Designing Informal Learning Spaces in Formal Settings: The Case of Maker Majlis

Special Focus : Learning Ecosystems: A New Paradigm in the Learning Experience
Learning Ecosystems and Leadership June 21, 2021

You finish your class, put your laptop in your bag and exit the classroom to leave the university premises. Then suddenly you realize that there is a refugee camp in front of your building. Does this sound surreal? If maker culture is promoted in your school, then that scene would not be so unusual. Informal spaces of learning might be all around you, in fact, produced through the agency of students in collaboration with formal and non-formal providers.

 Informal learning and its connection to maker culture presents various opportunities to produce spaces of teaching and learning beyond our conventional definition of a classroom-based learning. At this stage, a definition of how we define informal learning is vital. Prior to defining informal learning, we need to first shed light on the term ‘formal learning’. Formal learning is like being in a class where students are intentionally learning from a structured curriculum and syllabi. Informal learning, on the other hand, is when students unintentionally learn from things happening outside the borders of a classroom, like at an event, conference, or workshop.

Intentionality, especially informal learning, could be explored in a process where the learner may simultaneously be deliberative (intentional) and reactive (unintentional); self-directed and incidental or conscious and unconscious. Therefore, formal and informal should not be seen as mutually exclusive, but instead they can complement each other and offer effective learning experiences together. In other words, learning is broader than education.

Majlis is included in the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity according to UNESCO. Majlis refers to sitting places where community members gather around and discuss, exchange views, socialize and constitute unique spaces of oral heritage building.

Designing Maker Majlis

Take Maker Majlis as an example. Maker Majlis is a space where the young leaders of the world can unleash their creativity and innovative ideas to contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Maker Majlis hosts workshops, educational programs, and events focusing on the SDGs. It is at the intersection of formal, non-formal and informal learning.

The Maker Majlis is hosted under the College of Islamic Studies at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), a member of Qatar Foundation in Doha, Qatar, i.e. a formal educational setting. It invites partners to teach and train youth about topics beyond the confines of a classroom or educational curriculum, i.e. a non-formal setting. Finally, participants are exposed to opportunities where they can explore their creative and innovative thinking and produce ideas and solutions to local and global challenges, i.e. informal learning.

At one event under Maker Majlis, for example, more than 1000 high school students participated from more than 15 schools in Qatar and started their formal to informal learning journey outside HBKU. They were taken through a refugee camp simulation experience to learn about the struggles of refugees in adapting to a new and unfamiliar environment. They, then, moved inside HBKU, where they directly spoke to real refugees about their struggles. After that, they attended workshops delivered by some of Maker Majlis’ partners and participated in a Makeathon to create solutions for the struggles of those refugees. In between these stations, participants were exposed to different organizations in a gallery setting where they witnessed real life examples of how to apply these solutions in their businesses.

This event is only one example of how the Maker Majlis is a maker culture, which allows youth to observe and identify problems, reflect on and discuss these issues and with collaboration and teamwork make something beneficial out of what they learn. In this case, the participants benefited from all types of learning not separately but together as they were blended into the Maker Majlis journey of exploration and creation.

Informal learning in a makerspace

Connecting with the community is one of the foundation pillars in designing a makerspace. These spaces provide an opportunity for the community to proliferate their ideas of formal, non-formal and informal learning by casually meeting in a third place. The partners involved in creating this space will be the learning ecosystem’s arch, attracting a plethora of entities that are thriving in their respective fields. Under the umbrella of a makerspace, these partners will pool their resources and knowledge to launch activities that are both informal and formal in nature as a learning trajectory. As part of this learning ecosystem, it is essential to encourage schools to collaborate with makerspaces by effectively communicating with them about what the makerspace has to offer. The youth of today are familiar with the language of informal learning because it is part of their daily lives. You will juxtapose this by incorporating informal learning into a school environment through various activities and workshops in order to align with the youth.

Designing Learning Spaces

The way you design your space is also imperative. You must strategically place your partners and workshops in the formal space you have created so that attendees can navigate it easily. This will increase the chances of the makerspace being viable. Moreover, garnering the interest of your community, merely depends on how effectively you use your space with the power of creativity. One of the ways to do this is through customization. It is critical that you understand how to use contextual symbols in your local setting in accordance with your makerspace’s theme. In the same Maker Majlis event we mentioned before, the theme was “Islam in a Global World”, therefore, we displayed Quranic Verses on glass panels with SDGs and this itself is a profound illustration of informal learning.

Creative Community Engagement

Finally, engaging with the community does not require complex tools but rather creativity in using the tools that will produce a sense of informal learning. You have to bear in mind that not all of your partners will be able to financially support your makerspace, and for the partners who can, you must make efficient use of your makerspace budget. In terms of Maker Majlis,  HBKU and Qatar Foundation already have the space and sufficient resources to build a makerspace, therefore, we were complacent in obtaining in-kind support from our partners. These partners provide facilitators and volunteers, which are essential components of a makerspace, because they guide participants to take advantage of the opportunities that are made available to them.

So now what educators need to do is think outside the confines of a classroom and blend formal and informal learning elements to create a makerspace that caters to the learning style of today’s youth!