Posted by: Gillian | February 19, 2009

Programme evaluation in non-formal education

This week has been all about education for those over 30.

I was delighted to hear from Fah who is now studying for her PhD in continuing education at Chulalongkorn.  Here in the UK, Aminder and  the CRA – with HEFCE backing – are making successful inroads with the PDP and Employer Engagement project.  As for creative arts professionals, work here with ArtsMatrix has led to some serious online research and Twittering that just goes to show how the internet is helping people create global communities of learners even when they probably would not call themselves that.  Sculptors, glass-blowers, weavers and water-colourists are all collaborating and sharing techniques online.  All this has led to further consideration of the blurring of traditional and non-traditional education and how one evaluates non-formal learning.

For individuals, the question of formal evaluation of informal learning probably does not arise.  Instead, there is a collection of realisations in a number of dimensions about whether something was:

  • Fun
  • Achieved aims (assuming any were set)
  • Easy to fit into life
  • Affordable
  • Adequately resourced, supported and taught/facilitated
  • A source of unexpected opportunities, knowledge or insights.

For any non-formal education (that is, education without an academic qualification), individuals will accept a certain amount of pain in one or more of the dimensions above provided that the overall balance is  positive.  Further learning pathways will factor in the experience and life moves on.

For organisations and nations, however, this pragmatic approach does not fulfil the modern need to measure, evaluate and justify public activity.  To start the process and wearing different hats, twice this week I have recommended SERVQUAL, the Zeithamel, Parasuraman and Berry model.  This can be a highly complex model entailing much gathering of data and statistical analysis but, at its heart, it allows what many academic accreditation systems, kitemarks and employer award schemes barely consider: learner satisfaction.  Continuing education is, by definition, not compulsory so provision of programmes is a service.  Service quality is judged in considerable part by client satisfaction.  The SERVQUAL model incorporates this from the beginning but, far from being a ‘happy sheet’, blends soft measures with the hard business measures that help secure funding, attract experts, staff and clients and contribute to the economy.

At national level, it is common to hear government ministers claim that people must continue to learn throughout their lives but the practical support can be somewhat lacking.  In July 2000, Bjornavold called for more non-formal learning to be available and recognised throughout Europe. Next week, February 2009, there is a major demonstration in London protesting at the reduction in support for lifelong learning and in 04 March Gareth Parry, Professor of Education at the University of Sheffield, is speaking in the influential University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education Research Seminar Series on “Why do the English separate further and higher education?”.  On the face of it, Parry’s lecture has nothing to do with non-formal education and yet that divide affects what people later want to learn and when the pathways to non-formal education are formally closed, evaluation of non-formal learning has no place in the national education system.  It may be moved sideways into employment-related personal development planning and that can be highly successul but does nothing for those unemployed or outside formal employment structures.  At this point, the links between individual dimensions for the evaluation of non-formal learning and social dimensions fall apart: there is no overall service and quality framework for evaluating adult lifelong learning.  Whether this matters and how any such evalutation should be structured reflects the nature of our society.  It will be interesting to see whether the individualism of non-formal education in the West is reflected in what Fah finds in Thailand.


  1. SERVQUAL is really a boon for any service industry. My PhD topic is on servqual of Libraries. could you please suggest me some sources ?


  2. Hi NK,
    I presume you have checked And Googled for the vast array of libraries that have conducted SERVQUAL studies? (SW England NHS libraries seem well represented!) is also good start as they have SERVQUAL papers. You migh also like to look at this paper: and follow up the links. Good luck.

  3. Hey, I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say GREAT blog!…..I”ll be checking in on a regularly now….Keep up the good work! 🙂

    I’m Out! 🙂

    • Thank you! See you again I hope!

  4. You define a non-formal education as an education as “an education that does not require an academic qualification”. I agree that this can be quite beneficial to a person’s mental well-being, considering stress is already a common thing in a student’s life. I also see that “fun” is one of your top priorities. You seem to have the right idea! Kids do not learn if they do not WANT to learn.

    Still, I agree with “the government ministers” that you reffered to. People need to continue to learn throughout their lives in varied types of environments, formal and informal, because it is easier to learn certain subjects in their own environments. For instance, it is nearly impossible to become fluent in a language by sitting in a classroom. Though, at the same time, I would find it horribly difficult to study a subject like mathmatics in an informal environment.

    • Thanks for the comment. As you say, each to his or her own in how they learn – just as long a they keep doing it. Personally, I’d rather pick up a maths textbook when I need one than ever attend a maths class again but I know that many will disagree.

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