THE ROLE OF FORMAL AND INFORMAL PATHS OF LEARNING IN RISK PREVENTION EDUCATION
This paper explores the relations among formal, non-formal and informal modes of learning, and the potential for web communication to play a role in risk prevention education. The learning theme addressed is that of risk (Lupton, 2013), a concept that generally concerns a negative event or danger, characterized by the threat of loss (or damage) and an associated feeling of insecurity (Ewald, 1993); potentially a topic of great interest, given that knowledge of risk prevention strategies can enhance quality of life.
Existing studies have shown that young people are sensitive to the need to prevent risks. For example, Whitaker, Miller, May and Levin (1999) demonstrated the key role of informal learning in relation to sexual risk and the use of condoms, while Santi, Borselli, Bertoletti, Giaccherini, Mingione and Schifano (2015) reported similar findings concerning the perceived risks of ecstasy. However, the knowledge acquired is not always sufficiently in-depth; for example, the participants in the second study cited perceived ecstasy as a dangerous substance, but were unable to state its composition.
In order to investigate the value attributed by young people to formal, non-formal and informal learning paths, respectively, we conducted a study with a particular focus on chemical risk in food. Chemical food risk is linked to the presence in food products of toxins, allergens and natural contaminants. It is vital to monitor chemical changes in food because they can lead to major health problems and in extreme cases even to death.
To investigate the potential for web communication to spread awareness of salient aspects of chemical food risk among young people, an ad hoc website was developed by a group of experts. Seven classes of secondary school (science and technology curriculum) students in the Veneto region were introduced to the site during a presentation in class, with the aim of promoting individual use of the resource.
To assess participants’ usage of the site and the extent to which they perceived it to be salient, we conducted focus group discussions and administered a questionnaire to the adolescents in our sample.
The results suggested that participants recognized the authority of an official site informing about a risk, but tended to visit it mainly when prompted to do so via their social network feeds. They also reported a preference for being able to access the site interchangeably from their desktop, tablet or smartphone.
Young people appeared to view television (63,4%) as more authoritative than the formal website (36,6%) or social networks (25%). This finding confirms the fact that students expect formal education agencies to disseminate knowledge about risks. In other words, adolescents see schools and reputable television programs as the main resources for learning to recognize and prevent risks.
Social networks and informal websites, therefore, do not seem to be the channel of preference for constructing learning processes for risk prevention. However, these more informal media play a crucial role a later stage, when they aid in disseminating and providing up-to-date information about formal initiatives.
In sum, formal educational agencies remain the most trusted and credible source of risk prevention messages. On the other hand, informal channels are decisive in promoting formal initiatives that might otherwise fail to reach or engage target audiences.