Instructional Systems Technology
Could you describe how you got into the field of
I was attracted by a national fellowship opportunity (National
Defense Education Act) that was available back in the 1960s. It encouraged
scholars to consider careers in fields, such as Instructional Technology,
that were considered valuable to the national defense. [This act was passed
in the frenzy immediately following the launch of the Soviet Sputnik.]
Your undergraduate degree was in Speech (Television).
Do you see any similarities between the hype and promise of Instructional
Television and the current hype and promise surrounding computer-assisted
A well justified question. Yes, our field has suffered under generation
after generation of unfulfilled promises, going back to film and including
radio, TV, programmed instruction, and now computers. Each innovation
stimulates its army of advocates who make unwise predictions or promises
about the reform of education. Wiser heads understand that the biggest
problems of formal education are not amenable to technological solutions
and that the availability of technology does not cause the restructuring
What area of research interests you currently? How
did you come to be interested in that topic?
I would like to gather descriptive information about teacher
use of technology on a large-scale representative basis. That is, we lack
baseline data about how teachers use technology, so we have no way of
measuring whether use is increasing or improving on a national or international
basis. Pelgrum & Plomp have conducted such a cross-national study
regarding COMPUTER use, but there's no such study on technology more broadly
construed. Further, there are no studies based on OBSERVATION of what
teachers are doing. I put little stock in survey responses. Are
there any books that you feel are "must reads" for people beginning
a career in IT Research? A book that changed my thinking about
what was appropriate research for our field is TO ENGINEER IS HUMAN by
Henry Petroski (Vintage Books, 1992). Delightful essays about how the
art and science of structural engineering are advanced through systematic
case studies of failures in newly designed systems. Larry Cuban's TEACHERS
AND MACHINES (Teachers College, 1986) is a brief and fascinating description
of teachers' uses of technology by one guy who has personally observed
some thousands of classrooms. First-hand, front line information.
Who are a couple of people who've had an important
impact on your career?
Bob Heinich was a colleague at Indiana for many years before retiring
and is still a friend. He taught me to look at the big picture, particularly
to look for how the reward system shapes people's choices. He had Big
Thoughts about IT and expressed them candidly even if it stepped on some
sensitive toes. Sivasailam Thiagarajan, a Bloomington, Indiana colleague,
constantly shows how the IT approach can lead to simple, elegant solutions.
Beneath all the hype and hardware, what helps people learn is instruction
that reflects some basic values--clarity, fun, and meaningfulness
You developed the "Diffusion Simulation Game."
Could you describe that project for us?
Thiagarajan and I and several others were commissioned to develop
a one-day workshop to be administered nationally on "Diffusion Strategies."
We were looking for a learning format that would involve participants
in the complexities of implementing an innovation in a school setting.
We settled upon a fairly complex and large-scale simulation game as the
solution. After considerable testing and revision we came up with a game
that has proved to be extremely robust, being used with hundreds of groups
over a period of 20 years. Even though it's been out of print for a decade
I still get requests about obtaining a copy. (My advice on this is
found on my WWW home page.)
You are one of the authors of the very influential
textbook "Instructional Media and Technologies for Learning."
What are the benefits and drawbacks of authoring a popular textbook?
The benefits are (1) having access to a textbook that I myself can use
with satisfaction when teaching these basic topics, (2) getting royalty
checks twice a year, (3) receiving positive feedback from students who
have discovered a textbook they don't hate, (4) receiving positive feedback
from instructors whose students no longer hate their textbook.
You have been very active in Instructional Technology
projects outside the U.S.A. How do the quality and quantity of R&D
internationally compare to that in the U.S.?
Most of my work has been in "developing countries,"
where the technological infrastructure that we take for granted is largely
absent: schools without electricity and textbooks, not to mention computers....and
so on. However, in one very important regard the R&D going on in some
of these places is asking questions and yielding answers that are of potentially
high value to decision-makers in more "developed" countries.
I am thinking particularly of the work being done by US AID in the realm
of "low cost learning systems." They have developed models of
schools that run more efficiently AND EFFECTIVELY than conventional schools
thanks to being RESTRUCTURED around "process technologies" such
as programmed teaching, programmed tutoring, and self-instructional modules.
The improvements are miraculous and they are achieved at lower cost. Solutions
such as these are not welcomed in countries with a highly organized teaching
profession because (a) they require major change in the role of the teacher
and principal, and (b) they attempt to operate schools with FEWER certified
teachers, relying more heavily on team teaching, paraprofessionals, and
What areas of research in IT do you think will be
especially important or fruitful in the next 5 - 10 years?
We need objective, hard-nosed inquiry related to systemic change
in education. We have more than enough theorizing and rhetoric. The same
is true for "constructivist learning environments." We are beginning
to get a little bit of insight into the realities of such developments,
but the rhetoric still predominates.
Do you have any advice for graduate students or
others in the field who are just beginning to do research?
fear not, all the good questions have not yet been taken! IT has not yet
developed its own research traditions, questions and methods that are
peculiarly suited to our special slant on the the world of teaching and
learning. That's why I recommended the Petroski book in the earlier question.
Second, there are good sources of advice already out there: e.g. Chapters
28 to 31 in Anglin's IT: PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE, 2nd Ed. (Libraries
Unlimited, 1995) and Clark's "Current progress and future directions
for research in IT," ETR&D 37:1 (1989), and Thompson et al.,
ED TECH--A REVIEW OF THE RESEARCH (AECT, 1993).