Page 2 of 7A NEW PERSPECTIVE ON NON-FORMAL EDUCATION
NFE has always been loosely defined, and in developing countries, it has come to represent a large variety of programs spanning a wide range of age groups, target populations, and content areas. The concept of NFE needs to be unpacked to better understand the various nuances associated with the term in differing contexts and in changing times.
The original version of NFE emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Coombs (1968) and Coombs and Ahmed (1974) defined NFE as an alternative form of education for adults and children that occurred outside of the traditional classroom environment. The need for NFE arose in the context of the widespread disillusionment with formal schooling in the 1970s (Illich 1973). NFE was then seen as a panacea for the ills of education in developed and developing countries (Freire 1972), and aid agencies made substantial investments in NFE from the late 1960s to the 1980s.
The 1990s witnessed a growing ambivalence toward NFE programs as they became associated with second rate educational programs catering to the needs of poor and marginalized groups. Because accreditation frameworks were weak or non-existent in most countries, NFE students suffered a disadvantage vis-àvis those from the formal education stream in either not being certified or in not getting absorbed in the job market.
More recently, NFE has undergone a resurgence in developing countries because of the realization that formal schooling, in its present form, has limited reach. Furthermore, it is now recognized that the educational needs of young people and adults are varied and should be addressed through suitable programs. In developed countries, NFE has assumed importance in the context of lifelong learning, which sees learning as taking place not only in schools and colleges, but throughout the lifespan, in many different locations and times and in formal, non-formal, and informal modes.
With the growing interest in NFE, it is necessary to understand what constitutes NFE and how it relates to formal and informal education, particularly in light of the diversity of formal education at present. For example, is open and distance learning part of formal or non-formal education? Are private commercial educational programs that lead to various kinds certification part of the formal system? What about e-learning? The boundaries between formal and non-formal education are becoming increasingly blurred. Even within non-formal education, there is a wide continuum of educational programs. At one end is the flexible schooling model that now exists in a number of countries, while at the other end are the highly participatory educational programs that are designed to suit the learning needs of each particular learning group.
Earlier approaches regarded formal, non-formal, and informal education as distinct categories. In contrast, Rogers (2004) proposes that they be viewed as part of a continuum, with fine gradations between them and blurred boundaries. According to Rogers, the key distinction between these three categories of education would lie in the individualization of learning. While formal education would be highly de-contextualized, standardized, and generalized, informal learning would be highly contextualized1 and non-formal learning would be a hybrid that would include informal learning as well as formal learning.
Most countries in the Asia Pacific region have actively promoted NFE programs for out-of-school youth and adults. Many of these programs were well under way even before the Education for All (EFA) Conference held in Jomtien, Thailand, in 1990. In fact, by then most countries in the region had already established separate organizational arrangements for promoting NFE as an effective channel of basic education. Apart from national NFE programs initiated by governments, the last decade has also witnessed the emergence of non-governmental initiatives in NFE.
The current emphasis on creating ‘knowledge-based’ societies has made ‘learning’ throughout life more important, which in turn requires an education system to have greater flexibility to enable learners to enter and leave the system at different points. Thus, accreditation and equivalency and other synergies between the formal and the non-formal learning sectors have become essential. Moreover, a wide range of education providers, including universities, NGOs, government agencies, and the private sector, needs to be involved, particularly because learners, who have diverse learning styles, would need different kinds of skills from formal, non-formal, informal, and distance and open learning institutions.
A joint research project undertaken by member institutions of the Asia Pacific Programme of Education for All (APPEAL) Resource and Training Consortium (ARTC) to document and disseminate innovative approaches to NFE and lifelong learning in the region classifies NFE innovations in the region under three broad categories (UNESCO 2002):
On the whole, the case studies demonstrate that NFE is gaining ground in many countries in the Asia Pacific region. NFE programs are expanding even in countries with a high level of basic education coverage and these programs are making the formal system more flexible. In fact, in most countries, NFE programs are evolving into a potential mechanism for meeting the emerging educational needs of people more effectively than the formal system of education.