Seeking Common Ground:

Our Conflicting Viewpoints about

Learning and Technology


Stephen M. Alessi
The University of Iowa


[This is an abbreviated version of the 1996 Peter Dean Lecture presented for the Division of Learning and Performance Environments (DLPE) at the 1996 National Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, February 14-18, 1996.]

The Coming Crisis

While the efforts of instructional technologists seem to have little effect on educational institutions, the effect of technology itself is considerable, and is going to be enormous. I don't so much mean on the process of education as on the very goals of education. And I'm not sure I like everything the future might hold. Let me make some predictions.

In five to ten years we will have small, portable, and inexpensive (by which I mean a few hundred dollars) hand-held computers, much like a Newton or personal digital assistant, which will have built in scanning and voice synthesis and be able to read. Wave one in front of a newspaper or magazine and it will read the pages aloud for you. Flip the pages of a textbook and it will read you the book. If this comes to pass, or perhaps I should say when this comes to pass because (even if it is not in five or ten years) it is inevitable, what are the implications for teaching children to read? Now before you object with statements about the importance of and your love for reading, consider the following. The United States spends roughly ten billion dollars annually teaching children to read, approximately (and very probably more than) 5,000 dollars per child in each child's lifetime. Many people never do learn to read despite that expenditure. Millions of Americans are illiterate (Stedman & Kaestle, 1987). Many countries have illiteracy rates far higher and nowhere near the finances to do anything about it. Once it becomes cheaper to buy a reading machine than to teach a child to read, there will be great societal pressure to save the money. No, it won't happen all at once. We won't see schools suddenly eliminate reading instruction. But with each successive generation there may be fewer readers. Children who have trouble learning to read, or who drop out of school, will be the first to become reliant on reading machines. Countries with high illiteracy rates may well leapfrog the educational solution to illiteracy (teaching reading) and go straight to reading machines, just like some developing countries are leapfrogging wire-based telephone systems in favor of nation-wide cellular telephone systems. Mind you, I'm not saying I like the idea, but being able to read may well become less essential to earning a living and contributing to society, and fewer people in each generation may learn how.

What's next? In ten or 15 years that same cheap, hand-held computer will be able to take dictation and write. If so, what are the implications for learning to write? Everyone will be able to write, from the first draft through multiple revisions, by giving dictation and aural directions to hand-held secretaries.

Next? In 15 to 20 years those increasingly small and inexpensive computers will also translate between many of the world's languages. If so, what happens to the teaching of foreign languages? Most people do not learn a foreign language as it is.

These are bittersweet predictions. They may be beneficial for the learning disabled child who has great difficulty learning to read, or for poor countries whose high rates of illiteracy are holding back economic development. But do we want a world where almost nobody reads? Many educators consider reading to be critical to higher order thinking. If that's true, the implications of a non-reading world are grim.

Reading, writing, and multilingualism are just examples, though rather extreme ones. The more general fact is that technology will impinge on more and more activities which we have heretofore considered essentially human and intelligent.

What's the point? I think there is little doubt that technology is leading us towards such a future. If we don't like it, what are we going to do about it? Should we do anything about it? Or should we foster it? Technology can be a savior or a destroyer. It might be a great equalizer, since people who can read cease to have any advantage over people who can't. But it might also be a destroyer of culture and of our cognitive abilities.

If we don't spend the first few years of school teaching children to read, they might have lots of time to learn other things. This might be another example of technology freeing us from lower level activities and allowing us to concentrate more time and effort on higher level activities. But to classify things like reading and writing as lower level activities, would represent a radical shift in our view of human competencies.

With every improvement in text scanning and voice recognition this future becomes more possible. If we want people to be literate and multilingual we must make it easier and less costly to learn. But the profession of Instructional Technology has not had much success in that regard. Instead we bicker over dozens of philosophical and methodological issues: objectivism versus instructivism, learner control versus program control, rote learning versus meaningful learning, abstract versus situated learning, automaticity versus metacomprehension, near versus far transfer, coaching versus peer learning, learning hierarchies versus neural networks, whether or not media makes a difference, learning content versus learning to learn, standardized versus authentic evaluation, and quantitative versus qualitative research.

I'm not saying these are not valid arguments. I'm saying we should either reach some compromise or at least agree to disagree so we can start working together to deal with what I truly believe is a coming crisis in education.

I'm not going to address all the above issues. They are already receiving a lot of attention and I think some are beginning to be resolved. For example, I think we are beginning to see a compromise between the constructivist and instructivist camps. Namely, students may learn by a constructive process, but expository instruction may still be one of the ways to foster such construction. Rather than rehash those often debated topics I'd like to address five equally divisive topics. While not saying that the aforementioned issues are any less important, I would maintain that these five are also quite critical to our mission and deserve attention in our discussions, in our research, and in our developmental activities. They are: The conflict between our belief in intellectual property versus our belief in the freedom of information. The conflict between the individual and the collective. The conflict between just in time learning and what I will call, for lack of a better term, plenty of time learning. The debate over whether instructional design is an art or a science. And lastly, the issues of equality and diversity in educational research and practice.

Intellectual property versus freedom of information

The explosive growth of resources on the Internet, especially via the World Wide Web, brings this controversy to the fore. On the one hand is the reasonable point of view that for people to go to the considerable effort to create new knowledge, they should get something for it. On the other hand is the equally reasonable point of view that nobody really owns knowledge and society will be better off if we all share it. Publishers often represent the former point of view to an extreme degree. They contend that they own knowledge and want to charge all that the market can bear, and then some, for people to use that knowledge. There are those who would like to see us all charged for every byte we download on the Internet. Many if not all academics represent the latter point of view. Knowledge is to be given away to as many people as possible. Educators contend that the fair use portion of the copyright law ensures them the right to freely distribute all knowledge, no matter who discovered it.

Publishers and software manufactures constantly try to interpret the law and push the boundary in a direction that favors them. Many publishers would like to do away completely with the fair use portion of the copyright law. They would probably like to do away with libraries, photocopiers, VCR's, and anything else that makes copies. (My personal opinion is that many copyrighted items, such as computer software, should be subject to patent rather than copyright, which I believe would decrease litigation and abuse and increase innovation. But that's another issue.)

Libraries on the other hand would like to push the boundary in the other direction. The Northwestern University Library has taken a new tact with regard to class reserve materials. They digitize articles which instructors want on reserve and each student can download their own copy. With some restrictions (such as not using the same articles every semester and not allowing access outside of specific courses) they contend this is in keeping with the concept of fair use. If publishers disagree they can go to court. Unlike many libraries which are afraid to do anything that publishers don't like, the Northwestern Library is doing what they believe the law permits. I think more libraries should do the same. Publishers have pushed the boundary too much in their own favor. Educators must start pulling it back. There are many positive trends in this regard, such as free or inexpensive electronic journals on the Internet and World Wide Web sites full of databases, visuals, and other information and resources useful to educators.

We do run a risk if we go too far. If there is no benefit to creating or discovering knowledge, fewer people will do it. We need a compromise between what publishers want and what education needs. Fortunately, the rapidly expanding world wide computer network provides a tool to do so. But there are also legal boundaries and educators must work hard to counterbalance the efforts of the copywriters.

Obviously, even though the title of my talk is "seeking common ground," I'm taking a side, in this case the side of freedom of information. The forces for intellectual property have had most of the say for some time and they need to be countered. But that doesn't mean we can't compromise. Although I would like to see a change in the copyright and patent laws, and feel we should all promote the creation of free electronic journals, shareware, and databases, we must also do something to ensure people some return for their intellectual efforts, if they want it. What might that be? There are many possibilities, but I will suggest one that we have the power to undertake, creation of clearinghouses on the Internet. We already have lots of free archive sites distributing software, research papers, and the like. The technology also exists for secure purchases on the Internet. But it would be impractical for each person to start selling databases, texts, or software via their own World Wide Web home pages. Clearinghouses would be advantageous for purchasers for two reasons. Purchasers could find material more easily because it would be centralized rather than spread across a million home pages. And purchasers would feel more secure in giving their charge account numbers to a reputable clearinghouse than to each person with a home page. The advantages for sellers should be obvious--more sales and freedom from having to manage sales.

Individualism versus collectivism

Our society values individual talent, effort, and competition. But it also values cooperation, loyalty, and teamwork. As a society we don't seem to have a problem with this dichotomy. We teach our children to be independent yet to help others. Some of our sports are individualistic while some are team oriented, though all are competitive.

But we have not been as successful in bridging this gap in education or with educational technology. We lack reliable methods to choose between or combine individual work and group work, competition, and cooperation.

The field of computer-based instruction began with the premise that its main advantage would be to individualize instruction. Things have changed. Many of us have become disillusioned with that proposition and true individualization remains an elusive goal. But more important, students working together greatly enhance human-computer communication. The equally elusive goal of interactivity, discussed by Rod Sims in a recent ITForum article (Sims, 1995), may be well served through human-computer-human communication, with the computer acting as the instigator but the students doing most of the communication. That is the kind of interaction and collaborative work I believe we should be fostering in our designs.

Cooperative learning is often touted these days. But the vast majority of instructional software, whether it be tools, simulations, or hypermedia, is still designed for individual use and, even if not intentionally, is downright unfriendly to group use. For example, most software asks for one student's name, stores just one set of data under that student's name, does not work well on a network, and is worded as if just one person is reading the text on the screen. Sadly, some very good programs which were designed to foster group instruction and teamwork, such as the McGraw-Hill Search Series (Snyder, 1982), have not been widely used or emulated. Perhaps they were too difficult to develop or to use. Perhaps people just don't believe in using a computer with a group of students.

This controversy is perhaps the one most suggestive of a research agenda. For example, cooperation versus competition are clearly critical variables in any theory of motivation. Research on motivation should be addressing how to use and accommodate both. More generally, cooperative learning has become a sub-area of educational research with its own world of theories and models (Slavin, 1990). Yet some other areas of instructional design and technology research seem in conflict with cooperative approaches. For example, adaptive instruction has often been cited as a goal and potential advantage of computer-based instruction, but to whom are you adapting when more than one student is sharing a keyboard? And lastly, applying either competitive or cooperative learning principles in real classrooms raises numerous logistical problems such as space, networking, and fairness in grading.

What side do I take on this issue? I take the side of emphasizing collaborative and cooperative learning environments because, although they get a lot of lip service, you just have to look at commercial software to see they are being virtually ignored. I don't wish to suggest, for reasons I will get to soon, that everyone should drop the notion of individualized learning in favor of collaborative learning. We need both, but we need more balance.

What might help us move in this direction? Again I'll make just one suggestion. We should be experimenting with collaborative software which works between computers on networks, what we used to call inter-terminal programs on the old Plato system. To accomplish that, authoring tools and systems must be modified to accommodate inter-terminal software and to foster human-computer-human communication.

Just-in-time learning versus Plenty-of-time learning

Just-in-time learning seems to be all the rage. I can see the advantage and I understand the rationale. But doesn't it conflict with some of our most honored educational principles? We always tell students, "don't cram for exams." Just-in-time learning sounds a lot like cramming to me. Cramming is in opposition to one of our most well documented principles of learning, the principle of spaced practice. You learn something better if you work at it a little bit at a time over a longer period of time, rather than all at once. Doesn't spaced practice sound like the opposite of just in time learning? Maybe "opposite" is a bit of an exaggeration. But I would maintain that "plenty-of-time learning" has long been our ideal and is supported by a significant amount of research. Why are we so willing to replace it with just-in-time learning?

Electronic Performance Support Systems (EPSSs) are often touted as vehicles for just-in-time learning. Of course, many things that go under the label EPSS these days are not that at all. The term has become another advertising label like "intelligent" and "user friendly" and "secret ingredient." Many EPSSs are just poorly designed multimedia databases which are hard to use and inflexible. But ignoring that problem, I am skeptical that even a very good EPSS, one that deserves to use the name, should be used for just in time learning. Rather, we should view EPSSs as vehicles for just-in-time review or just-in-time reference. A dictionary is great once you know how to read, but you don't want to learn to read by leafing through a dictionary.

So I'm taking a side that might not be very popular these days. Plenty-of-time learning should still be our preference for things we are certain students will need to know, whether it be conceptual or procedural. Electronic performance support systems are excellent for review, reference, and perhaps when you need to learn something right away which you could not have predicted you would need to know.

Another research agenda is suggested here. Obviously we should be doing work on the proper design of EPSSs to foster review and reference, rather than initial learning. We should be figuring out how to make them flexible, so users can modify their search, presentation, and interaction modes to suit their needs. But less obviously, we need research on how to integrate instructional systems with performance support systems. How should the design of an instructional environment be different if you know it will be backed up by a high quality EPSS? How should the design of the EPSS be different if you can rely on the user having already learned the basics?

Instructional design as art versus instructional design as science

Most of us like to think of ourselves as scientists and many of our disagreements over what research methods and what instructional design methods to use are based in large part on whether we believe that what we do is science or art, and what model of science we ascribe to.

What is the science part of instructional design and instructional technology? Learning theory, attitude formation theory, and the empirical approach to instructional development are the ones that come to my mind. But let's face it, most principles of learning and attitude formation are based upon relatively small numbers of research studies on particular groups of students in particular subject areas. They are far from proven in a generalizable way. All of the design prescriptions in instructional design textbooks (like my own) are quite frankly nothing more than rules of thumb with at best a little bit of research backing them up. The main science underlying instructional design, and in my opinion the only thing we can depend on to develop good instruction, is the empirical approach of evaluating and revising again and again until your materials are successful. All the rules-of-thumb in all the instructional design books serve only to create a half-decent first draft that will not embarrass you terribly when you show it to someone. After that, repeated cycles of evaluation and revision are the necessary path to success.

So what is the art part of instructional design and technology? Everything else! All our instructional design models, which must be intelligently adapted and applied, require creativity and artistry. Creating effective interactivity, user friendly navigation, and motivation, all require intelligent adaptation of the rules-of-thumb handed down from learning theory.

So it's easy for me to take a side on this one. Instructional design is mostly art with one little piece of science, the empirical-cyclic approach to design and development. Accept this and you begin to realize that no one model is better than another, it is just better for you or better for a particular purpose. Rules in instructional design textbooks are not to be followed like commandments, but rather, should be kept in mind and considered, unless you have a better idea. Which of several ideas is better? Try them both and see.

Please note that I am not talking about instructional research here. Whether instructional research is science or not was addressed last year by Tom Reeves (Reeves, 1995). Some is and some isn't. I'm talking about the practice of instructional design. It may be based upon science, but the practice of quality instructional design depends a lot more on flexibility, creativity, and artistry.

What are the implications of this for practice? Although every model of instructional design emphasizes the critical importance of evaluation and revision, we all know that thorough evaluation and revision is rarely done in the field. People run out of time. A first or second draft often becomes the final one, or is distributed as a beta version (an increasingly popular form of laziness and greed for which we can thank the computer industry). From a research perspective, what we need is developmental research (Reeves, 1995) to demonstrate the critical importance of the evaluation and revision cycle to good instructional design. From a practitioner's perspective, what we need are authoring tools which truly foster the evaluation and revision process.

Equality versus Diversity

I don't mean equality and diversity in the broad social sense. I mean equality and diversity with regard to instructional practice and research. But the conflict and resolution between these similar yet conflicting values in society does provide a useful analogy.

In the United States people used to believe in the idea of the melting pot. Everyone came from different countries, but shed their ancestors' languages and customs and became part of the great American melting pot. They became equal by becoming the same.

The ideal of the melting pot is being replaced with that of diversity. Different languages, customs, foods, and attitudes are all good and healthy because the make us stronger. Diversity ensures adaptability, survival, and improvement of the species, or of society. A society in which everyone is the same, like a species, may become inbred and weak, thus risking extinction.

So the early concept of equality as "the same" is being replaced with equality meaning "just as important" or "just as worthy." This newer concept of equality is more in harmony with the goal of diversity. Different languages, customs, religions, and ideas are equally important because through their variety they ensure adaptability, improvement, and survival of society.

Most people accept this in biology. It is a principle component of the theory of evolution. Most people now accept it in a social sense as well. But we should recognize that the importance of diversity is just as true for ideas and for progress in human thought, including educational approaches, research topics, and research methods. The field of educational technology has had too many proselytizers who want to convince us there is one best way to improve education, whether it be Logo, artificial intelligence, constructivism, or hypertext. Various researchers preach in favor of, or against, various research topics and methodologies. I'm sure all who do so have the best of intentions. And, I realize that many proselytizers take intentionally exaggerated positions for the sake of argument and to drive home their point. But then listeners, especially students, take them too literally. If we follow such admonitions to do only the right kind of research, we risk the same stagnation in educational research as American psychology experienced in the first half of this century, during which time you were not accepted and had a difficult time publishing if you were not a behaviorist. If we all choose the same research methodology we may choose the wrong one. If we all choose the same topic, or small subset of topics, we may choose the wrong ones. If we all pursue the same educational innovations we may be pursuing the wrong ones. We all know this is true. We've seen this error made before.

So again I am taking a side, that of diversity. I favor a variety of approaches to education whether they be objectivist or constructivist, student controlled or program controlled, inquisitory or expository, drill or hypermedia, virtual reality or directed simulation. We will achieve adaptability and evolutionary improvement only through such variety. Similarly, I favor a variety of research methodologies, experimental and developmental, qualitative and quantitative, laboratory and ethnographic. And, although it is tempting to seek out a few critical research topics and combine all our efforts to tackle them, I would favor a wide variety of topics because you never know which ones will really prove to be important twenty years down the road.

The reason I discussed the equality-diversity conflict last is because it provides the main solution to most other divisive issues. If we are willing to entertain the idea that all instructional approaches, research methods, and research topics are, at least initially, "equally important and equally worthy," it will be a lot easier to compromise on these divisive issues and team together on the critical educational problems we face.

Now I'm not trying to say we should all just be nice and agree with each other. That would be silly. Our conflicting viewpoints are our strength and part of the diversity that will ensure a healthy evolution of our profession. The one viewpoint I caution against is the viewpoint that there is a single correct approach and that we should all follow it. We should accept and foster our different beliefs and approaches. But we should not let them get in the way of solving the crisis on the horizon.

Conclusion

This brings me back to where I started. Advances in technology will force humanity to face unpleasant choices. Chief among them, we currently spend billions of dollars teaching children (and adults) to do things which in the years to come will be done just as well by computers. If we want a world in which people read and write and communicate multilingually, we must start now, figuring out how technology can be used to drastically reduce the cost and difficulty of learning. We should, as a profession, be formulating a research agenda for learning in the highly technological world of the near future.

So I'll end with one more suggestion for research and development--embedded education. This is not a new idea, but I think it will become increasingly important. Let me explain my conception of it with a personal example. I was always terrible at spelling, getting D's in elementary school spelling tests. I'm sure you will find an error or two in this article. But the advent of microcomputer word processors with spelling checkers has vastly improved my spelling. When spelling checkers were first introduced some people predicted they would have a detrimental effect on spelling ability. For me it has been the opposite. The way my spelling checker flags my errors, shows me the alternatives, and forces me to attend to the slight differences in the list of alternative words, all have combined to improve my spelling. I'm sure that spelling checkers were not intended as embedded education, but the design of many spelling checkers does have that educational effect.

People will continue to use communication technology and become increasingly dependent on it. We should be engaged in research on how to embed education, reading, writing, math, science, or whatever, in our everyday use of technology. Learning should be embedded in the games, entertainment, tools, and other activities we engage in with technology all the time

.

Embedded education is just one idea for a research and development agenda addressing the coming crisis in education. My hope is that educational technologists will lead the way in creatively pursuing that and other approaches to improving the intellectual level of humanity, rather than allowing ourselves to slide intellectually backwards as our inventions do more and more work for us. Rather than becoming focused on our many (and healthy) conflicting viewpoints, we should focus on our common goals and address them more cooperatively.

References

Reeves, T.C. (1995). Questioning the questions of instructional technology research. [On-line] Peter Dean Lecture presented at the National Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Anaheim. Available: http://itech1.coe.uga.edu/ITFORUM/paper5/paper5.html

Sims, R. (1995). Interactivity: A forgotten art? ITForum #10. [On-line] Available: http://itech1.coe.uga.edu/ITFORUM/paper10/paper10a.html

Slavin, R.E. (1990). Cooperative learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Snyder, T. (1982). Archaeology Search. [Computer Program]. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Stedman, L.C., & Kaestle, C.F. (1987). Literacy and reading performance in the United States, from 1880 to the present. Reading Research Quarterly, 22(1), 8-46.


Steve Alessi
370 Lindquist Center
The University of Iowa
Iowa City, IA 52242

Phone: 19/335-5568
Fax: 319/335-5386
E-mail: steve-alessi@uiowa.edu



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