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Evaluation of learning in informal learning environments-informal education encyclopedia free

Learning Science in Informal Environments
Commissioned Paper
Evaluation of learning in informal learning environments
Institute for Learning Innovation
July 21, 2007
I. Overview
In 2006, the National Research Council initiated a study on Learning Science in Informal
Environments. The purpose of the study is to synthesize a range of relevant literatures
and recommend strategic directions for future research in the area. In the course of
working on this study the Committee has found one of its challenges to be the
identification and assessment of evaluation studies of informal science programs, in
particular those which have probed science learning outcomes. To that end they
commissioned the Institute for Learning Innovation to produce a paper that would help
them discern the state of evaluation practice, the range of methods used to assess learning
in these settings, and the quality and strength of the evidence for such learning. This
paper will be used by the Committee as they address the issue of evaluation in their report
and make specific recommendations to their sponsor, the National Science Foundation,
and the field of science learning in informal environments at large about how to best
support and shape quality evaluation practice (questions, methods, etc.) in the future. In
addition, the paper addresses the contribution that evaluation has made to the field's
understanding of the impacts of informal science learning experiences and suggests how
evaluation practice can be enhanced in the future.
The Institute was asked to address the following specific questions:
? Definitions: How is learning defined in the evaluation of science learning in and
from informal environments? How is evaluation defined, and in particular is this
definition the same or distinct from a definition of research?
? Methods: What methods (design, techniques, units of analysis), measures
(standardized and evaluation specific), and research questions are "typical" in the
current evaluation of Learning Science in Informal Environments (LSIE)
outcomes? What unique challenges and opportunities do informal learning
environments present to evaluation and what are the characteristics of appropriate
methods and measures for learning in LSIE evaluations? How has research
informed what methods are appropriate?
? Findings: What do the findings across a range of evaluation studies indicate about
what and how much is learned in informal science learning environments vis-?-
vis a range of learned proficiencies/outcomes? Is there convergence in the
findings that would support a theoretical model of evaluation? Do any innovative
evaluation strategies stand out as particularly useful in the LSIE context?
? Outcomes: How can program evaluation findings contribute to the understanding
of how people benefit from experiences in informal science learning
? Challenges and opportunities: What are some of the major changes/advances in
the field of informal science learning environments evaluation and where is the
field heading?
? Recommendations: Based on this analysis, what is the future outlook for
research/evaluation practice in the Learning Science in Informal Environments
field? What would we recommend as some promising directions?
II. Defining Informal Science Learning (ISL)
If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there.
Flying Karamazov Brothers
In the late 1980s Mary Ellen Munley, a leader in museum education, wrote a paper in
which she argued persuasively about the importance of asking the right question(s),
suggesting that evaluators could benefit greatly from the insights of the Flying
Karamazov Brothers (Munley, 1986, 1987). Although tongue in cheek, Munley's point
was well taken--since evaluation is a process and a tool with which to understand one's
intentions and accomplishments it is critical to set out having some idea of what one is
actually attempting to accomplish and ultimately evaluate (appreciating that it is also
important to be open to unintended consequences which we will explore at a later point in
this paper). Since this Committee's charge is to explore learning science in informal
environments it seems only appropriate to try to define what is meant by that term in as
clear and consistent a manner as possible for the purposes of this paper.
However, as the Committee has come to appreciate defining this term is no small feat,
something we have also appreciated and thought about a great deal. First, defining
learning generally is challenging under any circumstances since it is simultaneously a
process and a product, a verb and a noun (Falk & Dierking, 1995). Even social scientists
investigating learning, including learning researchers, psychologists, and sociologists,
have difficulty agreeing on a single definition (e.g., Bransford, 1979 - Bransford, J.,
Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (2001); Churchland, 1986) and for the most part they have
investigated learning under the narrowly defined compulsory circumstances of formal
education and vocational training. The task of defining learning, in terms of the what,
where, how, why and with whom becomes even more difficult in informal learning
environments, for example, when individuals visit a museum, watch documentaries on
television, play an interactive web-based game, participate in an after school science
program, read articles and books, etc.
However, there is another issue complicating the task. As the National Association of
Research in Science Teaching (NARST)'s Ad Hoc Committee on Informal Science
Education noted in its 2003 policy statement (Dierking, Falk, Rennie, Anderson, &
Ellenbogen, 2003), although informal learning is the most commonly applied term for the
science learning that occurs outside of the traditional, formal schooling realm (pre-
college, university and advanced degrees), the term has significant limitations because it
artificially delimits efforts to describe the type of real-world learning that humans engage
in daily; learning that occurs across a broad spatial and temporal context, both inside and
outside of schooling. The term focuses on the attribute of where learning occurs
("informal"), rather than describing the nature of the learning. If one focuses on the
nature or processes of learning, one appreciates it as a biological or ontological process
in which the process of learning is independent of the context in which it occurs, or as
some have stated, including us: "Learning is learning, no matter where and how it
Complicating matters even more are the many terms used to describe "informal learning"
in different communities of practice or contexts of learning (i.e., environmental education
or international development). For instance, The Encyclopedia of Informal Education
(2006) defines and differentiates between formal education/learning, informal
education/learning and non-formal education/learning. Interestingly, although museums
have traditionally referred to themselves as "informal education" institutions, by the
criteria of this framework they are actually "non-formal" education institutions (the
museum sets a learning agenda and determines the learning outcomes, even if those are
not met). Complicating matters further, the term "informal learning" also carries different
meanings in different academic and professional contexts. Ultimately it can be argued
that the term "informal learning", and thus the term "informal science learning," while
widely used, is confusing and ill-defined.
In an effort to acknowledge these definitional inconsistencies and try to arrive at some
common language, representatives from over two dozen federal agencies, nonprofit
professional organizations, and not-for-profit organizations met throughout 2006 to
discuss and come to agreement on some common definitions of terminology typically
used by interpreters, environmental educators, historians, and others in informal settings
such as parks, aquariums, zoos, nature centers, historic sites, and museums. Called the
Definitions Project, this effort was initially funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency and also organized by the National Association for Interpretation (NAI), in
cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Institute for Learning
Innovation. The ultimate goal of the project was to create a sense of community amongst
a range of organizations that, while sharing many goals and approaches to learning and
education, traditionally have worked in isolation from one another. There is now a
prototype website which this Committee and the field may find useful
(http://www.naimembers.com/definitions/index.cfm). The website is not considered
"public" as of yet but project staff are welcoming visitors and further input from the field.
The long-term plan for the website and glossary, a major product of the effort, is that it
will continue to grow each year as new terms and examples of existing terms are added
by a review panel staffed by agencies and organizations related to the field of informal
education and interpretation.
Based on this quick analysis of terms, our recommendation would be to follow those of
the NARST Ad Hoc Committee and the Definitions project. Both groups felt that it was
critical to separate the setting from the definition of learning occurring in the setting,

What are the differences between formal and informal education?formal and informal educationKnown form of educationTrained teachersOn a regular basisLeads to a formally recognized credentialInformalFlexibility in organization and methodsAcknowledging the importance of educationAfter-school programsCommunity based organizationsCan lead to greater confidence in formal classroomMore items...