Steve Alessi, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Instructional Design and Technology

The University of Iowa

What is your highest degree and where did you receive it?
I did my Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in Educational Psychology. But most of my assistantship work and research was with the Plato computer-based education research lab, which was located at Illinois.

How did you get into the field of Instructional Technology?
I was always interested in science and started college in engineering. That was in 1969-70, at the height of the Vietnam War protests and strikes. I was disillusioned with what I considered the lack of social relevance in what I was doing, and switched to psychology. Eventually I gravitated to educational psychology, which I considered an area with a lot of potential for improving society. As I investigated graduate schools I discovered the relatively new area of computer-based instruction, and it all came together. This seemed a good marriage of my original interests in science and engineering along with the social relevance of improving education. The new Plato IV project at the University of Illinois looked very exciting and I went there. It was a great decision. The educational psychology program at Illinois was excellent. The Plato project was new and exciting. Applying the cognitive psychology principles emphasized in the educational psychology program to projects on the Plato system was a terrific combination of the theoretical and the applied.

Could you describe your research agenda? How did you decide to do research into that area?
I'll mostly talk about my primary area, though I seem to get off onto tangents a lot. At a general level I am interested in the relationship of realism, complexity, and instructional sequence. My specific focus at this time is simulation fidelity. At one end of the continuum is simplification of reality, or low fidelity simulation, which presumably is easier and enhances initial learning. On the other end of the continuum is exact replication of reality, or high fidelity simulation, which most people presume enhances transfer of learning to the real performance environment. I'm interested in assessing to what extent, or under what conditions, these presumptions are true or false. My main "hypothesis" is that good simulations need dynamic fidelity, simplifying when the student needs instructional support, increasing fidelity as the student progresses so as to encourage transfer. The fidelity continuum, I believe, applies to many aspects of simulation: the visuals, the math models, the feedback, etc. The relationship of realism, complexity, and sequence applies to things besides simulation. Choice of media is an example. "Simpler" media, like books, are perceived as less realistic but easy to learn from, while "complex" media such as interactive video are perceived as more realistic but harder to learn from. Another example would be the choice of mode in multimedia, such as whether to use voice (perceived as realistic) versus text (perceived as less so) for verbal information. I don't remember ever "deciding" to do research in this area. It was a combination of evolution, chance, and doing what was fun. I said I also get onto tangents a lot. I'm interested in cooperative learning and I believe developers continue to emphasize "individualization" too much in media-based instruction. More work needs to be done to make materials "group friendly".

What are 2 or 3 articles or books you have written that you are most proud of?
It's hard to answer this without feeling some embarrassment. We shouldn't take ourselves too seriously. In 100 years will ANYONE remember the instructional technologists of the 1990s? But anyway. Stan Trollip and I are certainly pleased that our textbook Computer-Based Instruction: Methods and Development has enjoyed the success it has. We are always amazed as well. We consider it only a "beginners" book and for that reason things are simplified a lot. Also, it is in great need of updating, but we want to do a book/CD combination and our publisher, like most publishers, is too old-fashioned. As a result, the third edition keeps getting delayed while we try to convince the publisher to move into the 21st century.
My article Fidelity in the design of instructional simulations in the Journal of Computer-based Instruction may not have had much impact, but writing it really helped me focus my thoughts and research concerning simulation fidelity. It was good for my own development. Lastly, I'm on sabbatical this semester and writing a new book on simulation design. It will be a book and a CD, the latter duplicating the text as well as containing examples, templates, and tools.

What are two or three books or articles by other people that you think are "must reads" for people interested in your research area?
If you mean computer-based instruction that's much too few. The first time I meet with new students I give them a two page list of books and articles they should read. It includes writings by David Jonassen on constructivist issues and mind tools, Tom Reeves on evaluation, Charlie Reigeluth on models, Doug Towne on simulation. There have also been some good edited books recently in the computer-based instruction area, such as Lajoie & Derry's Computers as Cognitive Tools, and Regian and Shute's Cognitive Approaches to Automated Instruction. But those are just a few of the readings I recommend.
If you mean, more specifically, simulation research, the answer is different. But it is still very difficult to limit it to two or three books or articles. Look at the list of references in my simulation fidelity article, mentioned above. Some useful and more recent books are Simulation-based Experiential Learning" edited by Towne, de Jong, & Spada; Learning and Instruction in Simulation Environments", by Towne; Classroom Dynamics by Mandinach & Cline; and Mental Models edited by Gentner and Stevens. The frustrating thing about keeping well read in your field is the problem of diminishing returns. The first time you read a book in a new field it is all new and exciting stuff. The next book you read has a lot of duplication and maybe only half of it is new for you. Eventually you find yourself reading many book and articles without encountering anything new. But you have to keep doing it, if only for the occasional article with some new insight.

Who are two or three people who have had the most important impact on your career? Why did they have such a big impact?
Going back a long way, I had two excellent teachers in sixth grade science and seventh grade math who were responsible for my interests going in those directions. Though I never imagined back then that I would someday become a teacher, now that I am a teacher I look back and realize that their influence as really caring and good teachers undoubtedly had a sub-conscious influence on me through the years. Graduate school at Illinois was characterized by faculty with extremely different views, which was very good. It wasn't individuals who impacted me so much as the contrast between individuals, which graduate students often got caught in the middle of. On the one hand there were ardent schema theorists like Dick Anderson and Rand Spiro, whose schema theory ideas have done a lot to feed the modern constructivist approach. On the other hand there were die-hard direct instruction folks like Marty Siegel and Ziggy Engelmann (who was at Oregon but visited Illinois from time to time). People at Illinois argued a lot and I came away with an appreciation for widely different points of view and the need for eclectic approaches.

Could you describe a research project that you were involved with that was especially enjoyable or interesting? What made it so?
When I worked on the Illinois Plato project I was part of a team setting up computer-supported classrooms in state prisons. That's about as difficult and frustrating an instructional environment as you can possibly imagine. But I learned a lot and it was rarely dull. Once we were in a prison classroom interviewing several 250 pound murderers when the lights went out due to a power failure!

What areas of research in IT do you think will be especially important or fruitful in the next five to 10 years?
What we predict will happen is rarely what does happen. For that reason I think that we need lots of variety in educational research and development. The first half of this century everyone had to adhere to behaviorism or be an outcast. We should not make that mistake again, such as by insisting that everyone be a constructivist or everyone do a particular kind of research. Just as diversity in living populations is necessary to assure evolutionary health and improvement, diversity in educational research is essential for its health and progress. I don't want to see a dominant paradigm and I don't want to encourage today's graduate students to seek one. Nevertheless, I do like to fantasize about the future. It's so exciting, though sometimes scary. Although it is not my research area at all, I believe a critical area of research will be the social and educational implications of tomorrow's computers which will be able to read, write, and someday even think. We will face many difficult decisions due to advancements in computer technology.

What advice would you give someone just entering the field of IT research?
In ten or 20 years most of what be believe today will have been proven wrong. So don't believe the experts. There are none. Learn to think for yourself. Don't accept the dominant paradigm. Seek out the interesting controversies in our field and argue about them. Most of all, remember what's really important. We should be in this to improve humanity, starting with the people we see every day.