James M. Laffey
Associate Professor, College of Education
University of Missouri-Columbia
Director of Innovations in Education
for Technology Innovations in Education, UMC
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
of Chicago where I learned to study how we learn and teach. From
there I went to the
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
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
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
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
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.