Non-formal learning activities: what do we know and how do we apply them to computing?

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At the Raspberry Pi Foundation, we inspire young people to learn computer science and create with digital technologies. We do this not only by develop curricula for formal education and introduce tens of thousands of children around the world to coding at homebut also by supporting non-formal learning activities such as Code Club and CoderDojo.

Code Clubs are after-school coding clubs.

To find out what works in non-formal computer-based learning, we recently conducted two research projects: a systematic literature review and a set of two interventions that were applied and evaluated as part of our Gender Balance Program in Computing. In this blog, we describe these two research projects.

What is non-formal learning?

When you think of young people learning computers, do you think of schools, classrooms and programs? You would be right to say that a lot of computer science education for young people takes place in classrooms as part of national curricula. However, much of the learning can take place outside of formal school. When we talk about non-formal computer education, we mean structured or semi-structured learning environments such as clubs or community groups, often set up by volunteers. These can take place in a school, library or community location; but we have also heard of some of our communities organizing non-formal learning activities on buses, in fire stations or on football pitches – there really is no limit to where the learning can take place.

A CoderDojo coding session for young people.
CoderDojos are community coding clubs and some take place in offices.

It is more difficult to assess the impact and effectiveness of non-formal IT activities than formal IT education: we need to think outside of traditional measures such as grades and formal exams or assessments. Instead, we estimate results based on metrics such as participant engagement levels, attendance, attrition rates, and changes in participant attitudes toward computing. We have already piloted informal assessments such as quiz and found that they were well received by the adult leaders and the children.

Project 1: Research on the impact of non-formal computer education

Earlier this year, we conducted a systematic literature review in teaching computer science to K-12 learners in non-formal settings. We identified 88 relevant research studies, which we read, compared and synthesized to provide an overview of what is already known about the effectiveness of informal computing activities and to identify opportunities for future research.

Our analysis looked for common themes in existing studies and suggested some benefits that non-formal learning offers, including:

  • Access to advanced and innovative topics
  • Awareness of IT careers
  • The ability to customize projects based on learner interests
  • The possibility for learners to progress at their own pace
  • The chance for learners to develop a sense of community through peers and role models

We presented this research at an international conference on computer science education called ICER 2022and you can read about it in our open access article in the Proceedings of the ICER conference.

A tweet about a presentation on non-formal learning at the ICER 2022 conference.

Project 2: Making connections between non-formal learning and formal computer study skills

A particularly attractive feature of non-formal learning is that it tends to attract a wider range of learners than formal computer courses. For example, a Survey 2019 found that approximately 40% of young people who attend Code Clubs were women. This is a high percentage compared to the proportion of female learners taking the Computer Science GCSE in England, which is currently around 20%. We believe this indicates an opportunity to capitalize on girls’ interest in learning activities outside the classroom, and we hope to use non-formal activities to encourage more girls to take an interest in teaching. computer science formal.

Two students from Hillside School's Code Club.
Code Clubs are popular with girls.

As part of our Gender Balance in Computing Research Program in England, we worked with Apps for good and the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) to conduct two interventions in non-formal school-based environments, for which we adapted non-formal resources and used behavioral science concepts to reinforce the links the resources make between non-formal learning and more formal study of computer science. One intervention took place in secondary schools for learners aged 13-14, who used an adapted Apps for Good course, and the other took place in primary schools for learners aged 8-11. years, who participated in Code Clubs using adapted versions of our projects.

A tweet from a school participating in a research project related to non-formal learning.

The interventions were independently evaluated by a separate ILO team, using data from learner surveys before and after the interventions, and interviews with teachers and learners. These data were analyzed by the independent team to explore the impact of the interventions on learners’ attitudes towards computing and their intention to study the subject in the future.

What have we learned from these research projects?

Our review of the literature concluded that future research in this area would benefit from experimenting with a variety of approaches to designing and measuring the impact of IT activities in a non-formal setting. For example, this could include comparing the short- and long-term impact of specific interventions, aimed at catering to different types of participants and providing different types of learning experiences.

A girl codes on a laptop while a woman watches during a Code Club session.

In both of these interventions on gender balance in computing, there was limited statistical evidence of an improvement in participants’ attitude towards computing or their stated intention to study computer programming at school. ‘coming. The independent evaluators recommended that the learning content that has been created for the interventions could be further adapted to make the link between non-formal and formal learning even more evident. On the other hand, as is often the case with research, some interesting themes – ones we weren’t looking for – emerged from the data, including:

  • In the secondary school intervention, there was a small positive change in girls’ attitudes towards computing when they saw that it was relevant to real-world issues
  • In the primary school intervention, some teachers also reported increased confidence to pursue computing among girls who had used the Code Club’s tailored resources, and they highlighted the importance of positive female role models in computing.

In both projects, the results suggest that it is beneficial for learners to participate in non-formal learning activities linked to real-life situations, and that it could be particularly beneficial for girls to help them see computing as material relevant to their own interests and purposes. Another common theme across both projects is that non-formal learning activities play an important role in showing what a ‘computer scientist’ looks like and who owns computing. This suggests that there is a need for a wide range of volunteers to carry out non-formal computing activities, and that we should ensure that non-formal learning resources include representations of a wide range of learners.

Computer classroom with female teacher and young students on laptops doing Scratch coding.

Undertaking these research projects provided evidence that the work of the Foundation is on the right track and suggested opportunities to use these themes in our future non-formal work and resources.

Learn more about our work on non-formal computer education

For more information on the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s research projects and our new Raspberry Pi Computing Education Research Center, visit our search pages and on the Research Center website.

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