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Research Domain: Group One - National Survey of Informal Learning Activities

Title of Project: First Canadian Survey of Informal Learning Practices

Start Date: April 1, 1997
Academic Investigator: Dr. D.W. Livingstone (OISE/UT)
Student Researchers: Muriel Fung (OISE/UT), Leslie Erlich (OISE/UT), Matthew Adams (OISE/UT)

The first Canadian Survey of informal learning examines the extent of adult learning, the existence of social barriers to education courses, and more effective means of linking informal learning with organized education and work. This study is based on a random phone survey of 1,562 Canadian adults conducted by the Institute for Social Research at York University between August and November, 1998.

Total Involvement in Informal Learning

Nearly everybody (over 90%) is involved in some form of informal learning activities that they can identify as significant. The survey provides estimates of the amount of time that all Canadians-- including those who say they do no informal learning at all-- are doing in all four areas (employment, community, household, and general interest). The average number of hours devoted to informal learning activities by all Canadian adults over the past year was around 15 hours per week. This is vastly more time than Canadian adults are spending in organized education courses (an average of about 3 hours per week if we include the entire population.)

In summary, the majority of Canadian adults are now actively engaged in extensive informal learning, taking further education and training courses and planning to take still more courses.

Barriers and Linkages between Education, Informal Learning and Employment

There are major barriers to course participation for many of those who do NOT plan to participate:

  1. about forty percent say that courses are at inconvenient times or places

  2. over forty percent say they have no time to participate

  3. almost 40% cite family responsibilities

  4. about one-third indicate that courses are too expensive


In spite of the great increases in educational participation, about 70% of Canadians say that their most important job-related knowledge comes from other workers or learning on their own, rather than employment-related courses. Only about 4% of respondents say they are underqualified to do their jobs, 2/3 say they are adequately qualified, while 20% say they are overqualified to perform their current jobs.

These indicators, and many others documented in The Education- Jobs Gap, suggest that most of those in the labour force are actively engaged in employment-related lifelong learning, that we are now living in a permanent learning culture, a knowledge society. The most general social problem is not a lack of education and training, but a lack of decent jobs in which more people could actually apply the knowledge and skills they already have and, as this benchmark survey suggests, are continually increasing.

The basic resolution to the problem of underemployment cannot come through more education and training but through economic reforms (such as wider employee ownership, greater workplace democracy, more equitable distribution of available paid employment and recognition of new forms of compensable work -- as also discussed in The Education-Jobs Gap book).

Implications for Education and Training Systems

So what should those responsible for education and training programs do in this context?

  1. recognize the extensiveness of the knowledge society and the varied and often complex learning activities and capacities of their target populations. Virtually all Canadians are active general learners who know a lot more than they will ever be able to demonstrate in specific education and training courses, and they will get more out of these courses if they can put more of their relevant prior learning and experience into them. So, engage in demonstration projects to more fully incorporate the relevant informal knowledge of participants in education and training programs, and develop more inclusive admissions procedures to recognize prior informal learning through such means as portfolio assessment.

  2. give high priority to enhancing the language skills of those who perform poorly in the dominant language and are thereby blocked from gaining other technical skills or, in the case of immigrants, from applying already acquired technical skills. Recognize that many with low levels of English literacy have multiple other useful skills they should be enabled to apply.

  3. appreciate that skill shortages in specific areas are exceptions that prove the general rule of underemployment of the existing pool of knowledge and skill. Continue to mount short- term programs to fill the specific skill supply gaps that continue to emerge. But place greater emphasis on developing new collaborative programs involving employers, employees, governments and local community groups to carefully identify actual local pools of knowledge and skills, local possibilities for greater employee participation in their enterprises, new forms of work in the community (e.g. environmental cleanup programs, other new socially useful products), and other means of matching people's underused skills and knowledge with local economic needs. The most important economic role that any education and training programs can perform is to actively participate in the development and dissemination of accurate profiles of the current and most likely future types of local jobs/careers/new forms of paid work to which unemployed and underemployed people can constructively direct their already very impressive learning capacities.


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