Category Archives: Distributed Learning

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