Professor of Instructional
Design, Development & Evaluation
Previously, Senior Scientist for Instructional Systems
United States Air Force Armstrong Laboratory in San
You earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the
University of Texas at Austin in 1978 and are also a distinguished graduate
of the United States Air Force Academy. How did those studies lead you
to the field of instructional technology?
They only led me indirectly to instructional technology.
The degree from USAFA was a BS in International Affairs with minors in
Psychology and Philosophy. The degree from UT was in Philosophy with specialization
in epistemology and logic. I suppose the degrees had less to do with my
migration to instructional technology than my own interests in a number
of things, such as designing expert systems to help people perform complex
tasks, trying to model and simulate understanding, and so on. Obviously
the studies in psychology, epistemology and logic all contributed to those
From 1991 through 1997 you were the Senior Scientist
for the United States Air Force Research Laboratory (formerly called the
Armstrong Laboratory and the Human Resources Laboratory). When you were
at Armstrong you worked with both Gagné and Merrill; how did that
experience influence your research in the area of intelligent performance
support for instructional design and in system dynamics based (SD) learning
The two had very different attitudes about what could
and could not be done to help people improve their design of learning environments.
Merrill took a strong position--many processes could be automated and accomplished
by a support system. Gagné took a weaker position--that providing
knowledgeable and motivated people with good examples and accompanying
rationales and elaborations was the most one could expect to do. I have
tried both approaches and had more success with the latter. Neither was
aimed at system dynamics based environments, although in recent conversations
with Merrill he believes that his object-oriented methods will lend themselves
to what I have been doing in designing SD based learning
Who are the two or three people who have had the
most important impact on your career?
My father, Bob Gagné and O.K. Bouwsma (a philosophy
In a 1995 ITFORUM discussion and paper about SD
based learning environments, you stated that you "do not believe all subject
matter and learning situations area appropriate candidates for SD models"
(Spector and Davidson, 1995). What are some of the domains that you believe
SD models would be most appropriate?
SD is most appropriate for modeling domains which are
characterized by a large number of interrelated components involving internal
feedback, delays in effects, non-linear relationships, and uncertainty.
Domains that fit these characteristics include the spread of an epidemic,
the performance of an economy, many aspects of an environmental region,
project management decision making, planning experiments, and so on.
In what situations do you feel SD is appropriate
as an instructional design strategy and in what situation would SD be more
appropriate as an instructional strategy? Can you provide some examples
of the differences in applying SD models in these instances?
One should not use SD to model or teach about how to
dismantle and reassemble a piece of equipment. This is best done with traditional
part-task trainers or other much simpler methods. One might consider using
SD to teach about the consequences of particular resource allocation strategies
on the future course of a large project. Other examples are mentioned below.
How can an instructional technologist identify domains
where SD would be appropriate? Are there specific learning situations or
other characteristics that are critical for the SD approach to work?
When the learning goal involves what could be classified
as a complex dynamic system, then SD might be considered an appropriate
tool. Complex systems involve many components which are characterized by
internal feedback often with delays and non-linear relationships. The human
body is an example of a complex system. What I take into my body in terms
of salt content has an effect on various internal processes; many of those
effects are delayed. Moreover, so long as the intake is moderate the effects
appear linear. However, if I begin to take in large quantities of salt,
the effects are greatly accelerated and tragic. The best thing an instructional
technologist could do would be to read Dietrich Dorner's Logic of Failure.
You wrote "Complex systems involve many components
which are characterized by internal feedback often with delays and non-linear
relationships." That sounds like a lot of school systems we know. Are educational
systems appropriate for SD modeling? What about the notion of sensitive
dependence on initial conditions? Does that play a role in SD modeling?
If so is there a sensitive dependence on initial conditions in educational
systems? What might it it be?
Yes, it is certainly true that educational systems are
complex, dynamic systems, and, as a consequence, they are definitely appropriate
for modeling using system dynamics. Little has been done along these lines,
however. Yaman Barlas at Bogadizi University in Istanbul has created a
planning and resource allocation model for a university system and studied
its use, but that particular model is not aimed at particularities of an
educational system and potential effects of policy decisions on learning
outcomes. An essential part of the validation process for SD models is
to test sensitivity to both extreme and initial conditions, but I do not
know enough to comment on sensisitivity to initial conditions in educational
You are rather unique in that you were also awarded
a Fulbright research fellowship (1995/1996) to work at the University of
Bergen creating and testing an interactive simulation of the project dynamics
of large courseware development efforts. How did that experience lead to
your current position at the University of Bergen?
Basically, they created the position so that I would
come back. The system dynamics specialist there, Paal Davidsen, was the
Chair of Information Science at the time and quite interested in seeing
Bergen develop and improve its use of all technologies in learning and
instruction, including system dynamics.
What are your responsibilities as Program Director
for the Educational Information Science and Technology (EIST) Program at the University of Bergen?
I am now on a leave of absence at Syracuse University,
but as head of EIST I am responsible for a research program--writing grants,
advising projects, supervising doctoral students, initiating projects around
campus, and so on.
When was EIST initiated and what are the program
EIST was initiated in 1996 with the goal of improving
the use of technology in teaching and learning at the University of Bergen.
Do you think the European instructional design community
is embracing the SD approach and can you provide some examples of how it
is being used?
No one is embracing the SD approach. SD is a difficult
and complex subject and there are few expert SD modelers and fewer still
who have an understanding of its use in learning environments. Steve Alessi
has students in Iowa who have used SD to model aspects of an ecological
domain and then use that model in various learning environments. Steve
occasionally argues and/or wonders whether the modeling process itself
is as educationally effective as the process of learning through the use
of an existing model. Jay Forrester has inspired the System Dynamics Education
Project at MIT which has resulted in a number of applications and efforts
in K-12 settings. Andy Ford, a professor at Washington State University,
has used SD to teach about water resource planning in that area. Jose Gonzalez
and Michael Koch developed an SD learning environment to teach about the
spread of the AIDS epidemic.
You have been very active in professional organizations
and instrumental in organizing instructional technologists around the world
to present and share their research. For instance, you recently organized
and participated in the Conference on Instructional Design-Integrating
Technology held in Bergen, Norway (October, 1999). Can you tell us about
that recent conference and why you think it important for instructional
technologists to initiate and participate in such activities?
That conference was inspired by Prof. Sanne Dijkstra
(Twente University in the Netherlands) who held a one day workshop in March
1999 that was so well received that the group asked me to hold a follow-on
session. The topic of Dijkstra's conference was the Epistemology of Learning
Environments (or something like that). We agreed at his meeting that we
had all been talking about learning in more complex settings than had been
addressed typically, so we decided to follow-up. With the group that I
managed to gather in Bergen, there was no way that it could be less than
outstanding, which it was.
You are also a member of the Grimstad Group; can
you tell us about that group and their accomplishments?
The primary accomplishment of the Grimstad Group was
to demonstrate that one could use SD to model key aspects of Tennyson's
Fourth Generation ID model.
Have you found any distinct differences between
the approach to higher education for instructional technologists in the
US and Europe?
There is more emphasis on the participatory design (of
software) in Scandinavia and perhaps a much wider acceptance of constructivism
in academic settings in Europe in general. There are not so many instructional
technology programs in Europe--Twente has arguably one of the very best
in Europe. There are no graduate programs in instructional technology in
Scandinavia, although we have one planned at the University of Bergen.
How does the work of an instructional technologist
differ in Europe from the US?
It is very much the same as best I can tell.
Apart from The Logic of Failure, what are two or
three books or papers by others in the field that you found very provocative
What if the books I have found most provocative or informative
have not been by others in the field? For example, I found Richard Feynman's
you're joking Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a curious character quite
insightful on the subject of learning and instruction in challenging and
complex domains. With regard to complex mathematical concepts, I found
Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
to be both entertaining and useful. I also happen to believe that the classics
in our discipline (e.g., Gagne's Conditions of Learning) have much
to offer that is still relevant but all too often overlooked and unfairly
Are there areas of research in Instructional Technology
that you consider especially important for up and coming researchers to
address in the next decade?
Again, Dorner's Logic of Failure should be required
reading for all.
What advice do you have for instructional technology
researchers who are just beginning in the field?
The best advice I can offer instructional technology
researchers is no more than I could offer most anyone: Be honest and humble
in all that you do. Remember that it would be a remarkable coincidence
if the limits of your imagination happened to coincide with the limits
of reality. Research is about investigation. To investigate implies an
openness to alternative possibilities and a willingness to dramatically
alter ones preconceived notions based on findings. There are very few researchers
in our field. We need more. When one embarks on an investigation, one should
have a question. Having a question is not the same as asking a question.
Having a question implies that one is in a state of agitation, dissatisfied
with ones own understanding or lack thereof, that one is seeking for explanations,
that one is not able to account to ones own satisfaction the how and why
of a situation. To have a question is essentially to be in a state of discomfort.
Most of us naturally want to live and lead comfortable lives. Even those
few who become researchers can only manage to be researchers for a small
fraction of the time. This goes against the grain of some writing that
implies or assumes that we are all naturally scientific and somehow get
spoiled by school or society. I do not believe that. I believe we are naturally
non-scientific and can be helped in becoming more scientific by school
and society given appropriate support systems and models.
I might add that it is often helpful to have practiced
an enterprise that one is investigating. That means that educational researchers
might try being educators first. My idea of being an educator, being a
teacher, is that it requires a voice that both challenges and comforts,
that it requires an eye that both penetrates and reflects, that it requires
a hand that both guides and holds. Few do it well. At least that is my
own experience. The very best educational researchers are often very poor
teachers. We exist in a system that typically requires us to do both, and
that system ironically is inclined to reward those who appear to do a better
job at the research (e.g., as judged by publications) rather than those
who appear to do a better job at teaching (e.g., as judged by student achievements).
I guess the best advice is to do what you do best (Plato)
and to know that your life will show what you think of yourself (Bouwsma).
The most common mistake I have encountered is the belief that one could
"remake the world at large." We are small and limited creatures. We should
be more modest in our claims and more honest about our achievements.
What are your plans for the future?
In the next few minutes I plan to develop a model for
designing learning environments to support understanding complex, dynamic
systems. Seriously, I am not sure how to respond. My first academic love
is philosophy, not instructional science. I think of myself as better at
writing than either teaching or research. I very much like teaching but
I find that I am all too often asked to do other things that leaves me
inadequate time to prepare properly. I find folks in our discipline terribly
torn apart by polemics and prone to exaggeration. I find situations in
universities fraught with unpleasant and ugly battles over resources. In
short, there is a certain inertia that leads us to keep on keeping on,
in the words of Bob Dylan. I think important research questions remain
open and many contributions can be made. Assuming I remain in the discipline,
I do not even know which country I will land in (USA or Norway) or what
kind of department I will stay with (Educational Technology or Information
Science). If someone offered me a job to write short sayings for greetings
cards, I would probably accept. Maybe that would make as much of a contribution
as developing a new approach to using the web to support learning about
environmental problems. I really do not know.