Full citation: Sherry, L., & Wilson, B. (1996). Supporting Human Performance Across Disciplines: A Converging of Roles and Tools. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 9 (4), 19-36.
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Performance support is close to the center of a host of related fields and specialties, including human performance technology, electronic performance support systems, technical communications, and instructional design. Because of their common interest in performance support, and common external influences such as cognitive psychology and digital technologies, roles and tools within these fields are beginning to converge, resulting in unprecedented overlap. In times of rapid change, related fields have an opportunity to learn from one another, borrowing useful elements and incorporating them into their own practices. The purpose of this paper is to explore the similarities, differences, and emerging trends among some of these fields and to gain insights into how their evolution affects performance support. Across these fields, we find a continuing tension between designed messages and tools allowing users more flexibility and control. The best performance-support systems include both of these components as well as a strong human support component. We also observe a trend toward greater reliance on users and user communities in defining and controlling support systems.
Performance support is closely aligned with a host of related fields and specialties, including human performance technology (HPT), electronic performance support systems (EPSS), computer-supported collaborative work (CSCW), technical communications (TC), electronic publishing, instructional design (ID), and workplace training. In addition to their goal of providing performance support, these fields have more or less interest in two additional concerns:
Because of their common interest in performance support, and common external influences such as cognitive psychology and digital technology, roles and tools within these fields are beginning to converge, resulting in unprecedented overlap in function and products. In times of rapid change, related fields have an opportunity to learn from one another, borrowing useful elements and incorporating them into their own practices. The purpose of this paper is to explore the similarities, differences, ambiguities, and emerging trends among some of these fields and to gain insights into how their evolution affects performance support.
Typical solutions to performance problems may include:
We used to be in the training biz...[now] we're talking much more about the performance business, [not the training business] which means you actually have to violate the walls of organizations and work with folks in incentives and recognition programs, selection, and information technologies. (in Geber et al., 1995, p. 62)In Taylor (1991) former ISPI President Marc Rosenberg predicted the demise of the so-called training department and the emergence of a performance improvement department within the workplace. In Geber at al. (1995), he notes,
The chairman of AT&T is never going to call me up and ask me what I taught today or how much they learned today. He will ask, 'How are you helping the business?' (p. 62)Rosenberg's message to trainers is clear: They must consider the impact of training and other interventions on results, competitiveness, and productivity. When they use short-term learning assessments exclusively at the expense of measuring impact on performance, their work may be inconsistent with the needs of business. For example, Gery cites an instance of a client who reduced training from 96 hours to less than 30 minutes by simply changing the interface to a system (in Geber et al., 1995, p. 64). This change led to a systemic improvement in organizational practice, not through a skills/knowledge/information intervention, but by changing the demands of the job.
This points to the strong potential of EPSSs to help people acquire job-related skills. In the EPSS approach, practitioner skills are learned by doing, not by being taught. As a result, the relevance and structure of any support system must be user-defined, and its design must be iterative and flexible. Gery (in Geber et al., 1995) considers theories based on situated cognition (see also Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Suchman, 1987; Streibel, 1991) to be highly relevant to EPSS design. Situated cognition emphasizes the real-life, everyday cognition of workers as they operate a copy machine, use informal math to make estimates, or solve problems collaboratively in workgroups. Developing supports for such everyday performance is a goal of human performance technologists utilizing EPSSs and related tools.
It is important to note that, although EPSSs can be highly effective as a means of providing users timely and relevant information, there is a great challenge in teaching individuals to use these tools effectively. Crook (1994) notes that, in school settings, students tend to turn to their peers for support in computer-based problem solving, and are apparently unwilling to make use of the online help facilities that the instructional programs themselves offer (p. 127). Similarly, in our own evaluation of the Creating Connections Internet training project (Lawyer-Brook & Sherry, 1996), we found that though a substantial majority of newly trained teachers requested online technical support, very few of them actually used it--3 percent used it regularly, 31 percent used it less than five times, and 66 percent never used it at all! Getting people to utilize available resources has become an area of study in its own right (Farquhar & Surry, 1993; Garland, 1995; see also Rogers, 1995) and involves a combination of well-designed tools, supportive environments and culture, motivated individuals, and a sound adoption plan.
For several years now, the ID community has been engaged in the debate generated by the constructivist movement in psychology (e.g., Bednar, Cunningham, Duffy, & Perry, 1991; Duffy and Jonassen, 1992; Jonassen, 1991; Lebow, 1991; Wilson, Osman-Jouchoux,& Teslow, 1995). Constructivism stresses meaningful learning in authentic settings. Situated cognition does too, although with less emphasis on individual knowledge representation and more on community enculturation (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Streibel, 1991; see also the March 1993 and October 1994 issues of Educational Technology).
An important part of the discussion about constructivism is the renewed interest in the learning setting. Tessmer and his colleagues have developed a framework for conducting environment analyses (e.g., Tessmer & Harris, 1992), while Winn (1990) has stressed the importance of instructional decisions being made in the immediate learning context. Designers of constructivist learning environments try to model important aspects of natural performance settings (Wilson, Ryder, McCahan, & Sherry, 1996). Thus for reasons perhaps different than those of HPT professionals, instructional designers have come to a similar conclusion about learning settings: They need to be as close to the work setting as possible, in time, place, and spirit.
Collins, Brown, and Newman (1989) feel that the best way to develop expertise is not through ordinary classroom-based teaching or training, but rather through cognitive apprenticeship--a process derived from the traditional apprenticeship model. They emphasize that integrated cognitive and metacognitive processes are more central to expert performance than either low-level skills or decontextualized knowledge. They argue that expert performance can best be taught through authentic problem solving in realistic contexts, by observing expertise-in-use by people who externally model the desired performance, in the authentic problem context, with other participants.
Like their HPT counterparts, instructional designers are heavily dependent upon tools to support thinking, problem representation, and work performance. Researchers at Northwestern University (Edelson, Pea, and Gomez, 1996) use scientific visualization tools in their CoVis project, a networked scientific learning environment that emphasizes open-ended inquiry for secondary students. Such tools enable students to overcome difficulties in understanding the abstractions, formalisms, and quantitative terms of equation-based data representations. Hancock and colleagues (Hancock, Kaput, & Goldsmith, 1992) report similar findings with a computer tool that shows membership groupings and quantitative patterns. Other examples of cognitive tools can be found in Wilson et al. (1996). Thus in several key respects, the fields of ID and HPT are moving along parallel tracks, toward site-based, timely addressing of people's needs, and toward greater reliance on tools and technologies to support learning and performance.
Harrell (in Trends in the Information World, 1995) notes that, instead of employees or customers receiving information in a booklet, in a detailed training program, or in traditional job aids, they will increasingly receive online, immediate information at the point they need it. That information will be distributed to them in various interactive modes--possibly via their home television, a hand-held device, an online computer system, a diskette, a CD ROM, perhaps even a cellular device. Or, it will be provided to them by an embedded EPSS so when information is needed, the system will generate that information. Crane (1995) sees online documentation manuals as self-tutorials, self-training tools, and reference guides, all wrapped up into one.
To Harrell, information delivery systems will be designed collaboratively, by a tightly knit team of technical writers, engineers, training specialists, communications specialists, multimedia specialists, graphic designers, and so forth. With the help of powerful online documentation tools, the fields of training, support, and documentation have begun to converge. The new breed of technical communicators will become problem solvers and business thinkers who understand how systems work, how people think, how the business process works, and how to disseminate information to ensure complete performance support. The technical department within each corporation will become more dispersed and less centralized, and will be closely tied to user support groups.
Hackos (1995) also emphasizes the collaborative, concurrent design process. The trends are toward making documentation, training, and support integral to the tools they build, not add-ons to be rushed through at the last minute. To achieve this level of integration, all development groups must work closely together and coordinate all of their activities. Kahn (1995) illustrates this by describing a cooperative authoring project for a complex hypermedia documentation system, in which his independent information design studio was asked to join members of Interleaf's marketing, programming, technical writing, and design staffs. To Horton (cited in Adix, 1995, p. 12), "successful online documents require a team of multitalented individuals who are well motivated and clearly managed"--consisting of writing and illustration specialists, computer specialists, and ergonomics specialists, all led by a "communication designer" with general expertise in team management and group communication. Whereas writers were once individualists, providing documentation as an add-on to a finished product, they are now part of a team effort from the inception of the project to its final implementation and support.
Usability testing enables designers and writers to evaluate how people actually interact with the software and documentation they have created, providing feedback that developers can use to improve their products. To Bresnan (1995), this means "not trying to tell them how to design, but bringing them important information to help them to do their jobs better" (p. 16).
To assist with the collaborative design process, more work is beginning to be done in "virtual worlds", in which designers and technical communicators use an electronically shared information space to collaboratively produce software products (see Ishii, Kobayashi, & Arita, 1995). However, this digital revolution does not come without a price--new design and usage challenges abound, as well as new learning needs. In Trends in the Information World (1995), Jeffers presents a vision not unlike that of Negroponte (1995), who states that:
The challenge for the next decade is not just to give people bigger screens, better sound quality, and easier-to-use graphical input devices. It is to make computers that know you, learn about your needs, and understand verbal and nonverbal languages. (p. 92).Jeffers notes that in the digital world, communicators must gather, develop, and package information in a variety of traditional and new formats. Information delivery tools will go online. Technical support, training, and information management will all begin to blend. A corporation's integrated publishing model may include promotional material, online documentation, Internet support, customer support services and communications, and intelligent search agents. A briefing given by a vice president of publishing and communications for a typical corporation might include the following:
In essence, Jeffers' vision does not supplant training with a performance support system; rather, training and EPSSs are integrated into one seamless service environment. Gery refers to this movement as the "re-representation of knowledge" within the organization, and notes:
People are now starting to create knowledge databases that are being made available on demand through various kinds of digital environments...and creating publishing tools for people who are the keepers of knowledge or information. (in Geber et al., 1995, p. 67)Ironically, Rosenberg sees this trend as an opportunity for trainers to move from performance technology back to informing and educating people. The roles of training and documentation will converge as trainers begin to take a lead in the creation, archiving, and access of information and knowledge. "The world of information is the growth market for trainers...If they [the trainers] fix the information stream, they'll have [fewer] courses and less training around, but they'll have more work than they've ever had before" (in Geber et al, 1995, p. 67).
In this new vision, people become both the agents for organizational change and the "lubrication" for performance support. Like oil in a car, people can help the process through the rough spots, enabling the technologies to do their work. We do not regard the technical tools as supplanting people. Rather, technology and information tools become the vehicles which facilitate training, communication, information access, troubleshooting and performance support. People continue doing the essential work--serving as role models, shaping the culture, and helping each other adopt the tools and resources available to them.
Thuring, Hannemann, and Haake (1995) are designers of open, collaborative, hypermedia systems. They argue that for readers to comprehend an online document or help system, they must be able to construct a mental model that represents the objects and semantic relations described in the text, which also corresponds to facts and relations in the real or possible world. Users then refer to this mental model as they approach a task and decide which aspects of the system to draw upon.
Perkins (1996) expands the mental model concept to encompass knowing one's way around the entire performance environment. This means having a sense of orientation and structure, perceiving how things work together, and feeling comfortable within the environment. This comfort level comes from knowing where to find things, who to ask, and what to expect. Having attained a sense of familiarity, the learner is then able to draw on all of the available resources, develop a rich schema-based understanding of problems, and apply that knowledge to solve problems in a sensible, coherent manner. For example, most professional workers develop a set of tools and a working space where they feel comfortable. Such an environment might be an office with a particular computer and a particular set of software programs. Force of habit is strong, and a worker may have mastered a subset of WordPerfect or PowerPoint, for example, sufficient to master the daily tasks required. The worker may address technical questions about software to a friend and colleague two doors down. This colleague then becomes, along with the technology, the office, and the tools, an essential part of the comfortable, familiar environment where effective work can occur.
In our own research (Lawyer-Brook & Sherry, 1996), we have found that new trainees must establish a comfort zone and have access to continuing support before they feel confident using their newfound skills. A project that introduces innovation to a population requires ongoing support until the innovation becomes part of the culture. We have found that, no matter how wonderful the innovation, it is worthless unless it is used. And like it or not, much of the support at the beginning takes the form of one-on-one mentoring and what is often termed "hand-holding."
Though EPSSs are improving dramatically, corporations have still not disbanded their training programs. Moreover, the new breed of trainers is beginning to integrate traditional instruction with instruction in using the EPSS itself, so that new users may be able to find their own solutions to performance problems--a second order form of instruction that "lends support to the support itself." Just as a well-designed EPSS will support the work environment with a new, electronic, information-rich environment, so a well-informed trainer or a well-designed instructional system will help learners to find out how the new system works, and how to search for relevant information therein, so they will not be intimidated by it.
This has been our own experience (Wilson et al., 1996). In an effort to encourage our academic community to use our newly World-Wide Web resource, we have incorporated a Getting Internet Help system in the main menu. In addition, we have provided paper-based job aids, formal courses, one-hour workshops, brown bag sessions, and informal mentoring, both face-to-face and via e-mail. It is our policy always to refer new users to the online help resources; however, they must not only know where these resources are, but also how to use them.
EPSSs are storehouses of just-in-time, just-in-place information to solve performance problems. Needless to say, they may not be perfect--especially when they are designed concurrently with new or newly updated products. Like the information explosion that we are seeing on the Internet and the WWW today, EPSSs may contain potentially useful information, but sometimes that information is buried and inaccessible so that the user wastes precious time and keystrokes in attempting to retrieve it (McKenzie, 1995).
McKenzie suggests that the answer lies in excellent message design, impeccably structured and annotated electronic directories, and carefully filtered information. Upon closer scrutiny, however, we find that this is the very antithesis of a user-driven information model! The more the designer filters and structures the data, the more "canned" it is, and the fewer options the user will then have to tailor the information to match his/her own situation. The answer to the human-tool mismatch is not to build a more controlling tool, it is to build a different kind of tool, one that allows more flexibility and appropriation by people with different needs. People don't need someone deciding to give them less information, they need better ways of seeing and getting at the information available.
Another information technologist (McAlister, in Trends in the Information World, 1995) notes that technology is often used to flood consumers with information, without providing the accompanying tools to allow them to deconstruct massive texts into bite-sized chunks of information that satisfy an immediate need. A potential solution lies in the development of improved search tools--tools that enable end users to find precisely the information they need, when they need it. "Intelligent agent" technology uses expert systems to develop a profile of a user's information needs, then anticipates those needs and adapts the interface accordingly. Though such approaches are still being developed and refined, they are more sophisticated and efficient than the hierarchical search tools that were available just two or three years ago. For example, the tried-and-true WWW search engine, Yahoo, is now being challenged by tools such as Inktomi, which uses a set of parallel processors to search a much large database, and runs a lot faster.
In essence, there is a continuing tension between the end user's need to control the type, level, and flow of relevant information, and the designer's need to produce an efficient, effective learner support environment. With the growing trend toward user-centered design, it is generally the end user, not the designer, who should ultimately be able to adjust the level of system filtering, anticipation, and support. The tension, however, will always be there. A good designer will acknowledge this, and will allow for varying levels of support to accommodate both the contextual factors and the diverse learning styles of the practitioners for whom the system is designed.
[Its value is] the personal contact, warmth, and acceptance that we try to show all members, whether they are experts who are willing to share, or novices willing to learn. The beauty of a users' group such as ours is that we are all in the adventure together, and it is important that we keep the faith with each other. All of the above factors [publications, BBS, support from local school district, magazines and newspapers] help us get new people in the door, but once they are in, it is everyone's responsibility to make them comfortable and important enough to stay. (p. 1.)With the growth of the Internet, support groups are now going online. There are Usenet Newsgroups and LISTSERVs, through which participants can tap the distributed expertise of thousands of people throughout the world who share similar interests and knowledge. No longer is the Internet the domain of the UNIX gurus and the research establishment; academia is gaining a strong foothold there, too. The WWWEDU LISTSERV, for example, supports its members with advice on setting up their own school web servers, linking to educational resources, and designing and publishing school-based Home Pages and other electronic publications on the WWW. The EdTech LISTSERV is a valuable resource for educators who wish to avail themselves of the latest technologies.
Learner support systems are becoming popular within the academic environment. These involve a blend of face-to-face interactions and electronic conferencing to enable new users to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in their coursework. Nowhere are these more prominent than in the field of distance learning. Through the Open Learning Agency, Porter, Fallick, and Dagert (1995) have designed and pilot-tested a distance learning environment for secondary schools in British Columbia. Their FirstClass bulletin board system proved to be an excellent resource for information exchange and learner support. Teachers, site facilitators, and dispersed learners worked productively together and succeeded in lowering the traditionally high dropout rate. Input from participants was weighted highly by the design team, and concerns were acted upon quickly and effectively. Their mid-course review provided valuable insights and resulted in a number of significant modifications to the prograM--an excellent example of iterative design.
Online support groups are becoming popular in local, as well as global, settings. Discussion groups and networked learning environments are important forms of support for adult learners in commuter schools with alternative class schedules, who must balance family and job responsibilities with academic requirements.
In a higher education environment, we (Sherry & Myers, 1996) have found that the relative importance of formal classes is decreasing, whereas the use of electronic tutorials and references, posing questions to sysops and other experts via e-mail, and participation in online discussion groups is increasing. Students use the automatic distribution list feature of their e-mail system to send informal messages to their professors and classmates, seek clarification about topics discussed in class, present and refute arguments, build a collaborative knowledge base, and mentor their peers. This helps to build a constructivist learning environment in which knowledge, rather than being transmitted by a professor, is developed collaboratively by the students.
Needless to say, "one size does not fit all" where learning and support are concerned. Informal human support has its strengths and limitations, as do instruction, information tools, and other performance supports. Table 1 compares some key resources available to support human performance, noting their principal strengths and limitations.
Designed Messages and
-Training and instruction
-Conveys information well
-Good peer review
-Expensive to produce
-Difficult to keep updated
-May require specialized hardware/software
|Information Tools and Resources||
-Flexible user control
-Easy to construct and maintain
-Specific and detailed
-Easy to keep up to date
-May not be presented well
-May not match user's needs
|Informal Human Support||
-Primary workgroup (office, team, cohorts, family, etc.)
-Specialized support groups (online support groups, self-help groups, users' groups, SIGs, clubs, etc.)
-Backup support, helping where other supports fail
-Quick response time
-Limited presentation capabilities
-Lack of access
In general, the best performance-support systems employ all three kinds of supports--designed messages, tools, and human support. They each fill a needed niche within the overall system. Over-reliance on one type of support places an undue burden on that component to fill the complex needs of people in performance settings.
Analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation are sometimes carried out by teams who have little contact with end users in the field. Such teams may end up designing a product to meet the requirements of management, rather than having direct, empirical feedback from ordinary users. Grudin (1991) identified several problems arising from this division of labor which adversely affect the end user:
This scenario can be remedied through these, and perhaps other, early interventions:
These principles apply directly to instructional designers and information technologists, and also to the design of any intervention intended to improve human performance.
Groupware design tools are becoming available, enabling team members to collaborate within a seamless, multi-platform, electronic workspace (see Ishii et al., 1995). Integrated publication and information systems (see Streitz, 1995), open hyperdocument systems (OHS), and hypertext design environments (see Nanard & Nanard, 1995) are now being developed and refined. Environments for collaborative design de-emphasize quick turnaround time and focus on the designer's interaction with the application, the user's interaction with the designer, and the team members's interactions with one another. Likewise, they de-emphasize "generate, then test" and stress interaction between designers and users through all phases of the design (Winograd, 1995). Thus many of the top-down, goal-based, structured problem-solving methods learned in school need to be unlearned. A cycle of innovation develops where new tools lead to new practices, which in turn open up possibilities for new innovations that make the end user's task easier.
One implication of these new design environments is the merging of traditionally separate roles. Grudin (1991) notes that participatory or collaborative design, as well as the current trend toward customization of software products, puts the end users in direct contact with the developers during the entire development process. Software development teams may cycle members through instructional design, corporate training, manning the helpdesk, site visitation, and a variety of other related activities, to give each member a more holistic picture of how end users will eventually react to the finished product. Trainers, too, may wear many hats: presenter, developer, learning facilitator, and system design team member.
Winograd (1995) sees another new design trend: a move from technology-driven, through productivity-driven, to appeal-driven software that focuses on the cognitive processes of the end user, rather than the internal mechanisms or algorithms of the product. As the emphasis on user participation in iterative design blurs the distinction between design and support, Winograd remarks:
The perspective of software design shifts from the 'outside looking in' focus on mechanisms to an 'inside looking out' focus on people and their situations; how people experience software, what they do with it; and the larger situation in which they encounter it. (p. 68).As a result, the design process itself becomes less systematic and more situated. Nanard and Nanard (1995) see design as a blend of top-down and bottom-up processes, a mix of formal methods and creative mental activities on the part of the designer, rather than a systematic approach. Similarly, Rowland (1994) sees the designer as "'betwixt and between', i.e., as maintaining a balance of two perspectives--that of the outsider creating on behalf of another and that of an insider experiencing the look and feel and the consequences of the envisioned design" (p. 19). The creative tension between designing and evaluating, and especially between the rational and intuitive approach to design, is what drives the quality of the process.
[E]lectronic-performance support is a revolution. It's a recognition that you can get to performance without necessarily going through learning, and I think it's a whole new paradigm...the opportunities are theirs [for trainers] to create fabulous new information streams to replace training so that people can access what they need when they need it. (in Geber et al., 1995, p. 68)Rossett (in Geber at al., 1995), by contrast, is in favor of "legitimate" training. Both agree that the emphasis should be on just-in-time, just-in-place information, situated in the context where it is to be used, and easily comprehensible by the end user. Instructional systems, EPSSs, HPT, integrated documentation and information systems, and informal user support should be combined into a mature support system for people who are trying to do their jobs.
Moreover, the design process itself is open to new alternatives. Design, whether for instruction, for online help systems, or for software development, will approach that of an open, rather than a closed, system. Designers will collaborate closely with end users and other team members at all stages from conceptualization and design, through development, to documentation, training, and support. Roles will merge as marketing personnel and trainers serve on system design teams, system designers man helpdesks, and information technologists become involved with user support. The design process itself will evolve from a formal, systematic model based on "golden rules" and guidelines to a flexible, iterative process that is much more attuned to the context and needs of the end user.
Clearly, the problem of striking a delicate balance between designer control vs. learner control will continue to exist. The emphasis, however, will be placed more and more upon the user and the community, rather than the designer, to define the process of instruction or support, and upon the designer to implement increasingly user-friendly and adaptive support systems.
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