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  Learning Sciences and Instructional Technology
Interview with Tom Duffy
Learning Sciences, Cognitive Science, Instructional Systems Technology
Indiana University Bloomington

Thomas M. Duffy

B.A., Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology (University of Illinois). Thomas M. Duffy, Professor of Education and Cognitive Science, is the Barbara B. Jacobs Chair of Education and Technology and has served as the founding Director of the Center for Research on Learning and Technology in the School of Education, Indiana University. He came to Indiana from Carnegie Mellon where he was Director of the Communications Design Center and an Associate Professor of English and Psychology. Duffy's work over the last ten years has focused on the use of technology to support the design of inquiry based learning environments as well as on the implications of constructivism and situated cognition for the design of instruction. He has published over 100 articles as well as co-authoring Online Help: Design and Evaluation; Designing Usable Text; Constructivism and the Technology of Instruction: A Conversation; Designing Environments for Constructivist Learning; and and New Learning. His most recent work, co-edited with Jamie Kirkley, is “Learning Theory and Practice: The Design of Online Learning Environments.” Duffy and his colleagues have also developed the Learning to Teach with Technology Studio to provide learning anytime/anywhere resources for teachers wanting to design inquiry lessons that utilize technology to support inquiry.

You are co-developer and co-director of planning for a major initiative at Indiana University Bloomington to establish a graduate program and research center in the Learning Sciences. You have been active for many years in cognitive science research, and in instructional technology, so you may be one of the best people around to help instructional designers understand -- what is "learning science?"
One way to describe it is that learning science looks at the mind in context. Learning science can also be described as the convergence of design, cognition, and context (this description originated at Northwestern University). It is looking at learning in context, designing learning environments based on theory, and studying learning in those environments.

When you say "cognition," you are referring to cognition in the sense of socially-constructed?
I am talking about cognition in terms of cognitive processes. Certainly cognition occurs in context and the focus of learning sciences is cognition in context. The social environment is an important part of that context. But of course, at least I think “of course” cognition is not socially constructed – it occurs in a social context and is impacted by the social context. Of course we do not understand those relations at this time, so there are different ways of thinking about the interplay of cognition and context and especially social context. And of course when we also talk about cognition we include meta-cognition and motivation. It is the complexity and multidimensionality of the issues that leads to the strong interdisciplinary characteristic of the cognitive sciences – including the learning sciences. And these are collaborative rather than cooperative interdisciplinary partnerships. That is, it is not a division of labor as so often happens in instructional technology (e.g., SME’s and designers) but a real partnership in which the multiple perspectives are brought to bear on problems.

A number of institutions have established, or are establishing, programs in Learning Sciences. Where has learning sciences come from?
In one form or another learning science has been around for a very long time. But I think it’s been a frustration with traditional cognitive science that has led to the growth in focus on learning sciences. Jerome Bruner is just wonderful to read on that. If you read John Gardner’s book on The Cognitive Revolution he talks about the cognitive revolution as a move from behaviorism to looking inside the head. But as Gardner notes, the focus was on mind as computer. We saw cognition as processor functions and of course the computer certainly did not provide an understanding of the mind in context.

Now back to Bruner and his book on Folk Psychology. He provides a very nice description of how the Cognitive Revolution was supposed to be the study of cognition of the man on the street. It was supposed to help us understand everyday cognition – a folk psychology if you will. I think learning science is a reaction to the traditional cognitive science, and more in line with the Bruner kind of perspective.

What's an example of the kind of research that goes on at the conversion of design, cognition and context?
Ken (Hay) and Sasha (Barab) studied science camps ... so they designed instruction for science camps. One of the things they really wanted to understand was -- how do these groups come together? How do ideas get generated and flow in the camp? So they really tracked the generation of ideas and the development of ideas; where did a concept first arise; what was the driving force; where did it go to? How did [a concept] even move across boundaries; what role do teachers play versus students? So it was kind of getting a picture of the communal thinking, if you will. They were trying to understand that whole environment. It was a pretty exciting project. That is just one example, but it is a project that I think nicely exemplifies the examination of cognition in context – it brings together cognition, context, and the design of learning environments.

What is the difference between this research and the kind of research going on in instructional technology?
That is too much drawing lines. There is tremendous overlap in work. I tried to identify research that I thought nicely exemplified work in the learning sciences. But note that both Ken and Sasha are in instructional technology – so you might say it is also instructional design research (he smiles). There is of course a lot of work that is very similar. Remember, learning sciences has an interdisciplinary work so some of it looks like research in ed psych, some like instructional technology, some like math and science education, sociology, anthroplogy, etc. I guess I would suggest that in instructional design research there tends to be little linkage to the theoretical conversation informing research and there tends to be a greater focus on the impact of or use of “materials”.

I guess I would like to also comment on the use of descriptive and prescriptive theory in instructional technology. I find much of the discussion I have seen to be puzzling. The quality of a theory overall, whether it’s descriptive or prescriptive is the degree to which it helps us interpret a situation ... the situation to which it applies ... and the richness and clarity of the testable predictions it offers. There are predictions whether it is descriptive (predicitons of the characteristics something should have) or prescriptive (predictions of how something will change as a function of some treatment) offer descriptions of a situation as well as testable hypotheses. I guess importantly prescriptive theory is not just a set of prescriptions – and in fact prescriptions is perhaps a less than usable term since it has led many to believe that prescriptive theory is simply a set of statement of what to do. But, in fact, it is a theoretical framework that leads to predictions that are tested. If the research consistently supports those predictions, then they become predictions that are interpreted in the context of the theory.

What are the challenges in learning sciences research?
One real challenge is finding the path in which the research is testing and building cognitive theory. We say there is a focus on cognition but I think there’s very little linkage to any detailed cognitive theory. There are very few predictions we can make, or hypotheses tested, or thick descriptions (from the theoretical standpoint as opposed to database thick descriptions). What happens too often is really the design and evaluation of learning environments, so we have so we have design based on a very general theoretical framework and a lot of discussion about the general theory’s relationship to design and how that theory is realized in design. But there is little development and testing of mechanisms – social or individual – as to how cognition is working.

John Anderson, in contrast, in talking about how to blend constructivist theory with information processing, [he] has a very rich predictive environment. It’s limited in its range of applications but it certainly extends into the real world with geometry and LISP and algebra tutoring systems. I’ve talked to kids in school who’ve used [the system] and they really like it.

So you’re looking for ways to build more precise theory?
Richer, more detailed theory. Yeah. It’s really hard when you get into a complex environment to really pay attention to cognitive variables. People I think have done a good job of that from a research perspective have been John Bransford and Rich Mayer, in particular. Rich is very much an information processing kind of guy, but he does very nice work in looking at a larger context and the cognitive variables. It's hard to do.

What are the potential/fruitful relationships between instructional technology and learning sciences?
I don’t know how to answer that, honestly. I’ll speculate instructional designers have a lot of good ability to create instruction, and that’s incredibly useful. In terms of studying cognition in environments, to partner with IST brings an incredibly valuable skill to bear. But it is a production skilland the creativity in realizing design goals – that’s the real strength. So in fact capitalizing on instructional technology from the learning sciences point of view is capitalizing in that direction.

Should we be reading each other’s stuff?
Surely. And of course it happens. The very first article in Ed Tech [Educational Technology] was by Jerome Bruner. Larry (Lipstiz) has actually done a very good job of pulling diverse people in to do short articles. The easiest way to define learning sciences is to go to the journals and conferences - – International Conference on the Learning Sciences, Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL), Journal of the Learning Sciences, International Society of the Learning Sciences, and the Center for Innovative Learning Technolgies (CILT) at SRI.

What might instructional technology be doing differently?
What a loaded question. I think in general we need to break down disciplinary barriers and view ourselves as a community examining issues and learning from one another. Ken Hay did a comparison of authorships in the primary instructional technology journals and conferences (ETR&D; Educational Technology; AECT; ISPI) and the learning sciences journals and conferences (ISLS; CSCL; Journal of the Learning Sciences)and there is very very little overlap. How do we break down those barriers – what is there to learn from one another? That is the first question. Then the question is how do we promote a culture change to change the focus from “defining instructional technology” to identifying important issues to be studied. And also identifying where other work is being done on those issues – finding collaborators.

You know, there are also some interesting historical developments in the field. Way back when I worked in a military lab, as you know, and we proceduralized the instructional design process and went through an instructional design phase where there were posters up on how to do instructional design; the posters were like those you would see on “How to do Artificial Resuscitation.” And there was truly a belief that we could hire anybody and give them this procedural training and they would be instructional designers. Now in my mind that’s the downfall of the field as an intellectual field. So it became very much a focus on the methodology as opposed to understanding.

For example, I’ve always found it really preposterous to talk about learner control. H ow many articles have there been on “should we give learners control of learning?” ; you know, the assumption seems to be that people don’t engage in learning except when we sit them down and say, “Ok, time to learn.” Of course learners have to develop control; the question isn’t whether or not they should have control, it is how do you get them to become better self-assessors. How can we even think that people don’t need to be able to assess what they know and don’t know or what they need to do to improve their ability? So I mean there seems to be this whole bunch of never wanting to really think about the person as a person, a thinking kind of individual, which, I think, comes from early information processing perspectives – in fact as I think I said earlier, that is the argument Jerome Bruner has made about the failure of the cognitive revolution, i.e., the failure to attend to the person.

How do you end up in the learning sciences?
That’s easy – my degree is in “human learning” which was the name before cognitive psychology (hmm, yes I guess I am that old). So I was in cognitive psychology from the beginning. However, I became frustrated with the basic research approach – theory testing was exciting but the lack of application was frustrating. So I moved from a psychology department to a Navy training research lab where I could do applied research. Actually I ended up working with Bill Montague who was my mentor in graduate school. He too was looking for a more applied environment. But as I said earlier, the real trick is linking that cognitive theory to the applied settings at the level of detailed theory testing and development rather than broad based conceptualizations. So, some of my current movement is back toward the issues and variables in cognitive psychology – at least that is the plan.

Northwestern University Learning Sciences Program, School of Education and Social Policy

Ken Hay, University of Georgia

Sasha Barab, Indiana University Bloomington

Doing Science at the Elbows of Experts: Issues Related to the Science Apprenticeship Camp

The Culture of Education and Acts of Meaning, Jerome Bruner

The Mind's New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution,
John Gardner

John Anderson , R. K. Mellon University Professor of Psychology and Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University

John Bransford, Co-Director, Learning Technology Center and Centennial Professor, Peabody College at Vanderbilt University

Richard E. Mayer, University of California Santa Barbara

Educational Technology Magazine

International Conference on the Learning Sciences

Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL)

Journal of the Learning Sciences

International Society of the Learning Sciences

Center for Innovative Learning Technolgies (CILT) at SRI

William E. Montague (link to Schooling and the Acquisition of Knowledge at



August 2003 IDT Record