Michael Spector, Ph.D.
Professor of Instructional Design, Development & Evaluation
Syracuse University
Email: spector@syr.edu
Previously, Senior Scientist for Instructional Systems Research
United States Air Force Armstrong Laboratory in San Antonio, TX

 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 interests. 

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 environments?
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 professor). 

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 systems. 

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 goals?
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 or informative?
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 Surely 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 criticized.

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.