Thomas Duffy, Ph.D.
Professor of Education and Cognitive Science
Barbara B. Jacobs Chair of Education and Technology
Director of the Center for Research and Learning and Technology
School of Education
Indiana University Bloomington

On leave in 2000 as
Chief Learning Officer,

You hold both a master's degree and doctorate degree in cognitive psychology from the University of Illinois; how did you first venture into the field of Instructional Technology?
I have always been involved in learning theory and performance support--be it instructional design or job aiding. Indeed Charlie Reigeluth and Dave Merrill were working with me back in the late 70's as part of the Navy research projects. These relationships have continued.

Instructional design has tended to be a fairly insular community, with not many members recognizing that there is a lot of instructional design work (research, theory, and practice) that goes on outside of the AECT/ISPI community. But I must admit, while I knew and worked with people in instructional technology I had no knowledge of it as a field until about a year before coming to Indiana. I had not even heard of AECT. But I came out of arts and sciences, so I also knew very little about Schools of Education in general.

Although you are considered a research leader on constructivism, you initially researched and wrote about text comprehension (Duffy, 1985). How did that work influence your segue to researching and writing about constructivism?
I describe myself as having always focused on the design and use of information. The information can be job aiding, reference, or learning resources and the developers can be editors or designers (instructional or graphic).

At the Navy Center I did work on adult literacy, document design, and the design of educational and training systems--some of which used technology (indeed, the Navy was a leader in the development of ICAI and simulations) and others which didn't. At Carnegie Mellon I continued the focus on document design and adult literacy. However, the issues related to instructional design are integral to document design and so I also taught a graduate instructional design course to the graduate students in the English department. It has always amazed me that there is so little awareness (much less communication) between the document design and instructional design communities.

The Theory into Practice: How Do We Link chapter that you co-authored (Bednar, Cunningham, Duffy, Perry, 1995) is considered a seminal paper on how the cognitive sciences--particularly constructivism--influence instructional technology. In the paper, you and your colleagues propose that "Instructional design and development must be based upon some theory of learning and/or cognition; effective design is possible only if the developer has reflexive awareness of the theoretical basis underlying the design" (Bednar, et. al, 1995). Since then, has your position changed significantly? To what extent do you think designers in general have this awareness?
My views have changed significantly--but not on this issue. It seems quite logical to me that no one is going to design instruction that they think will be ineffective--or counterproductive to learning. If they are acting in a way that they believe will promote learning, then they must have some notion of what learning is all about.

The view may not be well articulated, but there is a belief in what it means to learn and what it means to help someone to learn. Besides acknowledging this particular point, we were simply arguing that it would be worthwhile for designers (and educators in general) to become more aware and better able to articulate there views. Somehow that notion got interpreted by many people (I am told) to be an argument that everyone must take a constructivist view. Nothing could be further from the truth. We were simply arguing that since a view of learning guides what we do, we should be more reflective of our beliefs.

According to Reigeluth, you and Jonassen "advocate an extreme view of constructivism, with an ideological fervor that borders on evangelism, rejecting all other perspectives as heresy " (Reigeluth, 1995). How would you respond to Reigeluth? Do you agree that you advocate an extreme view of constructivism?
I think Charlie was being a bit na´ve at this point in his career. Traditional designers seemed to be feeling very threatened by new views and reacted with some vehemence, as reflected in Reigeluth's statement. Indeed, consider the fact that I invited Dave Merrill and Reigeluth to contribute to the book and did not edit their statements. Seems like I was being very open. In contrast, Reigeluth's tirade amounted to a complete rejection of the constructivist perspective out of hand. But it is delightful to see that he seems to be coming full circle--his school reform work seems to reflect much of the framework we were advocating in that book.

In their constructivist manifesto Jonassen, Mayes, and McAleese state that constructivist environments are best for adult learning and university level situations (Jonassen, Mayes, and McAleese, 1993). In Constructivism and the Design of Learning Environments: Context and Authentic Activities for Learning (Honebein, Duffy, Fishman, 1993) you and your colleagues clarified your position about the apprenticeship model as an appropriate one for constructivist learning environments. Do you agree with Jonassen, et al or do you feel that there are indeed other age/developmental learning levels for which constructivism--and specifically the apprenticeship model you propose-would be appropriate?
Oh the notion that constructivist environments are only for advanced learners is all just plain silly. It is derived from the assertion from Rand Spiro but has no basis in the research literature. Indeed, I do not see how they could even make that suggestion. Certainly children construct, test, and refine their model of the world! Look at all of the developmental literature. Indeed, schooling, with the mechanistic and decontextualized approach to "teaching," is perhaps the worst thing that has happened to learning (see Lauren Resnck's AERA presidential address on just plain folk, Bransford and Whitehead's work/discussion on inert knowledge arising in schooling, and the work on Bruner to create inquiry environments to support students' situated construction of their understanding.

Note that there are two levels of consideration here. First, constructivism is a theoretical perspective on learning. It is a lens, just like the information processing lens, for looking at learning activity regardless of the nature of the learning environment (inquiry, drill and practice, etc). It is an interpretive lens and as such it applies to all learning environments (and developmental levels). We are always constructing our understanding of the world in order to move forward--to understand the organizer for that construction we must understand the learner'rs goals.

This interpretive lens also provides prescriptions for the design of learning environments (i.e. one's theory of learning impacts how we learn). However, the basic prescriptive principles (stated very briefly), is that the goal is to engage the student in authentic inquiry driven learning, i.e. inquiry in which the student's goals for learning, and hence the learning activity, reflect the "real world" needs. That is, learning is a tool rather than an end in and of itself.

Within this framework, drill and practice becomes a viable learning strategy--if the learner needs to automate some skill then of course practice makes perfect. But it must be student driven practice where the student is judging the fluency for performing the task that calls for fluency. Note how different this is from the situation where the teacher tells the student they must master this list with 80% proficiency in two trials because it will be important to know later on. Again, I do not see why this prescription would not apply to all learners. Certainly we want learning to be an active, inquiry process in which the student is "getting into" the issues rather than simply seeking to master a chapter.

Much of your response applies to my next question...K-12 educators seem to struggle with the integration of constructivism and often critically perceive constructivist theories as another name for Discovery Learning; what response can you add regarding such criticisms?
In addition to my comments above, I'd like to note that discovery learning is an ill-conceived label. It implies that truth is there and we are guiding the learner to that truth (just under the next rock). And that is indeed how many teachers approached it--they knew and the kids had to find out--all a big game. This is very different from the active, collaborative inquiry that Bruner intended in his use of discovery learning (look at his MACOS curriculum).

Are there areas of research in Instructional Technology that you consider especially important for up and coming researchers to address in the next decade?
Next decade!!! Hard to predict beyond the obvious. I guess I would still argue for two primary areas we need to address. First, we need to develop much more effective applied research skills. There are just too few strong researchers coming out of Instructional Technology. And I don't care about formal, experimental research or about qualitative vs. quantitative. I care about the ability to do systematic observations and argumentation! We don't seem to "teach" that very well.

Secondly, there needs to be more of a theoretical base guiding what the research community is doing. Our journals have far too many raw empiricist studies that simply have little if any generality. There is little building on ideas, models, frameworks and there is more than enough "let's see what happens when..."

Are there any trends that you see in technology and education that really excite you and make you optimistic about the future?
Within the field of Ed Tech, no. Seems like things are continuing as they have for the last ten years. However, the role of technology in education has come front and center in the public stage. There is a tremendous amount of opportunity here for people to help make sense of the environment and provide some context for the role of technology in learning.

You were recently appointed Chief Learning Officer of; tell us about why it was organized, it's mission, goals, and affiliations?
UNext is an education company seeking to meet the need for workplace education. As we all know, the need for life long learning is increasing dramatically and it is that need we seek to meet. Our focus is on producing high quality learning experiences that meet that needs of individuals in the workplace. Quality is in both the content and the pedagogy.

We have partnered with the premier business schools in defining content: University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, Columbia, and London School of Economics. When the course is completed, the collaborating faculty member, as well as our own dean (a former dean of the University of Chicago Business School) must sign off on the quality of the content of the course. Our courses, however, are not in a traditional classroom model. Rather, we use a problem based learning framework (no surprise there). We develop real world business problem that will engage the student in the content domains such that they master the learning outcomes specified for the course.

Collaboration among students and the facilitative role of the instructor are keys to the success of this approach. That addresses the quality issue. These courses are then adapted to the workplace needs of the learners. There are two critical components here. First, we have short courses, generally expected to take 25-30 hours to complete. These courses can be more focused on the learner's needs and can more readily fit into their schedule. Second students can begin at any time and progress at their own rate. Thus they can begin when they have the time and, if they have travel or important work scheduled, they can move at a slower pace or take a week off.This, of course, presents problems in creating a collaborative environment. However, I think we have taken a very innovative approach in which we emphasize a learning community in which students are mutual supportive of each others work.

In addition to that overall approach, we are looking at forming teams on the fly to work on short problems/tasks. Do check out our web site: Also, check out the employment opportunities. We are growing at a very fast pace: from 40 in August 1999 to 110 at the end of 1999. As we seek to expand our course production capability we are opening course development facilities in Bloomington, IN to take advantage of the strength of the students coming out of the instructional technology program there, the strong web design skills that abound, and the new School of Informatics.

Bednar, A.K.; Cunningham, D; Duffy, T.M.; and Perry, J.D. (1995). Theory into practice: How do we link? In T.M. Duffy and D.H. Jonassen (Eds.), Constructivism and the technology of instruction: A conversation (pp. 17-34). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Dick, W. (1992) An instructional designer's view of constructivism. In T.M. Duffy and D.H. Jonassen (Eds.), Constructivism and the technology of instruction: A conversation (pp. 92-98). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Duffy, T.M. and Bednar, A.K. (1992). Attempting to come to grips with alternative perspectives. In T.M. Duffy and D.H. Jonassen (Eds.), Constructivism and the technology of instruction: A conversation (pp. 129-135). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hawley, C.L. and Duffy, T.M. (1997). Design model for learner-centered, computer based simulations. American Educational Research Association Annual Proceedings (pp. 159-166).

Honebein, P.C.; Duffy, T.M; and Fishman, B.J. (1993). Constructivism and the design of learning environments: context and authentic activities for learning. In T.M. Duffy; J. Lowyck; and D.H. Jonassen (Ed.), Designing environments for constructive learning (pp. 87-108). Heidelberg, Germany: Springer-Verlag Berlin.

Jonassen, D.; Mayes, T; and McAleese, R. (1993). A manifesto for a constructivist approach to uses of technology in higher education. In T.M. Duffy; J. Lowyck; and D.H. Jonassen (Eds.), Designing environments for constructive learning (pp. 232-247). Heidelberg, Germany: Springer-Verlag Berlin.