Notes on Distance Learning for Informal Settings: White Paper #1: Definitions and History

July 31st, 2023 | RESEARCH

This literature review is funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation #1713567 and prepared for Indiana University as part of a larger project entitled Data Visualization Literacy: Research and Tools that Advance Public Understanding of Scientific Data (Dr. Katy Börner, Principal Investigator). This white paper is one component of a larger review. The larger review consists of three white papers, the first of which explores definitions, the history of distance education, and the technologies used for distance education over time. The second white paper explores the best practice considerations most widely employed in distance education. The third document focuses on the use of and strategies for applied evaluation of distance education programs. Together, the series of white papers aims to identify key elements of distance education across contexts, as well as the transferability of these approaches to informal science learning institutions.

This report is a literature review of the history of distance education/distance learning. The scan covers the nearly 250 years of documented distance education programs and traces the changes in the technologies that supported the learning purpose. Starting with newspapers and then mail, technology continually reinvented distance education and challenged individuals and institutions in how to effectively use the “new” technology.

Distance education has primarily been associated with formal education. Yet informal science learning organizations and institutions have been using distance education tools and processes for decades. An important question is, what has been learned through the extensive study of distance education in formal settings that will transfer to informal contexts? Some of these findings lead to implications for informal learning institutions:

  • While each technology has its affordances and its limitations, distance education must focus on how the person on the other end of the learning exchange interacts with 1) the medium, 2) the platform, 3) the information/content, 4) other learners, and 5) the teacher.
  • The literature also reminds us that the technology itself affects the nature of learner participation.
  • For informal educators, the exchange being part of a course of study reminds us of the importance of understanding that the distance education program is part of a larger curriculum of the learner.
  • The questions in informal education related to distance education start with positioning the learning outcomes in the context of the learner, and understanding the affordances and limitations of the technology in helping the learner achieve those outcomes.



Team Members

Joe E. Heimlich, Author, COSI Center for Research and Evaluation
Gary Timko, Author, COSI Center for Research and Evaluation
Donnelley (Dolly) Hayde, Author, COSI Center for Research and Evaluation


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 1713567
Funding Amount: $1,355,236

Related URLs

Data Visualization Literacy: Research and Tools that Advance Public Understanding of Scientific Data


Audience: Evaluators | Museum | ISE Professionals
Discipline: Education and learning science | Technology
Resource Type: Literature Review | Research
Environment Type: Informal | Formal Connections | K-12 Programs | Media and Technology | Museum and Science Center Programs | Public Programs

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This material is supported by National Science Foundation award DRL-2229061, with previous support under DRL-1612739, DRL-1842633, DRL-1212803, and DRL-0638981. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF.

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