Exclusive Interview with Dr. Michael H. Molenda, Associate Professor Emeritus, Indiana University

November 29, 2020
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Dr. Michael H. Molenda, Associate Professor Emeritus, Indiana University

Dr. Saba: You have had a long and stellar career in our field. What attracted you to instructional system design and technology

Dr. Moldenda: In a nutshell: applied philosophy. My undergraduate study was in Radio & Television, but I really had little interest in commercial mass media. I jumped at the chance to go to Syracuse University for graduate studies in this newly emerging field, then known as Instructional Communications. In my first year of graduate study I took a Philosophy of Education course from a great John Dewey devotee, Harry Ganders. His passionate argumentation led me to see that Education was nothing more or less than applied philosophy—a powerful means for making society’s beliefs and aspirations come true. As Harry often said, “Why would you want to spend your life doing anything else?”

The primary new idea I was pursuing in this project was the development of a comprehensive typology of teaching-learning arrangements, which are variously referred to as modes, methods, strategies, instructional formats, and activity structures.

Back in the 1960s, instructional systems development was just being invented by a consortium of universities, including Syracuse. In fact, my first published work was a series of monographs in 1968, entitled Instructional Systems Development, describing the early R&D work being done at Syracuse. It was just pure luck that I happened to be at the right place at the right time to get in on what has become a field of global breadth and considerable intellectual depth.

Throughout my career I remained a generalist, teaching courses all over the instructional technology curriculum—Audiovisual materials and methods, audiovisual program administration, instructional design, theoretical foundations, change management, simulations and games, distance education … everything except Production. At Indiana University we were hip-deep in faculty with deep expertise in creating audiovisual materials, film, television, and computer-assisted instruction, so I didn’t venture into that realm. But what I did teach largely revolved around the mantra: “helping people learn, faster, better, and cheaper.”

Dr. Saba: How do you characterize the changes in our field in the past few decades?

Dr. Moldenda: The explosive growth of distance education in the past three decades has attracted thousands of new practitioners into the instructional technology field, although probably only a fraction of them recognize that they are using the tools and knowledge base developed in our field. Understandably, the newcomers think they invented or discovered the ideas that they use every day.

At least distance education has opened up new opportunities for those who were already practicing instructional design and knowledgeable about the literature of instructional technology. Indeed, I wonder what would have become of our field without distance education. By the 1990s, the tools for easy self-production of instructional materials—such as word processing for print materials, PowerPoint software for visual presentations, and Web technology for hypermedia texts—were making it look easy to create instructional resources. It’s like the mass distribution of typewriters making millions of people think that anyone could be an author, with no special talent or training needed.

This merger with distance education—and the computer technologies that make it work—has interjected new constructs and models into our workspace. At its best, the distance education movement has allowed educators to experiment with innovative techniques for processing information through collaborative teams, discussion forums, and user-produced documents and media. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic forced thousands of elementary, secondary, and post-secondary instructors to switch overnight to distance-education formats, without the benefit of released-time to plan, training in the pedagogy and technology of distance education, or expert assistance. The result has been understandably mixed. It remains to be seen whether the concept of distance education emerges as a major, permanent, and treasured pedagogical tool or as a temporary expedient, gladly shoved back into the closet.

Dr. Saba: Your most recent book is titled the The Elements of Instruction: A New Framework for the Age of Emerging Technologies. What led you to write this book?

Dr. Moldenda: The primary new idea I was pursuing in this project was the development of a comprehensive typology of teaching-learning arrangements, which are variously referred to as modes, methods, strategies, instructional formats, and activity structures. Robert Gagné proposed a rough typology in the first edition of The Conditions of Learning (1965), but never returned to flesh it out. Over the years, Ivor Davies, David Berliner, and Susan Stodolosky, among others, proposed different classification schemes. But it was only the advent of distance education that forced me to see the shortcomings of all of those schemes; they were promising attempts, but they all focused on activities conducted in the classroom under the supervision of an instructor. Meanwhile, distance education was finding ways to facilitate learning without a classroom. While in distance education everything happens outside the classroom, in face-to-face education a lot of important learning also happens outside the classroom as well. Think about textbook reading, homework assignments, study groups, library research, term paper writing, athletic practice, and the production of art works, dance, and theater.

The Elements of Instruction: A Framework for the Age of Emerging Technologies Website

This realization allowed me to finally flesh out a comprehensive typology, encompassing all types of teaching-learning activities, and organized according to the arrangements of physically observable people, things, and communication flows among them. The current typology proposes eight classes of what we call communication configurations: Presentation, Demonstration, Whole-Class Discussion, Small-Group Discussion, Tutorial, Repetition, Study, and Expression.

My co-author, Deepak Subramony, and I propose that both face-to-face and distance learning situations can be described according to exactly what is going on at any given moment—who is doing what to whom. Any lesson can be viewed as a series of snapshots of teachers, learners, and resources being arranged and rearranged into different configurations for different stages of the learning process, possibly employing each of the eight configurations at different times.

We believe this classification scheme can be of great value to researchers—providing a consistent vocabulary for describing what is going on—and to instructional designers, since it reduces the complexity of selecting “media and methods” for each step of the lesson. We believe there is ample research evidence that what matters is the configuration chosen for a given objective, not the delivery system used to instantiate that configuration. That is, a Presentation is a Presentation whether the words and images are projected on a movie screen, drawn onto a whiteboard, displayed on a smartphone screen, or transmitted by television.

Dr. Saba: We are told that artificial intelligence is introducing a 4th technological revolution that will have a profound effect on our field. What is the importance of the enduring elements in an era of this structural change?

Dr. Moldenda: What is enduring is human nature. The human brain has evolved over millennia, but not over mere decades. We have the same brain structure as Shakespeare, despite changes in technology since his time. Through constant practice, “digital natives” may overlearn certain technological skills so that they become more automatized for them than for their parents, but they still face the same challenges using their brains to solve problems as did the Pilgrims. Our accumulated wisdom about Education is not going to become obsolete. The issues that Montaigne struggled with in his famous 16th-century essays we still struggle with today.

I recently watched a presentation about China’s race to dominate artificial intelligence (AI) in education—showing projects embedding AI in classroom whiteboards, in interactive smartphones, in worksheets, in discussion forums, and on and on. Nowhere did we see children playing, interacting informally face-to-face, or following their teachers as behavior models. To simplify somewhat, you might say that everything about the school was treated as a cognitive instruction problem. But we know that human learning is much more than that, and, of course, the Chinese people know that, too. I’m saying that we should be careful about what we strive for. In the US, since the 1990s there has been a mad dash to reduce all schooling to the pursuit of measurable gains in reading scores, math scores, and science scores. Reduce recess time, reduce lunch time, eliminate the creative arts, replace the music teachers with reading coaches. The result—the US ranks, at best, in the middle of the pack internationally in reading, math, and science scores; they are not gaining.

Other countries have succumbed to the same strategy, and many, like the US, are facing a backlash from parents and frustrated teachers. There is a rising global interest in giving “social and emotional learning (SEL)” a renewed priority. For centuries, philosophers and educational psychologists have pointed out that children learn what they do; the values and cultural habits they practice in school are the traits they take out into their adult lives. If we want future citizens to be compassionate, cooperative, self-confident, self-starting, self-controlled, and even-tempered, it behooves us to find ways to put those values into daily practice in the school as well as the home. Technology, including AI, does not necessarily work in that direction, nor does it necessarily prevent it. Educators must be wise enough to harness technology for their desired societal ends, not allow technology (or technologists) to determine those ends.

Dr. Saba: How do you see the future? What are some of the ideas you are working on?

Dr. Moldenda: My own future plans are to continue to clarify how we think about problems in the realm of teaching and learning. One of the major insights I gained in writing the current book, The Elements of Instruction, was that human learning is not all of one kind. By 2006, Kandel’s research into the elemental processes of neurological functioning had demonstrated that conscious, effortful learning (instructed learning) and effortless learning without conscious awareness (spontaneous learning) are acquired, stored, and retrieved through different neural pathways. By 2008, Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia had identified “mirror neurons” that allow humans to learn new behaviors simply by observing another person perform them, thus verifying Bandura’s earlier “social learning theory.” With this new insight we can now see that “educational research” has been devoted disproportionately to instructed learning, whereas many of the most important goals of education are acquired through spontaneous learning. This is reflected in the workplace when a manager decides to send an employee with “a bad attitude” to the Training department for remediation.

My own future plans are to continue to clarify how we think about problems in the realm of teaching and learning.

One arena in which the distinction between instructed learning and spontaneous learning is crucial is that of “social and emotional learning (SEL),” which I mentioned earlier. To be successful in this arena, educators need to think less about teachers and presentations and homework assignments and more about school rules and disciplinary practices, classroom management routines, behavior modeling by peers and adults, collaborative learning opportunities, and the reinforcement of cooperation rather than competition, for example, in grading practices. My coauthor, Deepak Subramony, and I intend to develop a new conceptual framework and a new typology to address learning in the affective and interpersonal domains and in the domains of moral education and creative performance.

Finally, schema theory, popularized by Rumelhart in the 1980s, reminds us of the importance of mental sets—the frameworks and belief structures we use to filter our inputs. Mental sets are real, and they can actually be seen through neuroimaging. The density of “white matter”—the myelin sheaths surrounding the axons that extend out from neurons—indicates the strength of connections. And yet, we write about instruction and training as though the incoming learner were a tabula rasa, ready to start storing up new facts, principles, and procedures. In reality, one of the first and largest barriers to instructed learning is pre-existing mental sets. As Diana Laurillard phrases it: “Teaching is essentially a rhetorical activity, seeking to persuade students to change the way they experience the world through an understanding of the insights of others.” Recognizing the scale of this challenge and developing powerful pedagogical solutions surely must remain one of the great challenges facing educators, including distance educators, into the future.

Dr. Saba: Thank you for this very illuminating interview.

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