Defining a field

A photo of a woman using a tablet computer to study anatomy.

It’s time for the second blog of the semester for EDUC-R511, and I guess I’m still getting into the swing of things. Last semester, when we had a bunch of readings, there were some questions posted for us to think about and answer in discussion forums on Canvas. For this class, however, I haven’t found any questions to be answered. Maybe I overlooked them. I don’t know. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

While there was only one reading last week, this week there were eight. There is sort of a theme among them that has to do with how the field is defined. If somebody asked what you do for a living, what would you tell them? If you say “educational technology”, “instructional technology”, or even “instructional systems technology”, you’ll likely be asked “What’s that?” While people understand the individual words, they probably don’t understand their meaning when put together. As it happens, one of the readings for this week is titled “What Field Did You Say You Were In?” Taken together, all of the readings are supposed to give the student a better idea about what it means to be in this field.

So, what is it?

A professional organization for the field is the Association of Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), which has been around for decades. Every ten years or so, they try to define or redefine the field to take new ideas and concepts into account. In the Chapter 1 of the 2008 edition of Educational Technology: A Definition with Commentary, they define the concept thus:

Educational technology is the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using, and managing appropriate technological processes and resources.

The authors then spend the rest of the chapter defining some of the key words, such as study, ethical practice, facilitating, and so on. For me, the most important part came in the conclusion, where they differentiated educational technology and instructional technology. The two terms are sort of used interchangeably, and on the face of it, they seem to mean the same thing, though they are slightly different. They wrote, “Educational technology is viewed as a construct larger than instructional technology, as education is more general than instruction.” I can sort of see that, but I’ll have to keep coming back to it every so often, because this implies there are thing that fall under the definition of “educational technology, but not “instructional technology.” And since the degree program is for Instructional Systems Technology, what does that mean?

I don’t know if the readings were supposed to be read in any specific order, but I’m guess the next one to read is “A History of the AECT’s Definitions of Educational Technology” which is Chapter 10 of the 2008 edition of Educational Technology: A Definition with Commentary. The chapter is interesting to the extent that it presents the evolution of of the definition up to the current one, but it sort of reinforces my belief that a large part of academia is splitting fine linguistic hairs. There are differences between the definitions, but they are nuanced and I’m not sure I want to get into them here.

As those two readings are mainly concerned with the definition for educational technology, Chapter 1 in Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology notes these, then goes on to provide a definition for instructional design and technology:

The field of instructional design and technology (also known as instructional technology) encompasses the analysis of learning and performance problems, and the design, development, implementation, evaluation, and management of instructional and noninstructional processes and resources intended to improve learning and performance in a variety of settings, particularly educational institutions and the workplace. Professionals in the field of instructional design procedures often use systematic instructional design processes and employ instructional media to accomplish their goals. Moreover, in recent years, they have paid increasing attention to noninstructional solutions to some performance problems. Research and theory related to each of the aforementioned areas is also an important part of the field.

Not as pithy as the AECT definition, but it seems pretty thorough. I can’t help but wonder why they call it instructional design and technology if it also includes noninstructional elements. I suspect they are using the term instructional because it is one that people in the field are familiar with, and they are stretching instructional design and technology to included the noninstructional elements.

If these readings are meant to define the field, the others are meant to show what it’s about. One reading is a chapter just about what is meant by the word creating in the AECT definition. Another reading is about some theoretical foundations that might be used in research into educational technology, while another is titled “The research we have is not the research we need”. That article from July 2020 points out that most research in the field is “…primarily focused on the ‘things’ of our field such as wearable technologies and mobile devices rather that on the ‘problems’ faced by teachers and students…” It will be interesting to see if that influences future studies.

One reading covers educational technology from the perspective of distance education. It’s sort of interesting because it came out in June of 2020, but I suspect it has been in the works for awhile. They didn’t mention lockdowns or the pandemic, but the authors did mention “great changes.” Regardless, they write about the pros and cons of different approaches to educational technology in distance education, and the pandemic has made their insights more important to pay attention to.

The last reading is titled “Flexible Learning in a Digital World” which was published in August 2010. The authors describe using technology to be flexible in time, in content, in distance, and in instructional approaches and delivery. Even though 2010 was barely 11 years ago, in terms of technological progress, we’ve come a long way. When they talk about using videotapes and learning management systems, it seems like a mix of ancient technologies mixed with contemporary ones. Learning management systems, such as Canvas, have come a long way since the article was published (for that matter, Canvas didn’t even exist in 2010), and they seem to offer a lot of the ideas floated by the article’s authors.

With regards to the readings for this week, I still wonder how I would answer if someone asked me to define educational technology or instructional technology (or even IST or IDT). The definitions provided are good for filling space in books and articles, but they’re not very accessible to someone outside the field. I think I would probably answer something along the lines of:

Educational technology studies the use of technology used in education.

If I feel like splitting hairs, I might add:

Instructional technology studies the use of technology used in instruction, and is a subset of educational technology.

Those definitions are simple and easy enough for someone outside the field to understand. It does what it says on the tin, as the saying goes. The nuance and minutiae of the published definitions are intended for people in the field, not for the world at large.

It’s time for the second blog of the semester for EDUC-R511, and I guess I’m still getting into the swing of things. Last semester, when we had a bunch of readings, there were some questions posted for us to think about and answer in discussion forums on Canvas. For this class, however, I haven’t found…


  1. Of course, as I started reading blogs from some of my fellow students, I waded back into the syllabus and found “Instead of a large class discussion forum, you will create a Weblog (i.e., a blog) to reflect on your personal article readings and ideas related to class. What concepts and ideas resonate with you? What do you disagree with? What do find intriguing? And so on.”

  2. Hi Michael,

    I would love to hear more about the difference you perceive between “instruction” and “education” in your definitions of the field. Would you say that “instruction” is more narrowly defined than “education”? I agree intuitively with you that I think there is a difference, but if I were pressed I’m not sure I could articulate it very well. I’m curious what your thoughts are.

    I also liked that you noticed the critique of research focusing on technology itself (gadgets) rather than on actual learning problems faced by students. It’s very tempting to get caught up in the “how” without asking “why”. I suppose the argument could be made that the “why” is answered by exploring the “how”, but I think there’s also the potential for there to be a disconnect there, which is I think what the author is arguing.

    This was a great and very thorough overview. I only read I think 4 or 5 of the pieces, so it was good to get a high-level review of the articles I didn’t read.

    Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts this semester!

    1. Hi Katie,

      Way back when I was an undergrad (late 1990s), me and most of my friends were very fascinated with technology, but because most of us were poor, it sort of tempered our enthusiasm. One of my friends worked full time in a computer shop, so he often had new stuff, but another friend jokingly called him the “poster boy for instant gratification.” I think there’s a fascination with technology that’s common – that we expect it to solve our problems when it’s often little better than whatever it’s trying to replace.

      I know in the medical fields there are “gold standard” treatments and practices that are used for a basis of comparison for new treatments and practices. I wonder what the “gold standards” are in education and instruction.

  3. Hi Michael,
    I like how you weaved the readings together with your own thinking on how to define the field! The field has grown so quickly for the last two decades and different names have been used to emphasize the aspects of the field during different phases of development. Your definition would be easy for someone outside the field to understand. To me, the term “instructional technology” emphasizes more on the instruction and teacher aspect while “educational technology” sounds more student focused.

    1. Hi Chaoran,

      Thanks for the comment. When I read that instruction is a subset of education, it made sense, but it made me wonder what else would fall under the education umbrella. The only thing I can think of at the moment if learning. Learning and instruction are distinct from one another, but both seem like they should be subsets of the education field.

      As you mentioned, “instructional technology” is more focused in the instructor/teacher – the person who is imparting the knowledge. Along similar lines, I think “learning technology” is more focused on the learner – the person who is receiving the knowledge. Both of these probably fall under the “education technology” umbrella. I’m not so well read yet that I’m an expert, so I may be missing something.

  4. Hi Michael,
    I appreciate you perspective on this readings. With respect to your take on the definitions of EdTech, IST, ID, etc. I think that people outside the field can get confused by using the word technology because they immediately think of gadgets and gizmos. I believe Merve conducted an exercise during one of the lectures where she did just that, asked that same (or similar question). Maybe someone else could prompt me as to where I found it, but I thought David Merrill put it well when he said something like it is the application of educational research into practice, to create effective instruction (or something close to that). It is my belief, that technology can encompass a number of different sources to “create effective instruction” such as gadgets, theories, research, experience, design judgement and anything else that got us to this point.


    1. Hi Jeff,

      I agree the word “technology” can confuse things a bit. My day job is in “information technology” so I’m constantly having to keep an eye on context whenever I see the acronym “IT”. My definition of “technology” is a bit narrower, since I tend to think of it as hardware or software, but those terms can encompass quite a bit. My simpler definitions probably follow from that.

  5. Hi Michael.
    (Got a little behind on the blog comments, my apologies!). I definitely agree with your points about defining educational and instructional technology and trying to find the differences especially since we sometimes use the terms interchangeably. I agree that educational technology seems broader, since education can happen without specific instruction, and when you mentioned non-instructional elements in instructional technology I also got a little confused! It reminds me how complex learning and education, and it seems the terms don’t often make it any easier to decipher. I look forward to seeing the rest of your blog!

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