests and passions, engage with their communities, explore multiple interrelated texts, connect to wider networks of knowledge, and actively participate in networked publics inside and out of the school. The new literacy practices with its “new ethos” and “new technical stuff” need to be supported across the curriculum and not only as part of single subjects such as English or the Arts. The new literacies are part of a paradigm shift and, therefore, supporting them reshapes how the teaching of existing subjects happens in the classroom. As Jenkins et al. have argued, “media change is affecting every aspect of our contemporary experience, and as a consequence, every school discipline needs to take responsibility for helping students to master the skills and knowledge they need to function in a hypermediated environment.” (57)

Multimodal Design

Among the different pedagogical approaches that I have included for thee learning environment, the pedagogy of multiliteracies conceptualized by The New London Group (1996) is perhaps the most important one. The understanding of pedagogy as design should be at the core of contemporary innovative and responsive learning environments that support the development of new literacies in the classroom. By recognizing students as multimodal designers, this pedagogy supports the development of multiliteracies and the creation of diverse modes of meaning (linguistic, visual, audio, spatial, visual, gestural, and multimodal meanings). Furthermore, by emphasizing design, The New London Group also brings attention to the role of students as active designers of social futures and active participants of social change. Influenced by theories of constructivism and by the understanding of literacy as discourse, the pedagogy of multiliteracies, fosters project-based education, experiential learning, situated practice, critical framing, hybridity, and intertextuality.

The key step for creating such environment, or even a reduced version of it is to find educators willing to experiment and with the freedom and support to do it. The experimental and innovative features of this learning environment might not fit well in most traditional formal educational institutions due to several barriers that I will consider later on. However, as in the case of the pedagogy of multiliteracies and the design curriculum proposed by The New London Group, it could find spaces in more flexible formal institutions such as especial schools, and in informal spaces such as after school programs and community programs.

Multimodal Designers in a History Class

In “Creativity as capital in the literacy classroom: Youth as multimodal designers,” Walsh (2007) provides a very compelling example of how the multimodal design pedagogies can be applied in the classroom in order to create learning environments that foster the development and practice of new literacies. In the unique formal setting of a small inner-city middle-school for undeserved population in New York City’s Chinatown, Christopher Walsh, a humanities’ teacher, was able to adopt professional autonomy and to engage in action research in his own classroom. As Walsh explains, he designed a learning environment that “shifted the focus of literacy instruction in my classroom from students imitating literacy practices that I had modeled, to students becoming ingenious inventors/designers of new genres.” (84) Hence, Walsh positioned students as multimodal designers and encourage them to engage in multimodal design to re-represent curricular knowledge.

In this kind of innovative learning environment students put aside textbooks, and were encouraged to learn about the history of the Dust Bowl (1930-1940) and African American (1920-1950) migrations through photography, painting, folk music, the blues, jazz, and film. In order to facilitate such intertextuality, Walsh changed his humanities curriculum. He “incorporated a wider variety of forms of media (e.g., writing image, HTML), which are valued by students outside of school.” As he explains, “I required students to come together in collaborative teams to design websites, online tutorials for one another, curricular resources that became central classroom texts, peer assessment on message boards, and online literacy circles.” (80)

Because the classroom was well equipped with eight computers, high-speed internet connection, and a LCD projector, the learning environment was networked with the outside world and counted with appropriate “new technical stuff” for multimodal design. This learning environment created different opportunities for the students to “acquire and trade new multimodal design skills and make their work public, thus extending the audience for their schoolwork beyond the teacher, the classroom and the school.” (80) By doing so, students were able to actively circulate their own content on the web, reaching a wider audience and opening possibilities for feedback and future collaborations. In the learning environment of the classroom students where connected to the world. They researched the web, located curricular resources and class materials, gathered primary documents, and designed websites that combined a variety of modes of meaning such as visual, textual, audiovisual, and multimodal.

After completing the academic unit successfully, and having practiced the new literacies they had acquired in informal contexts out-of-school (html writing, image and audio editing), Walshʼs students had the opportunity to participate in a web design competition organized by the City of New York and won the first place (and five laptop computers). Using the learning environment of the Walsh’s classroom, five students built a team and collaborated in the design of a website that was intended to teach other students about migrations in the USA. As Walsh explains, “the competition provided the context for a group of students to draw on the their cultural and social capital resources – including imagination and creativity – to design a website that reflects the acquisition and articulation of students’ out-of-school literacy skills recognized within the curriculum.” (84)

The successful experience of the learning environment designed for this classroom exemplifies the kind of innovation that can help bridging informal and formal learning. Furthermore, it reveals that the humanities are a fertile field for testing innovative and responsive learning environments that support new literacy practices, environments that combine the “new technical” with the “new ethos stuff”. When this kind of learning environments are also created in the context of undeserved populations as in this case, the value of them becomes even more relevant for constructing democratic and participatory societies.

 The Cybermohalla Project

The Cybermohalla Project, for instance, provides an example of innovative learning environment created in the informal space of a community program. Designed to enable democratic access to information and communication technologies among poor young people in Delhi, India, the Cybermohalla Project blends the new technical and ethos stuff to support new literacies. On the one hand, in its new technical stuff, the project is composed of media labs that serve slum settlements and working class neighborhoods, and that are equipped with desktop computers and free software, portable audio recorders, and cameras. On the other hand, the learning environment of this alternative education project embraces new ethos stuff by implementing the pedagogy of multiliteracies and allowing the participants to become media makers and designers. According to Asthana, this project is a radical pedagogic experiment “in terms of how young people refashion diverse media forms to create multiple narratives about personal and social identities.” (16) By allowing poor young people to design messages in creative and expressive ways, and create personal and social narratives, they were able to point both to the problems and prospects in theorizing participation.

The learning environment of Cybermohalla Project fosters participation and collaboration. It also encourages participants to explore their neighborhood and their city in an inquiry-based and project-based fashion. The opportunities that participants find for self-expression and exploration in this learning environment can be considered a form of dialogical education. As Asthana states, “the ICT that the practitioners appropriate also open up “spaces of dialogue” for the young participants: conversations and discusions lead to collective participation in a variety of multimedia aexperimental work.” (22) Participants of the project collect artifacts, documents, and objects from their environment. Using diverse multimedia forms such as animations, booklets, html, texts, soundscapes, photos, audio and visual juxtapositions, participants explore and map through these materials their personal and family life trajectories. The success of the Cybermohalla project reveals of how civic engagement is a feature of learning environments that are democratic, dialogical, and contextual.

Confronting Barriers

However, although the setting of the formal education institutions offers opportunities for the design of innovative learning environments, it also provides several challenges and multiple barriers for supporting new literacy practices. First of all, there is a huge tension between the physical-industrial mindset (old ethos) and the cyberspatial-postindustrial mindset (new ethos). Because the formal institution of schooling is rooted in the physical industrial mindset, its own structure reflects an ethos, a way of doing things, that is hierarchical, centralized, and depends on expertise and authority that is located in individuals, institutions, and printed textbooks. This tension is perhaps the major challenge that educators, practitioners, and policy makers need to address in order to create innovative learning environments.

Several barriers derive from the old ethos and physical industrial mindset of formal education institutions. Since schools are hierarchical and centralized, the degree of experimentation required to bridge formal and informal learning is in opposition to the school bureaucracy. Especially in public schools, educators do not have the autonomy and flexibility to design responsive learning environments. Usually, they are required to teach core-content and prepare students for standardized tests. Even when new literacy practices can be integrated as part of the curriculum of a school subject, teachers have difficulties in assessing them. As a matter of fact, evaluating new literacy practices within formal educational institutions is very difficult because they challenge the notions of expertise, authority, and stable textual orders that are embedded in the schooling system.

Another barrier derived from the tension between old and new ethos, is that the majority of formal school teachers are not fluent in new literacy practices and do not have access to appropriate training and professional development programs. The majority of school teachers grew up in a world without digital and networked technologies, and do not completely understand their transformative, participatory, and democratic potential. Even when these teachers learn to use computers, mobile devices, cameras, and other digital technologies, they are not confident of supporting the new literacies in their classroom because they do not know how to do it and have fears about managing their classroom complexity and violating copyrights. Again, it is not enough to have the “new technology stuff” in the learning environment. Without embracing the appropriate “new ethos” and mindset, the new literacies do not thrive. That is the reason why it is important to provide not only appropriate training and professional development programs that level up the literacies of teachers, but also to present exemplary models of learning environments that support new literacy practices in formal educational institutions.

Since as a result of their roots in the old ethos, schools are heavily invested in print technologies, and use the book as the paradigmatic text that structure social relationships of control and power, the access to Internet multimedia databases and social network sites is often limited inside the classroom. For instance, several public schools block access to these networks as part of a policy that is intended to “protect” students from online predators and the dangers of inappropriate content. However, what these policies are really blocking is the possibility of creating learning environments that are networked and that allow students to actively participate of the networked publics and communities that exist out of school, and to pull the sort disperse knowledge that is distributed across the Internet.


In conclusion, although the public school system rooted in the old ethos and physical-industrial mindset of the 19th and 20th centuries creates multiple challenges for designing and practicing responsive learning environments that support contemporary literacy practices, there are also opportunities for innovation and transformation inside formal education institutions. As the new literacy practices become more and more important for contemporary society, culture, and economy, and the transition to a post-industrial society advances, the formal school system must embrace change and starts to transforms itself. Gradually, the schooling system can start to become more flexible and allow educators, across the curriculum, to experiment with the design of innovative learning environments that support new literacy practices and canalize the creative energies and passions of young students. New media technologies can help to build the kind of innovative and responsive learning environments that are participatory, democratic, open, dialogic, multicultural, interactive, networked, dynamic, collaborative, collective, descentralized, student-centered, immersive, and contextual.


Alexander, Bryan. (2008). “Web 2.0 and Emergent Multiliteracies.” Theory into Practice, 47, 150-160.

Asthana, Sanjay. (2010) “Young People, New Media, and Participatory Design: A Study of Cybermohalla from India.” In Media literacy: new agendas in communication. New York : Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry et al. (2006) Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Chicago: The MacArthur Foundation.

Bull, G., Thompson, A., Searson, M., Garofalo, J., Park, J., Young, C., & Lee, J. (2008). “Connecting informal and formal learning experiences in the age of participatory media.” Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 8(2), 100-107.

Gee, J.P. (2000) “New people in new worlds: networks, the new capitalism and schools.” In Cope, B. & Kalantzis, M. (Eds.) Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures. London: Routledge.


New London Group (2000).“A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures.” In Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures ,ed.B. Cope & M.Kalantzis for the New London Group. London : Routledge,pp.9-38.

Walsh, C. (2007). “Creativity as capital in the literacy classroom: Youth as multimodal designers.” In Literacy, 41(2), 79-85.

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