Case 5 describes an assessment of technological literacy for visitors to a museum, science center, or other informal-learning institution, where participants set their own learning agendas and determine the duration and selection of content; this is called “free-choice learning.” Some 60 million people are served by public science-technology centers in the United States every year (ASTC, 2004). This number is consistent with NSB survey data indicating that 61 percent of adult Americans visit an informal science institution (e.g., a zoo, aquarium, science center, natural history museum, or arboretum) at least once a year (NSB, 2000).
Typically, visitors are children attending as part of a family or school group (which often includes teachers) or adults attending alone or in groups without children. Because of the transient nature of the population of interest (visitors usually spend no more than a few hours in these institutions), the assessment would rely on sampling techniques, although focus-group-style assessments might also be used.
The principal rationale for conducting assessments in informal-education settings is to gain insights into the type and level of technological literacy among a unique (though not random) cross-section of the general public. In addition, because visitors to these facilities are often surrounded by and interact with three-dimensional objects representing aspects of the designed world, informal-learning locations present opportunities for performance-related assessments. The sheer volume of visitors, particularly at mid-sized and large institutions, provides an additional incentive.
Organizations that provide informal-learning opportunities, including museums, book and magazine publishers, television stations, websites, and continuing-education programs offered by colleges and universities, all provide information about technology, but generally have limited knowledge of the level of understanding or interest of their intended audiences. For this diverse group of institutions and companies,