The Feeling of Power: Musings on Technology Integration

The Feeling of Powder-Puff Power

The Feeling of Powder-Puff Power

As a burgeoning instructional designer, issues of technology integration and instructional design principles are foremost in my mind. But, as a literary savant at heart, I can’t help but make connections with my academic reading, the news of the day, and the stories they tell.

Recently I was reading about distributed learning in the field of instructional design (Dempsey, Van Eck, 2007). Skimming a paragraph filled with numbers referring to gigabites and data transmission capabilities led me to recall the doomsday piece recently reported on NPR about the I-Pocolypse, the day we run out of space on the Internet. In my reading, while avoiding the numbers on the page and instead musing about incomprehensibly large numbers of Internet addresses in my head, I saw the reference to “Villazon, 2005” in the article I was actually reading,  and thought it read “Vazillion,” like a new type of gazillion. Or maybe

Godzillion—a cross between a monstrosity of a number and an omniscient digit.

Technology can seem omniscient at times, and monstrous at others. Distributed learning is expanding our notion of what learning opportunities are, generally fixed in time and space, to a more virtual realm, thus capitalizing on a notion of infinite, rather than finite spatial possibilities. Issues of class size, teacher workload, and other constraints that govern brick and mortar learning become less problematic. For example, a teacher I know arrived at school for the first day of classes, only to find that a mistake in scheduling had him in two different rooms at the same time teaching two different classes with two different sets of students. Short of cloning, this would have been impossible to pull off in a physical school setting; but a virtual learning environment would allow for such a possibility.1

Dempsey and Van Eck (2007) see the proliferation of distributed learning needs and wants in today’s society, combined with the ubiquitousness of technology and the role it plays in learning situations, as a gift. They caution, however, that

“instructional designers have enormous opportunities and often more responsibility than we bargained for.”

Which leads me to the NPR story on air safety. A few weeks ago I heard an interesting story on pilots and their relationship with the technology in the cockpit.

Airplane Cockpit--Who's in control?

Who's flying this thing?

Technology has proven invaluable in assisting pilots and air traffic controllers in maintaining air safety as the amount and sophistication of air craft in the sky continues to increase. One problem cited in the news piece was known as “mode confusion.” This term was explained as a mental trap that pilots can fall into, where they lose track of how automated systems are programmed. By not understanding how the technology processes their input and misreading the technology’s output, pilots can make, or allow the technology to make, deadly mistakes. This speaks to the critical role that instructional designers play in both designing tools and designing instruction to match the tools to the context for use.

The second problem for the pilots in the air safety piece was a reduction in pilots’ manual flying skills, which was attributed to an over reliance on the technology systems. Now, the fear that technology will replace humans or destroy their capacity to be humans as society understands that term to be defined at any cultural moment, is as old as technology itself.

To go back just hundreds of years, the ‘invention’ of writing and texts for the masses was sure to be the downfall of thinking. The telephone was sure to be an end to face to face communication. The email was sure to be the death of hand-written letters. Well … ok … maybe that last one is really true. But this kind of fearful response to technology is often explored in very thoughtful ways through science fiction, a genre of writing that looks to the future to see how the fears of today might be realized.


Because science fiction authors are Luddites?

Luddites--protecting people from technology

A group of early 19th century English workmen destroying laborsaving machinery as a protest against technology.

No, because they want to encourage critical thinking around the development of technologies and force conversations about how they impact our lives. This, too, should be a goal of instructional designers and instructional technologists.

This gives me, as a member of the instructional design and technology field, an ambivalent feeling of power. Which is exactly what Isacc Asimov wanted us to realize in his short story of the same name, “The Feeling of Power” (1957).

This cold war, Sputnik era story is set in the far future during a time in which computers did all of the computing. In other words, manual human math did not exist—it had been completely forgotten. One lowly technician in a government lab, however, has “re-discovered” manual computation.

Math--a feeling of power

Math--a feeling of power

His secret is discovered by the authorities, and, as he has not only cracked the code for manual multiplication, but has also proven that computing can be done by a human rather than a computer, he’s conscripted into the military defense program. The goal, he realizes, is to develop this mathematical skill to enable maned missiles with humans, rather than just computers. As with most post-war science fiction, the fear is that man cannot control the technology he creates. The irony of the title is, that after the “inventor” or “discoverer” of math commits suicide, his handler in the military intelligence division is excited by the feeling of power that he has knowing this capacity of the human mind.


A surgeon performs surgery in a location physically distant from his patient.

We waver in recognizing the superiority of the human mind or our human tools to solve our human problems.  A decade ago, not many people would have entertained the thought of a doctor performing major surgery while in a physical space completely separated from the patient. How could  technology substitute for physical presence? Now, however, telesurgeries are realistic options, and are giving new meaning to the notion of distributed learning environments—the distributed practice of medicine.

But the coolest thing I encountered in this bird-walk of an exploration of technology integration into our learning and lives, was the sloppy computing article. This piece takes an interesting stance on mistakes.

Sloppy Joe...wait, wrong picture

Sloppy Computing, Joe?

Whereas in the air safety piece, computer mistakes are deadly, as the users rely on the computer for the greatest degree of accuracy, MIT computer scientist Joseph Bates proposes a sloppy computer chip to help approximate the human decision making process, which is not grounded in exact accuracy. Bates’s  idea mirrors the Asimovian notion that human decisions are potentially more ‘powerful’ than computers.

Bates contends that we’d be better off if we allowed computers to make some mistakes.

Tell that to the folks on the airplane.

No, seriously, Bates argues that “By allowing things to be approximate, you’re a lot closer to achieving true artificial intelligence.”

Making mistakes, albeit calculated ones, could help computers act more like the human brain, which takes all sorts of shortcuts to answer problems. It turns out that perfection is not all that it’s cut out to be. Which Thomas Hardy knew back in 1891  when he wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles in which he makes this poignant observation:

“And it was the touch of the imperfect upon the would-be perfect that gave the sweetness, because it was that which gave the humanity.”

Is Joseph Bates onto something by asking our computers to adopt flawed thinking? Is this a new wave of “humanity computing”?

That’s what we cannot lose sight of in our efforts as Instructional Technologists—the humanity of computing and teaching and learning.  As a professor of mine once said, it’s all about PEOPLE first, and SYSTEMS second.

1. Of course this then gets into ethics akin to cloning, namely labor distribution and teachers’ fears that online learning environments will turn them into workhorses rather than instructors.


Benincasa, R. (February 17, 2011). Air safety on autopilot? Problems spur investigation. NPR news in Retrieved from

Bennett, D. (January 28, 2011). Innovator: Joseph Bates. Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved from

Dempsey, J. V., Van Eck, R. N. (2007). Distributed learning and the field of instructional design. In Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.

Roxby, P. (February 5, 2011). Medics learn breast surgery online. BBC News. Retrieved from


Filed under Artificial Intelligence, Distributed Learning, Human Computing

Writing on the Walls: Informal Learning in Interactive Hallways

Informal thoughts on informal learning blog post:

Writing on the Walls

Innovation, the low-tech way in a primary school in India.

For thoughts on informal learning, I decided to explore a recent hobby horse of mine, namely interactive hallways.  I started thinking of them as spaces to find playful “writing on the wall.” What do we do when we have a concept and want an image to accompany it? We “google image” it, of course.  And so I did, and came up with the picture you see here, cryptically referred to as “Primary school with wall writing and map.”

In this photograph, you see a primary school hallway covered in a map of India and writing in what seems to be Hindi. This appears to be permanent writing on the walls, presumably an attempt to provide permanence of information, perhaps to emphasize rote learning, perhaps in response to lack of paper. The writing does seem more purposeful than graffiti, and designed by instructors for learners. However, what would it be like for students to do the writing on the wall?

In my last teaching post, I let the students write on the wall. Because of a unique situation in which one of my walls was “temporary” and was to be torn down in 2 years, I received permission to use it as a creative space for students and paint/repaint it throughout the school year. In the first instantiation of the writing on the wall project, I had all 10th grade students (160-ish) contribute to the painting.

First instantiation of Writing on the Wall

It was arranged through a project based on their re-interpretation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. As a

2nd half of Book of the Dead Wall

culminating activity of a project that involved a number of writing activities, they then placed a visual representation of something from their writings as an ‘offering’ to our wall. This project was a great example of controlled chaos, and I learned from the experience that not all wall art was equal. It was a wonderful experience for students to participate in, but the resulting product was much more like grafitti.

We left that wall up for a couple of months, and then took the bold plunge to cover it and start again with a new project.

Bye-bye, Book of the Dead Wall

Painting over our first writing on the wall experiment.

This time, I selected artistic volunteers to be in charge of the design and creation of the new wall art, with me providing the thematic structure, as before. The result was a much more aesthetically pleasing product, but one for which only a handful of students were able to claim ownership. This wall stayed in tact until the end of the school year, because we didn’t have the heart to paint over it again, even though that had been my intent all along.

Medieval Writing on the Wall

Our second, and final writing on the wall experiment.

So, I tell this story to explore the notion of “permanence” versus “changeability” as something that could inform informal learning. If we get “attached” to something informal, we may formalize it and destroy the very thing that made the informal event work.

But what does this  have to do with interactive hallways? Well, it’s been a bit of a rabbit chase, I confess, but to return to the topic at hand, I think we can capture, and semi-formalize informal learning in hallway spaces in schools. Here is an example of a school in Atlanta that is moving in this direction:

I would love to see “structured” informal learning moments captured for participants to then reflect on how these seemingly informal learning spaces have or have not worked. The Atlanta school example cited above provides some examples that fit with the museum experience described in Rossett and Hoffman (2007), especially concerning the attraction for authentic objects (p. 169). I like the museum example as one that explains how something seemingly unstructured can have very structured design and well thought out origins.

Imagine a hallway with museum-like exhibits, or better yet, a hallway in which the students create these exhibits through daily interactions with whiteboards or canvases or other spaces that they can add their mark to. Then, at the end of a specified period, the creation is captured and saved, then wiped clean to start anew.

Aside on play: Informal learning & play are key components missing from the standardize-stymied NCLB regime. Various research and community organizations are lobbying for a resurgence of the old school notion of mandator recess. For more information, follow the No Child Left INSIDE movement.


Rossett, A., Hoffman, B. (2007). “Informal learning.” Trends and issues in instructional design and technology. NJ: Pearson. p. 166-172.

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Filed under Informal Learning

Makin’ Waffles: Human Performance Technology vs. Wishful Thinking

Technology of making waffles

Lego my Eggo

A teacher colleague of mine was infamous amongst his students for many reasons, one of them being his “waffle story.”

Around the midterm for his science class, he would tell the story of a young man who was keen on making waffles.

This young man, the story goes, wanted nothing more than to get a job making waffles at an establishment specializing in waffles 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  He worked very hard to learn to make waffles, acquired a great amount of knowledge about the process of making waffles, and had incredibly strong motivation to make the waffles. However, despite all of his efforts, his waffles were awful.

Makin' Waffles Video

WATCH THIS VIDEO: Human Performance Technology at odds with Waffle Making

[Click for NPR story about the technology used to create the video on your left: Behind the Rise of Xtranormal, A Hilarious DIY Deadpan]

Now, for this teacher, the point of his waffle story was not one of instructional design, but more of a Darwinian approach to teaching. He was trying to tell his students–products of “if I try hard enough I’ll get a good grade” generation, bolstered by the ubiquitous leveling principle in our society of “everyone who participates deserves a reward,”–that, at  the end of the day, he didn’t care how much they studied, how much they “knew,” how much they cared about doing a good job in his class. If, when the rubber hit the road, their classroom performance was analogous to the waffles, i.e. awful, they wouldn’t pass his course.

I was reminded of this waffle story when reading about human performance theory and one of the principles emphasizing the myriad of factors that affect how people perform their work, from Gilbert quoted in Stolovitch(2007):

“Hard work, great knowledge, and strong motivation without valued accomplishment is unworthy performance” (p.137).

Individuals can be hard workers, have great knowledge, and strong motivation, but if they do so without producing valued accomplishment, then the performance is considered unworthy.

Granted, there are many other things at work in my colleague’s class and his rationale for sharing this story with students. For example, if the student has “great knowledge” along with a good work ethic and motivation, it seems that the teacher should recognize a disconnect in the teaching of content and the assessment if the performance is bad. However, this story aligns with another principle that has driven the development of the human performance industry, namely the inability of knowledge and skills to transfer into the workforce.

This concept of transfer of knowledge and skills from an academic setting to a workforce or professional setting is what drives my research agenda of both theorizing, as well as designing and developing, a humanities-driven pedagogy for STEM pursuits in k-12 with the goal of producing a more successful, qualified and motivated workforce for STEM careers.

A more immediate project that I hope to develop for this course involves a design-research agenda focusing on the technology integration of a video analysis tool into mediation resolution training. The status of the current mediation training involves minimal to no use of technology, and our instructional design solution to improve performance of participants in the training includes the use not only of video, but of video analysis technology. This technology will allow both students and teachers to reflect critically on student performance, providing all participants greater access to the perceptions of performance.

More on that to come…

Stolovitch, H. (2007).  The development and evolution of human performance involvement.  In Reiser, R. & Dempsey. J. (Eds.), Trends and issues in instructional design and technology (134-146). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.


Filed under Human Performance Technology