James M. Laffey
Associate Professor, College of Education
University of Missouri-Columbia
Director of Innovations in Education
Center for Technology Innovations in Education, UMC
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mail: cilaffey@showme.missouri.edu

Would you describe your present job and tell us some of the most important activities of your job?
My job is to improve education through innovative uses of technology. I do this by teaching a course on Electronic Performance Support Systems, directing several R&D projects, and contributing to the growth and development of a technology infrastructure in our college of education. I feel that I have been blessed with some wonderful experiences which give mea perspective on how technology can support learning and performance, and so a lot of my work is finding ways to share my ideas and put them into play. For example, I have an award from NSF for Project MOST (Missouri Supporting Teachers) in which we are finding ways to use electronic networks (support systems) to assist high school teachers and students who are engaged in project based learning using computational science approaches. We are building software applications to assist the process of doing projects, we are using video conferencing to connect students with mentors, we are using visualization tools to help students make sense of their data, etc., etc.. This is an exciting project where I can see the potential and the challenges of using technology in schools. We also have a project in which we are building a software system to support preservice teachers create and share journal entries about their field experiences. In a lot of ways I am coming to think of my design of technology applications as means for enhancing communities of practitioners who have natural reasons for sharing and supporting each other, but typically do not because of the constraints of time, location, and the media (paper) they use to describe their experiences.

Where did you receive your highest degree and what did you do prior to coming to The University of Missouri?
I have a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago where I learned to study how we learn and teach. From there I went to the University of Washington.There I worked on several software development projects including an NSF project to develop an interactive videodisc. It was one of the first educational applications of videodisc and really helped me see the potential of media and new technology for improving learning. From there I took a faculty position at San Francisco State University where we were building an educational technology program. After five years of teaching and exploring technology at SFSU I took a position at Apple Computer working in training and support groups to do research and development on the use of technology to improve learning and performance. I had a chance to work with terrific people on exciting projects and it spoiled me for educational technology. My current view is that the field of ed tech is somewhat where the Wright brothers were when they were tossing paper airplanes thru the air. Most of the good stuff is yet to come
!

You said you teach a course in Electronic Performance Support Systems. Do you see EPSS changing the role of the instructional developer, or do you see EPSS and CBT as being complimentary resources?
EPSS is many things: a movement, a set of techniques, a set of technology, an opportunity to make money, a hope and a prayer..... It's key strength, imho, is as a beacon away from thinking that training (computer based or otherwise) was of much value when pulled out of the context of the way the training would be put into practice. One of my favorite visions for thinking about training, comes from observing a sales training course at Apple. it was primarily leader-led, but the technology was the key focus.... the technology was the bank of phones outside the back of the room that the participants were using to call their office, customers, whatever. There are lots of strategies for improving human learning and performing, EPSS is a pretty interesting one, coaching and apprenticeships are a few others, but having classes where everyone gets the same dump(whether its through the computer or via a live speaker) is one of our least powerful tools. Back to the question ... I think the way we implement EPSS and CBT today are both pretty shallow beginnings for where the technology and our sciences of learning and cognition will take us.... so I would advise folks not to get too caught up in which is better or how are they different. They are conceptions, somewhat limited, which are stepping stones to a needed solution and to a better set of conceptions for learning and performance systems of tomorrow.

In what ways do you see instructional technologies changing the average K-12 school over the next decade?
Technology will definitely change the kids, but I'm not sure that it will change the "average" school very much. I'm not sure I want the average k-12school to actually survive the next 10 years. This is probably one of the greatest challenges ahead for our nation and communities: to decide what it wants from its schools and how to get it. While I am somewhat pessimistic about the average school.... I am inspired by the commitment, level of effort, ingenuity, and cool stuff that you can find in schools. We need ways to support and grow what is really good in schools, and ways to demand nothing less from the rest of the schools. I'm afraid instructional technology is as much a problem as it is an opportunity... I think the great contribution that technology will make to education over the years is providing the capacity to change the nature of the community involved in the education of our children (and adults for that matter). School is very much a captive of professional educators, and to a great extent that has distanced schooling form the practices of the outside-of-the-schoolcommunity. With technology we have the potential to redefine the players and to make the community a global one.

You have worked in Higher Education and in industry, could you comment on the differences between the two?
When I arrived at the University of Missouri from Apple computer everyone asked me that question and for a while I didn't know how to answer it. There are lots of superficial things.. age of the buildings, how well the air conditioning works, counting the pages you Xerox, etc.(all of these are scored in favor of private industry). the clear reason I came to the university was so that I could define my own research agenda, and decide on what was important and stick to it (Apple -- when I left it -- didn't score that high on this one). But after a few months of interacting with my colleagues it finally came to me..... People at Apple computer, by nature of their experience and the requirements of their work essentially have to live in a world where they think tomorrow is likely to be different than today; whereas people at the university, with some exceptions, by and large think that tomorrow will look and feel pretty much the same as yesterday. This difference has a lotto do with how you get out of bed in the morning!

Many people in Instructional Technology believe that innovative instructional technologies have had a very limited impact in "the real world." Do you agree with them?
Yes, yes, yes.... This is especially painful when we recognize the significant impact that technology has had on society. So the limited impact of instructional technology tells me we haven't really figured it out yet. I don't think its about media packages and structured tours of knowledge and skills. In my view we are just getting to the good stuff.

What areas of research do you feel will be most useful or popular in IT over the next few years?
I'm looking for exciting things to develop from new communities of learners engaged in more authentic tasks. School kids working with environmental engineers to examine community sites for a waste plant. This type of learning team and authentic task will drive the use of technology for communication, data collection, analysis, visualization, simulation, etc. this in turn will drive the need for more intelligent tools and better environments for learning from experience and reflection. How do we do that? What supports good outcomes? To me these are good questions.

What are 2 or 3 books or articles that you have found to be most important or interesting in your work?
I like Don Norman's Things That Make Us Smart; Peter Senge's FifthDiscipline, and Howard Gardner's, The Unschooled Mind.

Do you have any comments on the current debate between constructivism and objectivism? What are your feeling as to the relative usefulness of qualitative versus quantitative research?
Re: debate between constructivism and objectivism.... it seems to me that both positions capture a part of the human condition, and are more or less important depending on what you are interested in or are trying to accomplish. I'm really interested in how students become better problem solvers and learn to be good at taking on complex science and engineering type projects. It would be foolish to deny the importance of knowing certain facts and formulas, but most of the action is in the application. I saw an analogy drawn to thinking about good football players as the one's who knew the plays the best or who could execute the plays... Obviously you must know the plays, but that is only the beginning step. re: qualitative versus quantitative! research....I believe in building better understanding, and I think that is best served by multiple methodologies. why limit yourself to one sense when you have multiple. Most studies have EXTREMELY small value. It is only in a body of work that we build important knowledge. This body needs to include qualitative and quantitative research

What skills or knowledge do you think someone just entering the field should master in order to best prepare themselves for a job in IT?
Learn to learn, understand the work of cognitive scientists and psychologists, appreciate the methods and mindset of anthropology when applied to people using technology, Get hands on experience building an application you think will help people learn (become more able or competent) and study what happens (not though the eyes of the enthusiast for your own work) through the eyes of the user community, play with lots of technology, find great people and work, study and play with them.