Brent Wilson

Associate Professor of Information and Learning Technologies

University of Colorado at Denver

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Dr. Wilson and InTRO Co-Editor Dan Surry held this conversation via email during May and June, 1997

DS: Could you tell us a little about your educational and professional background and how you got into instructional technology?

BW: I've been working in the field since the mid-1970s. I graduated in 1982 from Brigham Young University in Instructional Science. They have a threefold focus on research, development, and evaluation. I worked closely with Dave Merrill, Charlie Reigeluth, Rich Sudweeks, and others, working for WICAT, Courseware, Inc., the LDS Church, and lots of other clients. I worked in a wide variety of settings--military, university, Church, schools, NSF--You name it, they had work for you.

You were expected to learn as much from work as from school. Doctoral comps consisted of a series of defended projects. You ended up with a resume packed with good work experiences, and a combination of applied and theoretical knowledge.

Dave Merrill had been an engineering major himself, and he approached the field as an engineer would--problems to be solved, models and solutions to be developed. Charlie Reigeluth brought a keen analytic disposition to our work. Rich Sudweeks taught me how to be a program evaluator, and saved me when I was floundering in the program.

I don't know if it was reflective of the times, but my memories of graduate school are very different from my current experience. We were much more confident and assertive about our role in the world-- We were doing research that would tell us all how best to teach, how to develop good instruction. Our research designs were simple-- usually experimental designs. It was only in my evaluation work that I encountered qualitative methods.

Now it seems so complicated. We have so many choices-- constructivism or neo-orthodoxy? Qualitative or quantitative? Design or postmodern critique? I imagine the diversity's good and helps us be more resilient, but the coherence of the field suffers for it.

DS: That's something I have really been thinking a lot about lately -- there seem to be so many people doing different types of research on widely different topics. It's possible for two people, each doing research in instructional technology, to meet and neither one have any idea what the other is talking about. What's your opinion on that and what research topics and methodologies interest you the most?

BW: A field does need some common beliefs and models to give people a feeling of belonging. We have always relied on a foundation of ISD models, scholarly stance toward technology use, and a conceptual foundation that draws heavily on psychology. Of course, each of these foundations is undergoing significant change--questioning of decontextualized, top-down planning; growing postmodern critiques of the value and role of technology; and growing dissatisfaction with psychology as an underlying theory base.

The shifting ground is shared, though, by most other social sciences. Pick up a current copy of Educational Researcher, and you'll quickly see that even our fundamental research methods are being called into question. So we're not alone--everything is in flux. The challenge we face is to sort out what's important and decide how to re-ground our inquiry and professional practice.

Which leads me, I suppose, to my own grounding. You asked what topics and methods interest me. I tend toward fundamentals. Here are a couple of central issues that each have lots of implications, only a smattering of which I'm noting:

  1. The nature of expertise. What does it mean to know something in our field? What's the difference between practitioner knowledge and scholarly knowledge? How can practitioner knowledge be codified, supported, and shared among a community of professionals? Is there a role for researchers to support that knowledge-building process? What's the difference between data, information, knowledge, and wisdom? What are the ways of knowing and gaining wisdom?
  2. These questions extend to all sorts of side questions. What does it mean to be a subject expert? How do you address differences among experts? How should we seek to build a knowledge base through research? What should our learning objectives really look like?

  3. Supporting practitioner communities. How do individuals, organizations, and cultures create and share knowledge? What are the respective roles for instruction, performance support, and situated knowledge-sharing? What are the value- and political implications that arise when people try to change themselves and others? How can people be supported in effecting positive change? What is positive change, and how do you know it when you see it?
Flowing out of this second interest are the many possible interventions we can apply to problems. All of our design models for instruction, learning environments, and performance support are based on this effort to share and disseminate knowledge and competence.

But even talking about "interventions" or "solutions" or "applying" a technique to a situation--All of this kind of talk assumes a proactive, problem-solving, fix-it type stance toward the world. This is in contrast to saying, Let me come and live here. Let me participate in the world, get to know people and situations. Let me take action as a fellow member of a community rather than as an outside technician. Let me participate more fully in the lived situation. Local leadership versus outside consultant.

I'm not trying to stamp out all dualities; I just like to see things come together more.

In many ways, this fits a "situated" view of the world. The truest and most interesting things aren't in the books, they're in the places where the living and the work gets done. I hope that's not anti-intellectual or unreflective; on the contrary, I'm trying to acknowledge the very real reflection that goes on out there in the most concrete settings.

DS: I especially liked something you wrote in one of your online papers: "I reject the idea that a particular instructional strategy is inherently constructivistic or objectivistic. Constructivism is not an instructional strategy to be deployed under appropriate conditions. Rather, constructivism is an underlying philosophy or way of seeing the world." Could you describe on how you came to that way of thinking and the implications of it -- you seem to be saying constructivism and objectivism are not mutually exclusive or even competing ideas.

BW: There I was trying to get us to see "beyond method." Obsession with method is a positivist tendency. Constructivists have to see that our human world cannot be explained by rules, nor can it be fixed by simply prescribing the right set of new rules to follow. Constructivism is a way of seeing the world. When you see the world that way, you will design things and make decisions consistent in a new light. That means, to me, respecting people's automony and meaning-construction ability.

Actually, I have been disappointed in the discussion on constructivism over the past few years. Here you have a contest that goes like this:

Objectivist: "Meaning is found out there in the world."

Constructivist: "No it's not; it's found inside people. People make their own meaning."

Objectivist: "But it's my job as a teacher to make sure these people learn certain things. Knowledge needs to be transmitted."

Constructivist: "No, people will learn what THEY want to, what THEY construct. You cannot control that, and it's certainly not a direct transmission of anything."

Now, isn't that kind of a silly argument? Does anyone really believe either one of these positions? Does either position capture how we feel about it? Here is my point:

In the present discussion, the constructivists are the mirror reflections of their opponents. They have bought into the same kinds of dualities and ultimate worldview as the positivists.

I reject the false dualities that underly such discussion. Meaning is not either "in here" or "out there." That's a false duality caused by some psychologist who wants you to think there's an interior world that mirrors an outside world. But that correspondence view of the world is just what we're trying to get out of!

Descartes was looking for grounding, and he found it by questioning everything except his own interior thinking--"I think, therefore I am." Martin Heidegger said, that's silly. We are already in the world. How can you get out of this world, out of relationships? How can you say the here-and-now isn't real? Like it or not, Rene, there was never a time when you were free from interacting with this world and its web of relationships and influences. Heidegger established a concept of "being-in-the-world" as a proper grounding of our being. Essentially, he's saying, Hey, you're already here, aren't you?

That's how I tend to think about the constructivism/objectivism discussion. The arguments are a bit of a turnoff because they're both off-base. This world is an interaction of people and environment, individuals and groups, mind and body. I'm tired of dualisms that favor one over the other, and the resulting instructional strategies that are based on ideology, not human needs. I prefer a more holistic conception that embraces the here and now, and takes a stance toward instruction that is respectful of people right here, right now.

DS: One of the research areas that we are both interested in is the diffusion of instructional innovations. Do you think that this is an area that has possibilities for a lot of future research or do you think it will remain a very narrow niche?

BW: A narrow niche? Sorry, I have to laugh at that. We are so fixated on how to design technological solutions, we forget to look closely at how people choose to use our lovely designs!

I have decided our field suffers from a "designer bias." We want to believe we're in control. We like the idea of having the solution, being able to come up with the answer that will help people. All they have to do is listen to us and do what we say.

Sorry to say, that's a big illusion. This is the 90s, the age of empowerment, the learning organization. People expect to have some say over their worklives, including their education. We can't waltz in and dole out the answer to their "performance problem" or their "knowledge problem"--We have to do more listening and more delegating than we used to. We need to provide tools wherein people can solve their own problems. Teach 'em to fish, as they say.

What I am talking about goes beyond even the concept of "adoption." You adopt something someone else created and sold you; you ADAPT something someone else gave you, but you customize it to your needs. That's closer to what I'm talking about--Helping people solve their own problems, collaborating, drawing in information from outside, then adapting it to their local needs.

In the best of worlds, I would like to see our field give equal attention to questions of both USE and DESIGN. Especially nowadays in the era of open learning environments where people have so much choice in their learning resources.

I see design and use as flipsides to the same coin. You can only understand design issues by looking carefully at use patterns; likewise, you gain a window on use by looking closely at the designed thing people are asked to appropriate into their lives. Sometimes people's non-use becomes much more understandable when you look at how badly designed some of our solutions are!

DS: I also think you are right about the "designer bias" in our field -- it's a form of determinism, we believe technology is the most important factor in the change process. It's a comforting idea for technologists and, on a macro level, it makes sense, but it doesn't really work that way in practice.

Changing the subject, there are a couple of things I want to ask you about before we run out of time and space. First, you mentioned postmodern critique, I'll be honest, that is a subject I know nothing about. What is postmodern critique, and postmodernism in general, and are those things that we in IT research should be learning about?

BW: Postmodernism is a movement that is dominant right now in many humanities disciplines, and increasingly in the social sciences. It's predicated on several responses to "modernity" or the modern condition--particularly the common beliefs that truth can be found by science and a rational method, that there are absolute rules that dictate right and wrong, that technology will bring progress, and so forth. These ideas may be naive if we accept them uncritically at face value, and don't recognize the complex surrounding issues.

Instead, postmodern theorists look for multiple meanings. They are highly conscious of multiple perspectives, multiple "truths", and multiple values. They don't take things simply at their face value. Instead, they look for the unspoken, the silent, the unrepresented voices. They "deconstruct" discourse and artifacts to highlight the unintended meanings. They recycle old ideas, but with a different twist to them. There's often an element of humor or irony in postmodern thinking, because they don't like taking things too seriously. They mistrust authority, established dogma, and grand systems of explanation. There is a tendency toward detachment and disengagement, although that is not universal.

I think postmoderns tend to be better at critiquing things than designing things. Like we said before, designing something takes a certain amount of faith and proactive commitment. Many postmoderns take the world they find themselves in, and offer a critique or deconstruction as a first step towards redesign. They frame the problem in a way that suggests courses of action, but they often hesitate to be too specific about solutions. So a "postmodern critique" is a very careful look at current practice, with an eye toward multiple meanings and perspectives, intended to help us see the complexity of our lives, and the subtle effects--pro and con--of our actions. Postmoderns help us see that every "fixed" problem brings with it an array of unwanted or unintended side effects. This doesn't mean the fix is bad, but it means that we should look more carefully at its full impact.

Of course, the implications for our field are obvious, since we're in the business of applying technology to fix things and solve problems.

DS: Could you recommend a couple of really good books or articles (or websites) related to postmodernism?

BW: We should be proud in our field to have so many good postmodern thinkers. They are getting increasing exposure--special issues of journals and magazines, chapters in research handbooks and other edited volumes. As an entry point for the nonspecialist, I'd recommend three papers:

Wilson, B. (1997). The postmodern paradigm. In C. R. Dills & A. J. Romiszowski (Eds.), Instructional development paradigms (pp. 297-309). Englewood Cliffs NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Steve Mizrach (aka Seeker1), Talking pomo: An analysis of the postmodern movement: Postmodernism according to friends, foes, and spectators

Hlynka D. & Yeaman, R J. (1992, September). Postmodern educational technology. ERIC Digest No. EDO-IR-92-5. Syracuse NY: ERIC Clearinghouse on Information Resources.

This last item is a two-page quickie and a good summary by bona fide postmoderns. The other two are written by outsiders--Mizrach is a philosopher but not really a postmodern.

There are tons of webpages out there on postmodern figures and ideas. A good starting point would be Martin Ryder's section on postmodern philosophy in IT Connections, found at:

It has a great collection of readings related to education. Another good all-around website is called Postmodern Philosophy, maintained by G. K. Parish-Philp, and found at:

This isn't specific to education but has good links to papers and figures.

DS: Also, what are a couple of books or articles that you have written that you are especially proud of?

BW: Gosh, I'm proud of all my stuff! Some of it's dated, but you can see a certain integrity and growth through it all. I see myself as similar to Terry Winograd. He used to be an AI researcher, but then lost faith in it and began serving as a constructive critic of that reductionist agenda. Now he's more similar to Hubert Dreyfus than he is to Marvin Minsky.

I'm particularly pleased with a paper I presented at AECT this past February, called Understanding the Design and Use of Learning Technologies. It develops some of the ideas I talked about with you.

Also, a couple of papers on learning communities: Distributed Learning Communities: An Alternative to Designed Instructional Systems; and Creating Technology-supported Learning Communities.

The first is co-written with Martin Ryder, and talks about learning-support groups of various forms. The second paper was written for a book co-authored with David Jonassen and Kyle Peck, addressed to preservice and classroom teachers. That was fun to write and gave me an opportunity to talk beyond technology to community and emotional-support issues.

All three papers are available at my website at http://

DS: What are some of your professional plans for the short-term and long-term future?

BW: I'm excited to be going to Sao Paulo Brazil in late June, to speak to a conference of five thousand Brazilian teachers. I'm challenged to say something of value to them!

Longer term, I get a lot of satisfaction working with colleagues and doctoral students with similar interests. We have a couple of informal working groups--learning communities!--to give mutual support and share ideas. We're developing our thoughts about technology use and adoption, and about learning in noninstructional settings. Sometimes we poke fun at constructivists, and other times we are one!

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