A History of Instructional Design and Technology

A very old classroom with wooden desks, a brick fireplace, and a blackboard on an easel. On the blackboard is the English alphabet written in cursive.

The readings for this week covered the history of instructional technology, and my first thought when I saw this on the syllabus was, “Didn’t we already cover this?” Going back through the blog posts, I see one of the readings for Week 2 was “A history of the AECT’s definitions of educational technology.” That reading was more concerned with how the terms such as instructional technology, etc. changed over time, and how they came to be defined. This week’s readings are more broad.

Like last week, where one reading provided a very good overview, one of this week’s assigned readings performs a similar function. Chapter 2 of Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology is titled “A History of Instructional Design and Technology,” by Robert Reiser, and it provides a good overview of how instructional technology has changed since we began moving beyond, “the teacher, the chalkboard, and the book”, and how instructional design has changed, primarily since World War 2.

I thought this chapter would mostly cover things that we’d read in other chapters and articles, but it covers a lot of information that’s new to me. The chapter is more or less divided into two sections; one covering instructional technology (or instructional media as the author calls it) and the other covering instructional design, and both sections had some surprises.

He describes instructional media as, “the physical means via which instruction is presented to learners,” which seems very broad to me. I remember dissecting a frog in 5th grade in the late 1970s, and handling mineral and fossil samples in high school during the 1980s, so those would probably be encompassed by this definition of instructional media.

One of the first surprises in the chapter is where the author describes school museums being used in the early 1900s. These school museums served as repositories of instructional media, including slides, films, maps, charts, stereographs, and so on. He goes on to add that school districts perform a similar function now, instead of leaving it to the schools, though to me it sounds like a function that might be performed by school libraries.

One recurring theme in this section of the chapter is how some new technology gets introduced, pundits say it will forever change the face of education, teachers resist it, and the technology more or less dies out in the educational field. For instance, with regard to instructional films, “In 1913, Thomas Edison proclaimed ‘Books will soon be obsolete in the schools… It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture. Our school system will be completely changes in the next ten years.'” Of course, Edison definitely had an interest in seeing this happen, and while it had an effect for awhile, there were many factors that limited its effect.

With the advent of “talkies” (films with sound recordings) people in the audiovisual instruction movement made similar pronouncements, such as when someone from the National Education Association said, “tomorrow they will be as common as the book and powerful in their effect on learning and teaching.” This didn’t quite come to fruition, coming as it did during the Great Depression and the technology being costly and difficult to implement.

The audiovisual instruction movement really came into its own during World War 2. While previous readings mentioned the how the military used instructional technology and design during the war, this chapter also highlights the use on the home front to help civilians working in industry. “In 1941, the federal government established the Division of Visual Aids for War Training. From 1941 to 1945, this organization oversaw the production of 457 training films. Most raining directors reported that the films reduced training time without having a negative impact on training effectiveness, and that the films were more interesting and resulted in less absenteeism than traditional training programs,” for which the author cites Saettler, 1990.

Another tidbit was how the FCC set aside hundreds of TV channels for educational purposes. These channels eventually became the public television stations (PBS), and while they have moved away from being strictly about education, it is interesting to know that bit about their history.

The author mentions computers being used in schools in the 1980s, and as you may have guessed, many people thought they would forever change the way people were taught, only to miss the mark. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The author cites a 1984 paper by Papert that states “the computer was going to be ‘a catalyst of very deep and radical change in the educational system’ and that by 1990 one computer per child would be a common state of affairs in schools in the United States.” At best, this could be considered overly optimistic, but when I read that, I couldn’t help but feel that it smacks of privilege. I think Papert didn’t consider the vast chasm of socioeconomic disparity in the American educational system when writing that statement. Despite that, computers have had a huge impact on instructional technology, but their adoption was much slower than Papert anticipated.

Moving on to instructional design, the chapter covers the evolution of the the various theories. A lot of this has been covered in our readings before, but there were still some surprises.

The most interesting were the concepts of norm-referenced testing and criterion-referenced testing, though maybe grading is a better description than testing. Norm-referenced grading, is what we used to call “grading on the curve” when I was much younger. It assumes some students will have poor academic performance, some will have excellent performance, and most will have an average performance. When the grades are plotted on a chart, from lowest to highest, the chart usually shows a curve with a lot of students earning average grades. I never really understood this. I know some of my classmates were excited by the prospect of teachers “grading on the curve,” I guess anticipating that the curve would give them a better grade if they were academically average. When I learned of this concept in high school, I felt it was a disincentive because I wasn’t a great student. If I understand it right, it doesn’t encourage academic excellence, but it does reward average academic performance.

Criterion-referenced testing is an alternative, and an improvement, in my humble opinion. In norm-referenced testing, students are essentially competing against each other for good grades. Criterion-referenced testing looks at “how well an individual can perform a particular behavior or set of behaviors, irrespective of how well others perform.” Criterion-referenced testing was developed in the early 1960s, so it looks like the definition was derived from behaviorism, though I think the concept is still valid. I would probably change the definition to “how well an individual can perform a particular activity, regardless of how well others perform.” In my experience, this seems to be how we are graded in grad school.

Near the end of the chapter, the author describes developments in instructional design during the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century. This book is copyright 2018 and the chapter cites sources up to 2015, so it’s not terribly out-of-date, but it feels like it needs an addendum or a companion piece describing the effect of the pandemic on instructional design and technology. About a year ago, I remember reading articles about how parents and their children would have to share computers while working from home. The pandemic has highlighted a lot of inequity when it comes to computer access and internet access. When this has happened, schools have tried to help out by loaning computers to students and teachers, or by allowing some teachers to teach online from their classrooms.

When the lockdowns first started happening a year ago, it seems like nearly everyone got a crash course in videoconferencing and learning online. Students, teachers, administrators, parents, employees, employers, nearly everyone. (As an aside, it just occurred to me that the reason we didn’t get a Spring Break this year was because last year, Spring Break was extended to two weeks as the university made the adjustment to online everything.)

I have a feeling it won’t be long before books about the effects of the pandemic on education start appearing. I don’t know when the next edition of Trends and Issues… will come out, but I hope they use the pandemic to update some of their chapters. Maybe they could include a chapter just about educating in a crisis, where learners and educators may be scattered across the country or across the world. Just a thought.

The readings for this week covered the history of instructional technology, and my first thought when I saw this on the syllabus was, “Didn’t we already cover this?” Going back through the blog posts, I see one of the readings for Week 2 was “A history of the AECT’s definitions of educational technology.” That reading…


  1. Hi Michael,

    I think you make some really good points here about equity and the digital divide. Access to technology is absolutely a social justice issue. The pandemic has only highlighted and deepened the divisions between the technological haves and have-nots. I think you’re smart to connect that to the history of instructional media and the ongoing promises that whatever the new media is will supplant all former methods of education. That introduces such an interesting equity question: does media increase access to education? What happens when media does make learning more accessible (through TV reaching remote parts of the country, for example)? Is it possible to use media to lessen that divide, instead of perpetuate it? I have no answers, but these are fun questions to ask!

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