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No. WP- 02-05

Informatics and Distributed Learning

Rob Kling
Center for Social Informatics
Indiana University
Phone: 855-9763
Noriko Hara
Indiana University, Bloomington
IN 47405-3907
Phone: 812-855-1490 

To appear: Encyclopedia of Distributed Learning, Sage Publications.  Anna DiStefano, Kjell Rudestam, Robert Silverman, & Susan Taira (Eds.)


The term "Informatics" has been used in a number of ways since the 1960s. In Northern Europe, academic departments of Informatics cover a range of topics that are similar to those covered in the academic departments of computer science and information systems in the United States. In the United States, the name Informatics has come to include a wider array of connotations, since it is usually coupled with some adjective, such as medical informatics, bio-informatics, chemical informatics, or educational informatics. These "X-informatics fields" are often defined as the application of information and communication technologies (IT) and information management (IM) techniques to "topic X." These applications-focused definitions are much too narrow.  While X-informatics often include these IT and IM applications, it is also important to include (1) the study of (and ways to) understand the appropriate application of IT and IM to X, as well as (2) how to evaluate the human consequences of IT and IM application approaches upon the participants in X.

In this broader view of informatics, the role of educational informatics to distributed learning is not only in providing knowledge about the design of relevant IT and IM strategies. Educational informatics should also include the awareness, development, and synthesis of appropriate pedagogies for these IT-enabled "learning environments," and also the consequences of different approaches for teachers, students, and relevant other participants. In short, educational informatics should not be limited to topics such as how to design an online multi-media conferencing system. It should also examine topics such as how to actually stimulate high quality human conferences in those environments to compensate for the known limitations of non-face-to-face media/interactions, when an on-line conference may not be as effective as a face-to-face meeting of the participants, and ways to evaluate the educational quality of IT-enabled distributed learning courses.

Educational informatics is not the only informatics specialty that is important for distributed learning. The fields of legal informatics, organizational informatics and social informatics are defined somewhat differently than the X-informatics specialties described above. Legal informatics includes the legal analysis of IT issues and IM practices, including copyright in electronic environments. Social informatics has been defined as the "the interdisciplinary study of the design, uses and consequences of IT that takes into account their interaction with institutional and cultural contexts (Kling, 2000)." Organizational informatics is a subfield of social informatics that focuses upon  "the design, uses and consequences of IT that takes into account their interaction with organizations." Since distributed learning is a service of specific organizations, such as schools, organizational informatics research is also an important source of insight. For example, organizational informatics contributes important understandings about the role of IT infrastructure in distributed workplaces, the complexities of developing high-performance IT-supported teams in distributed workplaces, and the cultural construction of IT-based communication systems. While the field of informatics can be viewed as the sum of all of the specialty X-informatics topics, only a few of these specialties directly apply to distributed learning.


One complexity of the discussions of educational informatics and distributed learning is the differing beliefs about education and technology held by various participants, including students, teachers, technical staff, administrators, and politicians. One dimension of this difference is the extent to which learning is viewed as relatively active or passive. In a passive conception, teaching is largely a matter of directly instructing students (i.e., via lectures) and students watching a lecture or reading selected materials. In an active conception, students learn through vigorous inquiry about "authentic issues" - either alone or in groups. Currently, many educational researchers favor active modes of learning. However, teaching practices in many colleges and universities still emphasize lectures, especially in large introductory courses.

For those who adhere to a relatively passive model of education, a major problem of our educational system is students' limited access to appropriate information. Online distributed learning environments enable participants to have instructional resources available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, almost anywhere that they can have Internet access.  The simplest of these environments include instructional materials such as syllabi, instructional texts, lecture notes, and homework. Students could download instructional materials and upload their homework with e-mail and perhaps discussion lists for communicating with instructors and other students.

In the mid-1990s, a number of U.S. politicians and higher education administrators hoped that some kind of IT-enabled distributed learning environment would reduce the costs of public higher education (by reducing the demand for new buildings) and also enable instruction to be more readily provided to people at their workplaces. In addition, some academic administrators hoped that these environments could help them reach students (and their tuitions) who could not visit their campuses. This kind of relatively simple online instructional environment is most similar to a large lecture course, with its associated economies of scale and limitations for intensive learning. If such a learning environment is appropriately structured, it could be more flexible than a face-to-face lecture course by enabling students much more ability to pace themselves and to select customized subsets of the instructional materials to learn from.

For those who hold a more active model of education this conception of "Upload/download University" is very unappealing. Some of them view various IT-enabled earning environments as supporting richer ways for students to interact with each other, including debates, small group discussions and shared projects. Some online environments may also enable students to more readily share their course materials for comment by their classmates. Courses designed around activities like these require much more careful structuring by their instructors. They are more complicated and labor intensive to teach well, because the instructors have to pay much closer attention to students' communications, as well as to be able to rapidly respond to possible communications. In contrast, an instructor can more readily bound the time that she spends interacting in a face-to-face seminar or workshop. Educators who take this more active interaction-intensive approach are specially concerned with improving the quality of education, rather than reducing its cost or increasing its availability.

Today, instructors use a wide variety of  practices with IT-enabled distributed learning environments. They range from those that rely upon more passive models of learning to others that emphasize more active approaches to learning. As with face-to-face instruction, there can be a wide variation in the quality of courses, because of variations in instructors' quality, instructors' attention, course design, materials selected, and students’ expectations. The IT-enabled environments can also add three new issues: students' ability to be more effectively self-motivated than in face-to-face courses; students' abilities to effectively work with the IT environment from their homes, workplaces, or school sites; and students' abilities to communicate in highly nuanced ways through writing. The seeming ease and convenience of distributed learning also comes with offsetting complexities.

Educational informatics research has found that high quality instruction with IT- enabled environments usually requires a course to be redesigned (and sometimes reconceptualized) rather than simply "uploaded to a web site". Some distributed courses mix face-to-face activities with those that rely upon the use of the IT-enabled learning environment. Some distance education degree programs require that their students visit a campus for a "boot camp" at the beginning of their study, in order to more readily develop durable personal relationships with their instructors and classmates, as well as occasional wrap-up sessions.

No Significant Difference Phenomena

In the field of education and technology, there is a classic discussion about comparison of different media and instruction.  The majority of studies claims that there is no significant difference between the classroom stand-up instruction and the instruction that used certain media, such as radio, film, TV, computer-based tutorials, or web-based materials, in terms of their learning outcomes and students’ satisfaction.  This set of findings advocates IT-enabled distributed learning environments, despite some cautions that the quality of education in such environments might be lower than that in face-to-face learning environments. We have to interpret these media comparison studies carefully because most of them  are flawed.  Instead of being trapped by the media comparison studies, the more vital issue is to investigate the appropriate pedagogies for different media/learning environments and educational contexts. The best quality courses in IT-enabled distributed learning environments may sometimes be of much higher quality than many of their traditional face-to-face alternatives.

Institutional Integration

Although much of the research in educational informatics tends to focus on technology, some research views technology within the context of an educational institution with local resources, routines, and norms.  For example, introducing IT to school settings can be perceived as a part of broader instructional reform efforts.  Further, there are important issues about how well IT-enabled courses are integrated into institutions' operations. Is the IT-environment for distributed learning incorporated with other local IT applications? How well are IT-enabled courses and the distributed instructional faculty integrated into overall curricula and the schools' instructional staff? Low levels of institutional integration may reduce the quality of distributed learning courses. There is some tension between the possibility of educational innovation through new IT-enabled instruction, and the more conservative influences of several kinds of institutional integration, such as using uniform criteria to evaluate all courses.


The mid-1990s expectations of some politicians and academic administrators that IT-enabled distance education could be a relatively inexpensive way to reduce the public costs of high quality higher education or to easily scale up enrollments inexpensively have not proven to be valid. The research frontier for educational informatics is to more effectively understand how the interplay of specific kinds of IT-enabled learning environments, and specific pedagogical approaches can improve the quality of education and increase access, with reasonable costs for all participants. However, understanding the overall character of IT-enabled distributed learning programs also requires drawing upon insights about topics such as institutional integration, and pedagogies in online environments from organizational informatics and social informatics.

Related Reading

Barab, S., Kling, R. and Gray, J. (Eds.). (forthcoming). Building Online Communities in the Service of Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dutton, W. H.  and Loader, B.D. (Eds.). (Forthcoming). Digital Academe: New Media and Institutions in Higher Education and Learning London: Taylor & Francis/Routledge,

Kling, R. (2000). “Learning about Information Technologies and Social Change: The Contribution of Social Informatics.” 2000.  The Information Society  16(3): 217-232

Schofield, J.W. and Davidson, A. L. (2002). Bringing the Internet to School: Lessons from an Urban District.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.