Friday, November 12, 2010

Incantation on Constructivism

The world is wide and mysterious to the willing eye …

To a trained ear, sometimes loud and often off-key …

A wonderland of sensations for the child at play …

A lifetime of experience each and every day …

Where is the meaning in what we see and hear?

How to make sense of experiences that come our way?

What can be gathered from coincidence that will last?

Ludwig said that we picture facts to ourselves …

We create internal representations to make sense …

Ludwig noted that we talk about these pictures with others … we externalize …

Is it not amazing that we create internal representations to make sense of experience?

Is it not amazing that we engage in language games to make sense of those representations?

Well, that is what we do, it seems … there is no stopping it …

We are meaning makers … even when we are making mean …

An anti-meanness message embedded in an incantation on meaning …

The message here is simple … plain and unflavored …

We are constructors of meaning regardless of what is happening here and there …

We construct meaning regardless … that’s our nature … it’s what we do …

Construct this … a new movie … starring ... none other than … YOU!

J. Michael Spector (12 Nov 2010)

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Times They Are Changing

AECT 2010 has come and gone. Now I am the Immediate Past-President with new and different responsibilities, including finding folks to run for President-elect next year and serving as the AECT Board liaison to the ECT Foundation. The conference was a tremendous success, thanks to Barbara Lockee, Miriam Larson, Lois Freeland and Dalinda Bond. The organization is healthy with new collaborators and affiliates all around the world; there were 30 Indonesians at AECT 2010 and they added insight and diversity to a meeting already quite rich in terms of quality and multiple perspectives. AECT is now in the very capable hands of Barbara Lockee.

The American educational system, however, does not have such a bright outlook, especially with the November 2nd election looming large in the USA. I wish I could somehow magically transfer what I have learned working with Indonesians the last five years to the voters who decide how well to support their school districts and schools. I have seen how highly Indonesians value education, from remotely located multi-grade rural schools to the Ministry of Education. It is not just talk about how an education should be valued - the Indonesians are putting substance and meaning to such words. It seems like we used to do that in America, and I am sure it happens here and there ... but considered as a large-scale system, my sense is that American public education is faltering.

With my new found free time I wish I could think of something to do that would yield substantial and sustained improvement, but I just do not know what would really help. Please help me learn how to help improve our schools - I am a slow learner, but I am willing to learn.

Mike Spector

Friday, June 18, 2010

Is Educational Technology a Discipline?

The question about whether or not educational technology is a discipline is not new. One can imagine at least three contexts for such a question. First, it might be motivated in response to those who question or fail to appreciate what educational technologists do. Second, it might be motivated by efforts to consolidate programs/units and cut costs. Third, it might be motivated by educational technology professionals (instructional designers, technology and media specialists, performance technologists, training developers, university professors, etc.) who are seeking to identify the central theories and principles that drive educational technology research and practice. My main interest here is with the third context, but I feel compelled to comment on the first two as well.

An academic discipline can be defined in an operational way as simply any field of study or branch of knowledge that is typically taught and researched at the college or university level. Using that simple and straightforward definition, one would conclude that educational technology is a discipline, at least in North America, as there are relevant courses and programs at many colleges and universities in educational technology, instructional design, instructional systems, instructional technology, learning design and technology, and so on. These program prepare professionals for careers in many contexts, including business and industry, higher education, secondary and elementary education, and governmental and non-governmental agencies. Positions in these contexts include school library media specialists, technology coordinators, instructional designers, program evaluators, training developers, training managers, performance technologists, curriculum planners, among others. In addition to there being university programs and recognized jobs in a wide variety of contexts, there are professional associations that support the work these professionals, including the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI), the International Society for Technology in Education, the Instructional Technology Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association, and many more. Moreover, there are many journals and professional publications that support the research and practice of educational technology professionals.

Given the abundant evidence, one might wonder who would ask such a question. Such a question could be a form of challenge or even a form of disparagement by someone who simply does not understand or appreciate the challenges and specific knowledge and skills required to effectively plan, design, implement, evaluate, and manage instructional programs, learning environments and performance support systems. One response to such a person that I have found effective is to ask that person about an educational goal he or she might have set for students. I then explore how that person elaborates the goal in terms of specific objectives, learning activities and assessments. This usually turns the conversation into something productive and much less challenging and confrontational. However, there is no cure for arrogance, and I have also had to simply walk away from such discussions.

In response to those who pose the question because of cost-cutting considerations and program consolidation, I can only say that it makes sense to keep the conversation focused. It is one thing to cut costs and consolidate programs. It is quite another to go to argue that the newly merged mega-department reflects the real discipline and the merged programs did not really reflect separate disciplines. One can concede the need to cut costs without giving up the identity of a program or discipline – and that is the best one can do once the economic planners take over. In short, the justification for consolidating programs need not include any claims about the legitimacy of a discipline. I urge those who might be involved in such efforts to make this distinction very clear to the cost cutters and program choppers.

Finally we start to get to the heart and soul of the question. What are the theories and principles that drive our research and practice? We are asking the question – not someone else who wants to eliminate or disparage our program. We want to know what our core knowledge base is and what the primary kinds of problems and issues are that define us as a discipline. This is a legitimate form of the question, I think. I am reminded of similar questions that arose in the early years of applied computing in what is now the well-established software engineering community. Much soul searching went on in response to computer scientists were brow beating a group they viewed as having inferior knowledge and skills (the first type of question indicated earlier). That led those in the community to accept the question and go on to define themselves in terms of knowledge and skills that were different from those of traditional computer scientists. Our situation is somewhat akin to that, but there are additional factors to consider. We work in the education sector. Unfortunately there are many people who imagine themselves as educational specialists simply because they managed to survive or even thrive in a particular educational system. There are some who think our principles are obvious, common sense ideas or perhaps vague, feel-good notions. Others fail to understand and appreciate the differences between basic research contexts and applied, real-world settings that have constraints and unanticipated and dynamic factors requiring attention.

So, what are the foundation and guiding theories and principles of educational technology? There are very good books that one might consult to begin answering this question. Among the more notable are: (a) a classic text is Instructional Technology Foundations edited by Robert Gagné; (b) a more recent classic is Principles of Instructional Design by Bob Gagné, Walt Wager, Katharine Golas, and John Keller; (c) The Conditions of Learning (4th ed.) by Gagné should be considered a foundation piece; and (d) the International Encyclopaedia of Educational Technology edited by Tjeerd Plomp and Don Ely is another good source. One could also visit the Websites of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology ( and the International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction ( and find pointers to other relevant sources and considerations.

In these short remarks, I want to add my initial take on our foundation. I think our foundations come primarily from the learning of psychology, broadly conceived to include communications theory and the role of mental models and language. There are many principles on which we build that can be located at this level, including, for example, the familiar limitations of short term memory that has strong implications for the design of units of instruction and computer interfaces. I am referring, of course, to George Miller’s (1956) claim that people typically can only hold about seven (plus or minus two) information chunks in short-term memory at any given point in time (in the case of administrators, it is minus two … in the case of digital happy teens, it plus two … in the case of aging authors of blogs such as this, the actual number approaches one). Figure 1 reflects one way to imagine the underlying foundations of our discipline. There are others ways to depict educational technology, such as layers (an onion metaphor) or pillars (a bridge metaphor), and so on. If one were to examine a number of these representations, I am convinced that there would be a great deal of similarity and overlap, which is further evidence that educational technology is an important discipline.

I close with my memory of what Bob Gagné once told me: “Our goal is to help people learn better.” When one begins to reflect on that goal, one will surely be left thinking that we have a huge responsibility. It is probably more productive to focus on that goal rather than spend time worrying about whether or not educational technology is a discipline.


Gagné, R. M. (1985). The conditions of learning and theory of instruction (4th ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Gagné, R. M. (Ed.) (1987). Instructional technology foundations. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Gagné, R. M., Wager, W. W., Golas, K., & Keller, J. M. (2005). Principles of Instructional design (5th ed.). New York: Wadsworth.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits in our capacity for processing information. Psychology Review, 63(2), 81-97.

Plomp, T., & Ely, D. P. (1998). The international encyclopaedia of educational technology (2nd ed.). Dordrecht: Springer.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Unstated and Implicit Learning Goals

A long-established principle within instructional systems design is to be complete and clear in analyzing learning needs and transforming those needs into learning goals and objectives (Dick, Carey, & Carey, 2009). It can and does happen, however, that a careful needs assessment can fail to uncover unstated goals. I recall an effort involving the development of a computer-based lesson for Air Force electronics training. Such training for newly recruited enlisted personnel took place at a Technical Training Center where senior enlisted personnel (non-commissioned officers; NCOs) led face-to-face lessons. The needs assessment was motivated by the lack of available of senior NCOs. The requirement then became to replace some of the instructor-led lessons with computer-based lessons. For the targeted subject matter, this was relatively easy as the things to be learned were primarily concepts pertaining to electronics along with some simple procedures to perform diagnostic tests. When a first prototype of a representative lesson had been constructed, the training commander rejected it because it did not include any of the behaviors and demeanor of senior NCOs. The designer’s natural question was “What does that have to do with electronics?” The commander replied that one goal of basic electronics training was to show recently recruited personnel how enlisted personnel were expected to behave. Fortunately, the change to include modeling NCO behavior was easily incorporated into the computer-based lessons using video clips.

What is happening in public schools in this era of high stakes testing and accountability? The needs assessments and content analyses have supposedly been conducted and specific learning objectives developed. Test items are allegedly linked to those learning objectives. Schools and teachers are evaluated based on how well the children do on standardized tests. I am wondering how this emphasis on high stakes testing is transforming our educational system. Objectives should also be linked to overall goals and not simply linked to the analysis of content. What are the goals that we expect of an educational system? Would we not like children who spend twelve or more years in school to develop certain behaviors that might be associated with responsible citizenship? Might there be a parallel in public school settings with the situation in technical training? Might we want children to see responsible adult behavior and have them begin to act accordingly just as the training commander wanted new recruits to see exemplary military behavior and to begin to act accordingly? What is not being tested and, as a consequence, not being rewarded in this era of high stakes testing? Do we test how well a child gets along with others? Do we test how collaborative a child is? Do we test a child’s ability to think critically and act ethically? Would we like such things to be part of a child’s education? If so, why are they not tested or emphasized in the same way that reading skills are tested? The notion of a progressive education that emphasized critical thinking, inquiry, and social responsibility (Dewey, 1938) seems to be altogether missing in the current environment of high stakes testing.

My small thought on this subject is just this: be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. The No Child Left Behind Act ( and the associated incentives seem designed to bring about an educational system in which children do learn to read and solve standard mathematical problems. Is such a system designed to foster life-long reading and encourage careers in complex and challenging areas such as quantum mechanics or astrophysics? That remains to be seen but the early evidence suggests that high school graduates in the USA are still not seeking higher education and careers in critical areas of science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Moreover, the high-school drop-out rate is alarmingly high (AEA, 2009) as is the juvenile crime rate ( Is this not troubling?

I am not suggesting that we ought to reward teachers whose students complete bachelors degrees in STEM subjects and do not commit crimes. This may not be such a bad idea, but it is certainly not simple to implement and it would surely introduce other disparities into an already complex educational system. What I am suggesting is that military commanders did trust their NCOs to model exemplary behavior and instill high standards of demeanor in recruits. Perhaps we should trust out teachers to model socially responsible behavior and instill high standards of demeanor in their students. Perhaps we could also trust our teachers to instill a sense of inquiry and other desirable habits of the mind. Maybe we ought to trust our teachers rather than treat them like servers in a cafeteria.


AEA (Alliance for Excellent Education) (2009). High school dropouts in America. Washington, DC: Allilance for Excellent Education. Retrieved from April 20, 2010

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan.

Dick, W., Carey, L., & Carey, J. O, (2009). The systematic design of instruction (7th ed.). Columbus, OH: Allyn & Bacon.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Scientific Terminology

Feedback on the third edition of the Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology (Spector, Merrill, van Merriënboer & Driscoll, 2008) suggests that there is a need to clarify basic scientific terminology, such as ‘theory’, ‘model’, ‘principle’ and ‘hypothesis’. A discussion at the 2009 AECT Session on “Building the Scientific Mind” led by Jan Visser suggests that additional terms also require clarification – namely, ‘perspective’, ‘approach’, ‘framework’, and ‘implication’. The editors of the 4th edition of the Handbook (Mike Spector, Dave Merrill, M. J. Bishop, and Jan Elen) are discussing having a chapter devoted to the use of these scientific terms in the context of instructional design and educational technology research. Meanwhile, I thought I might venture into this terrain myself to see where I might trip or falter.

These terms are the source of confusion and misunderstanding outside the domain of educational research as well. For example, the word ‘theory’ has an everyday, non-scientific use that is roughly equivalent to ‘supposition’. A person discussing why gasoline prices are high with another might say something like this: “My theory is that the oil companies are being greedy and manipulating prices to maximize profits.” That person could have used ‘supposition’ or ‘guess’ or ‘hunch’ or perhaps ‘belief’. In this case, the word ‘theory’ is used to refer to a particular claim. In science, ‘theory’ typically refers to a body of knowledge represented by a set of related claims. Moreover, a scientific theory typically has implications for what might happen in the future in addition to providing a basis for explanations of observed phenomena.

In short, the word ‘theory’ has a very different meaning when used in the context of scientific inquiry. In science, a theory is generally regarded as a set of well-established statements and principles that are used to explain groups of facts or a range of observed phenomena. The confusion about these two meanings of ‘theory’ is most evident in debates about the theory of evolution. Certain religious groups who advocate creationism use the word ‘theory’ in the informal, non-scientific sense when referring to the theory of evolution. Biologists and other scientists use the word ‘theory’ in the phrase ‘theory of evolution’ in the second sense. In effect, the two groups are talking about different things. It is worth adding that scientists are interested in explaining many observed facts, such as genetic changes in populations of organisms over successive generations and long periods of time. Moreover, two major processes comprise the modern theory of evolution – natural selection and genetic drift or mutation. Evolutionary biologists can explain a large number of observed facts and make predictions with regard to as yet unobserved phenomena. Creationists, on the other hand, are not trying to explain any particular set of facts. Rather, they are advocating a particular religious doctrine (or a specific claim) with regard to the origin of all things.

A further difference is that scientific claims, including scientific theories, are generally subject to refutation; that is to say that the scientist making a claim or defending a theory is, in principle, willing to be shown that the claim is wrong or the theory wrong-headed. The willingness and readiness to be wrong is what makes scientific progress possible (Popper, 1963, 1972). Kuhn (1962) and others argue that scientific theories are quite resistant to change and scientists are not nearly as willing as Popper suggests to embrace refutation of a long-held or well-established theory. In spite of such variations within the scientific community, I shall proceed with the scientific notion of ‘theory’ while acknowledging variations in interpretation.

In these notes, I am interested in the scientific use of ‘theory’ as it pertains to instructional design and educational technology research. Reigeluth (1983) notes that instructional design theory is primarily prescriptive in nature, rather than being descriptive in the way that learning theory is. For example, a cognitive theory of learning might involve a set of related claims about the role of mental models and schema in the development of expertise and understanding. Descriptive claim within a mental model theory of learning might be that (a) people construct internal representations to make sense of new or unexplained phenomena, and (b) these internal representations are created just when needed and are relatively transitory. Both claims are descriptive and could in principle shown to be wrong. An instructional design theory that builds on mental model theory might include, for example, these claims: (a) learners who do not have pre-existing experience with or knowledge in a particular area will progress more rapidly if provided an elaborated version of an expert’s mental model, and (b) learners with significant prior knowledge and experience will be inhibited or slowed down when presented an expert model in the course of designing a solution to a complex problem situation. These claims are prescriptive in the sense that they suggest how best to support learning, and, like descriptive claims, they could turn out to be wrong.

I want to work from the inside out – that is to say I want to consider a claim in educational technology research and then work backwards toward principles, models and theories that might be relevant.

A Claim: Attrition in first-year college calculus courses for non-mathematics majors is high because students do not see any relevance of calculus in their daily lives on in their careers. Note that I am not suggesting that this claim is true; in fact, it assumes facts not yet accepted – namely, that attrition in such courses is higher than in other courses. The instructional design claim that follows this claim would be something like this: First-year college calculus courses for non-mathematics majors will have a reduced attrition rate if issues of relevance are addressed early and throughout the course.

A Principle: What body of relevant instructional design knowledge might be relevant? What existing instructional design principles could be invoked to support the claim that devoting explicit time to issues of relevance will improve attrition? One might cite the first of Gagné’s (1985) nine events of instruction – namely, gain and maintain the attention of the learner in order to make learning effective. Citing relevance of what is to be learned might be one way to do this. Another principle that might be cited could be one of Merrill’s (2002) first principles of instruction – namely, help the learner integrate what has been learned into daily activities. Both principles suggest what can be done to help make learning activities more effective. As with other principles, either or both may turn out not to make a significant difference in terms of learning outcomes in particular contexts.

A Model: A model goes beyond principles and might be conceived of a bridge between a theory and a set of principles. A model can guide the articulation and instantiation of principles within the context of a particular theory. Both of the principles cited previously have associated models. Gagné (1985) presented nine events and subsequently articulated a model for implementing those events (Gagné, 1993). In that model, Gagné argued that the nine events did not need to occur in any particular order and they could often be grouped into three phases of instruction and treated together (set-up phase, primary presentation phase, resolution phase). Likewise, Merrill’s principle is one of five that include centering instruction around problems, activating prior knowledge (of individual or groups of learners), demonstrating new knowledge, applying the new knowledge to practical problems (whole tasks) with opportunities to practice with feedback, and helping learners integrate new knowledge in their daily lives or professional activities. In both cases, the individual principles are parts of a prescriptive model intended to guide the creation of effective learning. These sets of principles, with their interconnections and relationships one to another, comprise a model. At least that represents one kind of instructional model.

A Theory: The difference models and theories may be difficult to establish in the domain of instructional design and educational technology. For example, cognitive apprenticeship (Collins, 1991) is sometimes called an instructional design theory, sometimes an instructional design model, and sometimes an instructional design method. I am inclined to think of cognitive apprenticeship as another model comprised of a set of principles – that is to say that I view cognitive apprenticeship as more akin to Gagné’s nine events and Merrill’s first principles. A theory that might be associated with these three models (Gagné’s nine events, Merrill’s first principles, and Collins’ cognitive apprenticeship) might be situated theory (Lave & Wenger, 1990). Situated learning postulates, in one sense, that learning that is situated within a meaningful problem solving context, will be more effective than learning that is disassociated from meaningful problem solving contexts. This is a prescriptive theory. It is closely associated with and linked to a descriptive theory about learning – namely, the notion that people create internal representations in order to make sense of puzzling situations and new experiences. In other words, meaning is created or constructed in the context of specific situations. Meaning is context sensitive, in that sense. My general point is that a prescriptive instructional design theory could and probably should be motivated by a closely associated and established descriptive theory of learning.

Concluding Remarks
While these remarks may seem focused on individual words, my concern is not with particular words but, rather, with the thinking associated with scientific inquiry in instructional design and educational technology. My elaboration of these terms is probably naïve and perhaps wrongheaded on key points. I hope others will provide insights and improved representations. I do believe that we need to be careful in our use of scientific terminology. An instructional design theory should represent a set of well-established principles which can be used to generate prescriptions for designing effective learning support in a variety of circumstances. There may well exist many instructional design models (Andrews and Goodson, 1980), but one would expect there to be only a small number of instructional design theories. We need to take the scientific aspects of our instructional design and educational technologies activities seriously. I believe this because I believe that progress in instructional design and educational technology will depend on adopting principled, evidence-based approaches rather than relying on loosely held beliefs and advocating positions that are in vogue.

Andrews, D. H., & Goodson, L. A. (1980). A comparative analysis of models of instructional design. Journal of Instructional Development, 3(4), 2-16.

Collins, A. (1991). Cognitive apprenticeship and instructional technology. In L. Idol & B.F. Jones (Eds.), Educational values and cognitive instruction: Implication for reform (pp. 121-138). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gagné, R. M. (1985). The conditions of learning (4th ed.) New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Gagné, R. M. (1993). Computer-based instructional guidance. In J. M. Spector, M. C. Polson, & D. J. Muraida (Eds.), Automated instructional design: Concepts and issues (pp. 133-146). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1990). Situated learning: Legitimate periperal participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research & Development, 50(3), 43-59.

Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Popper, K. (1963). Conjectures and refutations: The growth of scientific knowledge. London: Routledge.

Popper, K. (1972). Objective knowledge: An evolutionary approach. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Reigeluth, C. M. (Ed.) (1983). Instructional-design theories and models: An overview of their current status. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Spector, J. M., Merrill, M. D., van Merriënboer, J. J. G., & Driscoll, M. (Eds.) (2008). Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Scholarship in the Digital Era

An issue that arises in many tenure and promotion review meetings concerns what should count as credible and substantial contributions in the area of scholarship. Many universities base promotion, tenure and merit pay on three areas: scholarship, teaching and service. Emphasis varies from institution to institution; teaching colleges and universities typically stress quality of teaching over the other two areas; research institutions typically stress scholarship over the other two areas. In all cases, criteria and associated measures are quite important. These remarks focus primarily on the area of scholarship, although there are many important issues to consider in the other two areas.

What is research and what should count as scholarship? Answers vary from program to program and from discipline to discipline. In the performing and fine arts, performances and exhibitions at prominent venues count significantly, as one would expect. In applied programs (e.g., computer and information science, media studies, etc.), the development, evaluation and deployment of innovative programs count significantly. Traditionally, publications in refereed journals and invited presentations at national and international conferences are considered a mark of distinction. In computer and information science programs, ACM and IEEE proceedings are typically considered top-tier publication venues, whereas in educational technology and instructional design research programs, journals such as ETR&D are considered a preferred publication venue.

Issues that frequently arise concern the order of authorship, co-authoring with students, variety of publication venues, whether or not the journal is indexed and refereed, the impact factor of the journal, and so on. In some instances, publishing in online journals arises as a concern. In our discipline, there are reputable indexed, peer-reviewed journals (e.g., Education, Technology and Society).

In addition to online journals, non-traditional publication venues are now available. Examples include blogs, wikis and podcasts. My experience serving on tenure and promotions committees suggests a strong bias for traditional, peer-reviewed publications. Faculty who submit blogs, wikis and podcasts as publications are sometimes viewed as trying to pad their resumes with publications that do not reflect traditional research contributions. Those who write and read blogs and wikis and create and listen to podcasts argue that one often finds legitimate scholarship in those venues that is just as credible as many journal articles. If one accepts that this is sometimes true and likely to increase with time, what is a reasonable approach to recognize new forms of scholarship?
As with traditional forms of scholarship, there ought to be reasonably well-defined criteria and guidance for faculty. I believe that many institutions lack well-defined criteria and guidance for the traditional forms of research and scholarship. New forms of scholarship only make the task of recognizing scholarly contributions more challenging.

What is research? My sense is that research involves a systematic process of investigating a problem and answering questions where existing knowledge falls short or does not exist. Those who conduct research, then, recognize a gap in knowledge – their own knowledge and that of others – and are open to alternative approaches and answers to unresolved questions. This view draws a distinction between advocacy and research, although the boundaries are admittedly fuzzy and advocacy at its best relies on research and evidence. In addition, openness to alternative approaches recognizes the value of peer review. Double blind peer review in journals such as ETR&D is considered a critical part of assessing research significance. When reviewers critique a journal article without knowing the author or the other reviewers, and when authors revise and respond, again not knowing the reviewers, the presumption is that awareness of prior work and alternative approaches and explanations has occurred.

While a blog may allow for comments, anonymity is lost, which means that comments might be biased; in any case, the comments left by readers of blogs are certainly selective. While a journal editor selects the reviewers for a submission, the reviewers are generally obligated to offer a fair and detailed critique. A blog is more akin to comments presented to a class or at a meeting and quite different from a research paper critiqued by peers for a journal. My sense is that blogs should not be considered in the same category as refereed journal publications. This does not imply that blogs should not be counted at all. Rather, for programs that stress new forms of information and communications technologies, blogs, wikis, and podcasts may well count as a form of scholarship. However, blogs are more akin to presentations than to journal articles. Various programs should then decide how much significance to place on presentations and publications and other forms of scholarship (e.g., the creation of innovative instructional programs, learning environments, etc.). If one wants to create a legitimate place for blogs, wikis, and podcasts in the context of scholarly contributions, I believe it does not make sense to argue that they should count just like refereed journal publications, as that tactic is likely to meet serious resistance and create unnecessary disputes.

It does seem reasonable to argue that new technologies are changing the nature of research and scholarship. New ways of conducting research are available. Powerful tools for planning, implementing, disseminating and evaluating research are available. Online journals are becoming increasingly prevalent, and many good papers have been published in online journals. What we should not lose, however, in our rush to integrate technology into research and scholarship is the value of peer review. I suppose this puts me on one side of the debate of what to count as a significant research contribution in this area of networked technologies and social computing. Actually, there are probably many sides to this debate. Regardless of how this debate evolves, I hope that we do not lose sight of the distinction between advocacy and research, that we continue to value peer review and recognize that research essentially involves a willingness to be shown that one is wrong (see Popper’s Conjectures and Refutation), and that we find reasonable ways to encourage faculty and graduate students to engage in a variety of scholarly activities so as to ensure that knowledge is cumulative and relevant. I worry that fascination with new technologies may result in losing sight of the many relevant contributions from prior generations of technology. I worry that fascination with new technologies may result in devaluing the notion of the accumulation of knowledge – this amounts to a devaluation of science and engineering, in my less than humble opinion. I also worry that over-emphasis on traditional forms of scholarship will disincline many bright young scholars from pursuing careers at some of our best research institutions. I worry too much (I have that on the good authority of my better half).

Sunday, February 7, 2010

School Improvement and the National Will

We have heard for years about the sad state of America’s schools, including disappointment about the poor performance of students on standardized tests and reports of poor teaching and teacher preparation. You’ve heard the stories – Johnny can’t read, Janey can’t add, Joey thinks New Mexico is a country, Johelen thinks cosmology is about make-up, Jimmy thinks that Barak Hussein Obama is a terrorist, and their teachers read at an 8th grade level

Not long ago (October 22, 2009) the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, said that colleges of education need to make dramatic changes to prepare children to compete in the global economy ( He argued that teacher-preparation programs should ensure that new teachers master the content of the subjects they will teach; in addition, teacher education programs should have well-supported field-based experiences. Duncan went on to say that the ultimate goal of teacher preparation programs should be to create a generation of teachers who are focused on improving student achievement and ready to deliver on that goal (as if that is not the current goal). Such comments are just as insensitive as Duncan’s offhand remark that Hurricane Katrina was the best thing to happen to the New Orleans’ education system. Duncan later apologized for the Hurricane Katrina comment, but he does not appear to see that his recent comments about pre-service teacher preparation programs and in-service teachers ignore a great deal of evidence and are offensive to the many dedicated teachers working in schools and university professors devoting so many hours and so much effort to prepare new teachers for careers in schools.

There are problems with American schools, no doubt. The American education system is complex. Surely it can be improved. Surely it will not be improved by insulting those already working hard on school improvement. Many states and college programs already embed field experiences throughout the curriculum and require teachers to be competent in a subject domain. Of course more can be done, but doing the right thing and doing it right will require more than offhand remarks made in a short speech. Remaking the world of American education at large – everywhere and instantly – is not possible nor would it be wise were it possible. Basing change on the biases and beliefs of a few persons who happen to be in positions of influence is likely to generate new problems. It would be a good idea to be clear about the fundamental problem and likely causes prior to fixating on a solution.

So, what is the fundamental problem? Is it that students are not performing well on standardized tests? Is it that teachers do not stay with the profession very long? Is it that some university programs admit and pass almost anyone regardless of skills and knowledge? I believe those things belong in the category of symptoms – and any and all of those symptoms should be carefully examined based on the evidence. Those symptoms (assuming that there is adequate supporting data supports) are like the aches and pains one feels when suffering from an unidentified ailment. I worry that what appears to be happening with the health care reform effort will happen to the various school reform efforts. With regard to health care reform, we seem to have lost track of the problem, and the debate and discussion are now focused on various aspects of symptoms and solutions. The problem with American health care is not that insurance companies charge too much nor is it about whether or not health care should be provided by an employer or the government. The problem is that Americans are getting sick and dying – at alarming rates compared with other developed nations. It may be convenient to consider one’s own health and medical insurance and feel satisfied that all is okay. However, that is not a systemic view appropriate for policy formulation and large-scale planning and decision making.

From a systems perspective, all is not well with American health care, nor is all well with American schooling. As should be the case with health care, the first step is to be clear about the problem. Too many people are getting sick and dying. That can be established empirically and investigated rigorously – although that does not appear to be happening. Nevertheless, we ought to take a similar attitude with regard to improving American schools. The first step is to state the problem(s) clearly. It simply is a mistake to fixate on standardized test scores. At best that is a symptom.

What then is the problem? Is it that America is losing its competitive edge in the global marketplace? That was also suggested in Duncan’s remarks, and it appears in many of the education grants sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Institute of Education Sciences. I wonder if this is an adequate description of the problem. Perhaps it is just another symptom. Regardless, we need to insist that our leaders provide a clear and defensible statement of the problem prior to going forth with solutions, especially those linked to test scores. If one accepts the loss of competitive edge, one could then look at what other countries have done when confronted with a similar situation. The examples might include Ireland, Finland, South Korea, and Japan. In those cases, there was a change in national policy placing a great deal more emphasis on education at all levels. The will of the people was well aligned with increased emphasis and spending on public education, even though people realized it would cost a great deal and would take many years to realize any noticeable gains. Gains were realized, though. In none of those cases was the focus on test scores, although test scores did improve dramatically. The focus of decision making and policy formulation was on providing proper support for education at every level. That required more funds – increased taxes – and a great deal of patience.

I mention these cases because there seems to be no real interest in increasing support for education in this country. We seem all too complacent with high rates of illiteracy, high drop-out rates from our high schools, and high rates of attrition among our teachers. We do not seem to be willing to provide more support. We seem to believe that by simply changing standards that the problem will be fixed. This seems all too unlikely. Too many American children are getting sick of school and dropping out of the competitive marketplace. Too many teaches are leaving the profession. Things are getting worse, and focusing on test scores does not seem at all related to getting at the underlying problem – the lack of national will to take pride in and properly support education in American.

I would recommend that our leaders talk with AECT’s Future Minds group to gain an appreciation for a systems perspective on school reform and improvement. I would like our leaders to look next at what the National Technology Leadership Coalition (NTLC) has to say about effective integration of technology in supporting education. Most of all, I would like our national leaders to show some leadership and tell us how long it will take and how much effort will be required to keep our children from getting sick of school and dying intellectually. It is also about time that we lifted the ban on talking about tax increases and talked about what we want for all Americans and what we are willing to pay to make that happen.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Imagine That

Imagination is an interesting albeit elusive ability. What might the directive ‘use your imagination’ mean? When thinking about a reply to that question, you are using your imagination. Imagination is often considered to be a creative ability that some people have and some lack, at least on some occasions. However, the basic ability involves thinking – forming a mental image of something, especially something not immediately or directly perceivable. Surely that is the meaning that John Lennon had in mind in his song entitled “Imagine” in which he says, for example, “imagine all the people living life in peace.” Forming mental images is the essence of imagination. Ludwig Wittgenstein notes in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that we picture facts to ourselves (#2.1). We have the remarkable ability to create internal representations of external realities. He failed to note that we also picture things that are not facts to ourselves. In any case, this ability to create internal representations to make sense of our experience is the essence of a naturalistic or constructivist epistemology. This imagining ability is how we build up our understanding of things. As such, it is, or should be, a critical concern of educators and instructional designers.

In the Philosophical Investigations, published two years after his death in 1951, Wittgenstein notes a second important human ability – namely the facility to engage in language games. Language games involve a language, which has recognized rules and conventions, and its use in various human activities. While Wittgenstein’s early work lays the foundation for a constructivist epistemology, his later work lays the foundation for communities of practice and the attention given by educational researchers to legitimate peripheral participation (see Lave & Wenger, 1991 – Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation). Many have argued that Wittgenstein’s early work is completely at odds with his later work, but this progression from a constructivist epistemology to a socially situated constructivist perspective seems quite natural to instructional designers and educational researchers.

We have two remarkable abilities: the ability to create internal representations, and the ability to talk about these internal representations with others who have similar abilities. All of us have these abilities. Imagine that.

I mention these abilities and imagination on account of digital engineering technologies with significant educational potential demonstrated at the annual summit of the National Technology Leadership Coalition (NTLC – see held in January at the Punahou School in Honolulu. One of these technologies involves simple and affordable 3D modeling software (i.e., fablab Model Maker - linked to a very affordable and compact 2D printer ( that can cut, perforate, or print lines on paper using the Silhouette Fabricator. The software and printer were designed to be used in schools (or at home) by children (or adults who are just big kids with wrinkles) to support and facilitate the ability to imagine a three dimensional object, lay out specifications for its paper-based creation, and then print/perforate/cut the paper to be used to create the model. An open-source program that provides somewhat similar capabilities is Papercut – see Imagine that. We can ask children to imagine how they could create a three dimensional object from a two dimensional piece of paper, and then give them the tools to test their imaginations. Imagine what a learning experience that would be.

A second technology showcased at NTLC 2010 involved digital fabrication and 3D printing – Fab@Home (see developed at Cornell University and demonstrated by Hod Lipson. The 3D printer also could be controlled by modeling or CAD/CAM software. This printer is available for the remarkably low price of $1,600. Here is how it works – you will of course have to use your imagination. First the layout/specifications for the three dimensional object are entered into a modeling or CAD/CAM program. This layout controls the printer which is a customized version of an inkjet printer that uses tubes instead of ink cartridges. The tubes can hold any stuff that will solidify after exposure to room temperature air – this includes liquid metals and plastics, latex, and even CheezWhiz. Gee whiz. Really? Really! The printing occurs a layer at a time with each layer being about one millimeter thick. On each pass, the printer squeezes the molding material out of the tubes according to the specifications in the modeling program. Gradually, layer by layer, the 3D object is created. We saw bicycle chains, chess pieces with embedded objects, a metal impeller, and other complex objects that had been printed using this technology. Imagine that. For about $2,000 you and your students can be in the business of creating all sorts of objects. Cornell is pursuing this line of research in part due to its tremendous educational potential. Since modern engineers use similar tools to prototype and test various objects, it makes sense to train engineers using the tools, technologies, and techniques they will encounter after graduation. How obvious is that? The challenge was to create affordable technologies for use in university engineering programs, and it appears that Cornell has succeeded. Imagine that college students in Ithaca, New York can create plans for objects that could be viewed, refined, and printed/created by college students in Beijing, China. I am planning to purchase one of these machines and print myself a new brain. Imagine that.

Where would we be without imagination? What happens to children when their imaginations are stifled or not supported with affordable and powerful tools? Imagine all the people, learning all about the world … using powerful and affordable tools and technologies. Imagine that.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

New Year Notes from the AECT President

I hope that everyone has had a happy and safe holiday. The new year is off to a good start. We have interest from India in affiliating with their educational technology association, and we are finalizing plans for an affiliation with the Indonesian educational technology association. The National Technology Leadership summit is going to be held next week in Hawaii. I will be there representing AECT and both Abbie Brown and I will be there representing our journals. We hope to see an NSF ITEST proposal in collaboration with SITE (Gerald Knezek) and AACE result focusing on a repository for assessment and evaluation instruments.

I thought I would pass along a few thoughts about a couple of the writing assignments with which I am now involved; I would very much appreciate your input. First there is the 4th edition of the Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology (with Dave Merrill, MJ Bishop and Jan Elen as co-editors). We will soon have a draft table of contents to share with AECT members for feedback. We are planning to have mostly new chapters and will again encourage more senior authors to team up with less senior authors. We plan to retain the broad international coverage we had in the 3rd edition and we will again have online access to AECT members through our agreement with Springer.

I am also co-editing with Susanne Lajoie a book series entitled “Explorations in the Learning Sciences, Instructional Systems and Performance Technologies,” again with Springer as the publisher. This series will consist of 12 or 13 volumes published over a three-year period. Keeping up with new technologies and how they might be integrated for the betterment of society is an ongoing challenge for all professionals. This book series is aimed at promoting dialogue among these various communities and in helping professionals maintain their knowledge and skills in a very dynamic and challenging climate of change and innovation. Susanne and I welcome your ideas for books in this series. The first book by John Sweller focusing on cognitive load theory and implications for the design of instruction is already in the production queue.

I am also editing a new textbook series to be published by Taylor-Francis/Routledge entitled “Integrative Approaches to Educational Technology: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Technology in Support of Learning, Performance, and Instruction.” The benefits of technology in terms of improving learning, performance and instruction have not been fully and widely realized for a variety of reasons. Funding for education typically lags behind funding in other sectors, such as healthcare and engineering, where the benefits are arguably more obvious and more easily measured. One fundamental reason for the lack of substantial and sustained success in realizing the potential benefits of technology in education is the lack of proper preparation of teachers, instructional designers, technology coordinators, media specialists, training developers and others who play key roles in implementing new technologies in various instructional contexts. This textbook series is aimed at those professionals and is intended to provide up-to-date, practical support for their preparation and continuing professional development. I am currently working on the first volume in the series that focuses on the foundations of educational technology. I am a bit behind in getting this book to the publisher, partly due to problems with technology (computer and email crashes in December from which I have still not fully recovered). Anyway, your thoughts about the foundations of our discipline and this series are also most welcome.

It looks to be a busy and hopefully productive 2010. All the best to all of you.