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Exclusive Interview with Professor David Jonassen

First published: January 31, 2001

elearningpost: You have done lot of research on the impact of technology in education. And you are witness to the ongoing changes in technology in education--from the initial PLATO-based learning systems to the present Internet-enabled delivery of learning. While the enabling technologies have improved in leaps and bounds, do you think that their impact on education has kept up with the pace? If not, why so?

David Jonassen: No. In part because the assumptions about the role of technology in the learning process has not changed. To use your comparison "from the initial PLATO-based learning systems to the present Internet-enabled delivery of learning," the role of technology is the same -- delivery of knowledge. Witness the apotheosis of knowledge management. Every amateur epistemologist knows that knowledge cannot be managed. Education has always assumed that knowledge can be transferred and that we can carefully control the process through education. That is a grand illusion.

" Every amateur epistemologist knows that knowledge cannot be managed. Education has always assumed that knowledge can be transferred and that we can carefully control the process through education. That is a grand illusion."

For technology to transform the learning process, the role that technology assumes in the process must change. I have argued in a number of papers that technology is better used as a tool and intellectual partner that can expand the ways that learners think -- not just try to cram his/her head with more information.

elearningpost: You have been a strong advocate for having a constructivist approach to learning. And a prime component of this approach seems to be the face-to-face contact/experience with peers/experts--where context and situated-ness are critical. Is it possible to have context and situated-ness on the Internet?

David Jonassen: Absolutely, One of the primary roles that technology can fulfill is to set context for learning experiences. I wrote in a paper once that context was everything to learning. That was intentional hyperbole. It is a necessary if not sufficient ingredient for meaningful learning. In the constructivist learning environments that we build, technologies are used to situate learning tasks in a variety of contexts. With video, very rich and engaging contexts can be created.

elearningpost: E-learning is mostly being viewed as a business-oriented initiative, to such an extent that it has even forced some universities to put on a business hat. Do you see any fundamental change, pedagogical or otherwise, happening because of this?

David Jonassen: The balance of power may shift, though I doubt it. But learning will probably not be affected. E-learning is currently in the hype stage. Businesses see it as the latest panacea for whatever problems they have.

" Unfortunately, most e-learning replicates the worst features of face-to-face instruction. So, it may be cheaper to "deliver" knowledge over the Internet, but it will not be more effective"

Unfortunately, most e-learning replicates the worst features of face-to-face instruction. So, it may be cheaper to "deliver" knowledge over the Internet, but it will not be more effective. One of the requisites of substantive change in businesses and universities is to care enough about learning to invest the effort to truly understand its requirements and to create meaningful learning experiences to engage them. Unfortunately, that approach will be deemed as too expensive. You see, both businesses and universities operate from a bottom line perspective. And meaningful learning is simply too expensive. So both entities tell their learners about the world and expect them to fill in all of the gaps required to be able to practice.

elearningpost: What is your opinion on the current corporate trend to merge knowledge management with e-learning? Will this trend filter down to the university level too?

David Jonassen: I hope not. I believe that the corporate world conceives of e-learning and knowledge management as synonymous, which speaks to their low-level epistemological beliefs. I am working on a paper for the journal, Knowledge Organization, entitled "Knowledge is Complex, Multifaceted, and Unmanageable: Implications for the Knowledge Industry." The basic premise is that in order to be able to apply knowledge to solve problems, it is necessary to construct different kinds of knowledge about the problem and its context (conceptual knowledge, systemic knowledge, strategic knowledge, procedural knowledge, etc.). Research in problem solving shows clearly that good problem solvers understand problems in different ways. Unfortunately, both industry and higher education cling to the assumption that "if you tell them, they will learn." So neither are willing to invest the effort to support meaningful learning. Why would you, if you believe that you know how to manage knowledge?

elearningpost: With e-learning taking on a prominent role, are we going to see additional skill sets (online facilitation, online writing, usability, etc.) for an e-learning instructional designer?

David Jonassen: I hope so. I am designing an online designer course as we speak and I have included those skills into it. Effective online instruction will definitely require a new skill set.

elearningpost: Corporate e-learning is up against many constraints:

Working with these constraints, corporate e-learning might find it difficult to follow an ideal, or theoretically correct instructional design process. What advice would you give to instructional designers working under such conditions?

David Jonassen: In all of your issues, there is no mention of learning, meaning, or effectiveness. That says it all. I find it ironic that nearly every modern theory of management focuses on effectiveness, usability, addressing client needs, etc. Why does that policy never seem to affect training?

"Online course templates nowadays all effectively support information dissemination (which industry equates with knowledge transfer). Using those course management systems to engage learners in project-based or problem-based learning is difficult, if not impossible..."

Having said that, the only solution is to develop more powerful, problem-based templates. I am currently seeking funding to accomplish that. Online course templates nowadays all effectively support information dissemination (which industry equates with knowledge transfer). Using those course management systems to engage learners in project-based or problem-based learning is difficult, if not impossible, according to a case study that my wife and I just submitted to a distance education journal.

elearningpost: Traditional instructional design has recently been under attack for not being able to keep up with fundamental changes taking place in society at large. In fact, some books--Monster Under the Bed & Dancing With the Devil--even predicted that this would lead to the business involvement in educational functions. And with the current enthusiasm in e-learning, that prediction seems to be ringing true. So, with the need for new ID (instructional design) model, and with businesses playing an increasingly important role, will the new ID model emerge as a business byproduct?

David Jonassen: Probably. It will be one based on efficiency without regard to effectiveness. I don't doubt that we need multiple design models to meet diverse learning needs. I have contributed a number of these. However, my current research focus on problem solving clearly shows that despite the fact that most professionals are paid to solve problems, there are very few educational efforts focused on problem solving. Why? Because educators simply do not understand it. Some industry recognizes its importance, so they rely on one-size-fits-all solutions offered by consulting companies like Kepner-Tregoe. As industry exerts more educational authority, the only interesting questions is how much it will retard our socio-cultural understanding of learning.
 

About Professor David Jonassen

David Jonassen, Distinguished Professor, University of Missouri Columbia, has instructed, written and published extensively on such topics as instructional systems design, instructional computing, designing constructivist learning environments and using computers as a mind-tool. Among his recent books are:Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments, Learning With Technology: A Constructivist Perspective, and Computer as Mindtools for Schools: Engaging Critical Thinking (more here). Some articles available online are:

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