What's Next for Instructional Technology: A Focused Field or Crisis of Identity

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Michael K. Barbour
Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology, University of Georgia


The field of instructional technology (IT) has traditionally focused on product innovations and technologies as the backbone of scholarly research. Because of the fleeting nature of such products, the field is wanting of sustainable focus and depth in research. This lack of focus has provided the necessary components for a crisis of identity to manifest itself within the field of instructional technology. This chapter will provide a short background to and current state of this identity crisis, before speculating on future trends in research, technology and delivery that may transpire for the field of instructional technology.

History of the Field

As has been discussed in previous chapters, the field of Instructional Technology saw its beginnings in instructional media. Beginning with the use of school museums in St. Louis, Reading and Cleveland just after the turn of the century, instructional media has seen many changes related to technology in the past one hundred years (Reiser, 2002, p. 28). From the use of instructional films to audiovisual and radio to the television age, new forms of technology have pushed the boundaries of instructional media.

At the same time, the notion of instructional design has been connected with the practice of instructional media. For example, the 1920s saw the importance of educational objectives and individualized instruction become accepted. However, it was the 1940s which saw rapid development in instructional design due to the “thousands of military personnel [that] had to be trained rapidly to perform thousands of tasks critical to their own survival and the war effort” (Shrock, 1991, p. 14).

The post-war period saw the refinement of the process of task analysis and the increase in popularity of programmed instruction. The latter was exemplified by the research of B.F. Skinner. Television, along with other new technologies such as the computer, was being used for the purposes of instructional media. The 1960s saw the movement towards instructional systems, lead by such primary thinkers as Robert Glaser and Robert Gagne.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the term instructional technology began to be widely used to describe the principles of both instructional media and instructional design. In Ely (1963), the field had been defined as

Audiovisual communications is that branch of educational theory and practice concerned with the design and use of messages which control the learning process. It undertakes: (a) the study of the unique and relative strengths and weaknesses of both pictorial and nonrepresentational messages which may be employed in the learning process for any reason; and (b) the structuring and systematizing of messages by men and instruments in an educational environment. These undertaking include planning, production, selection, management, and utilization of both components and entire instructional systems. Its practical goal is the efficient utilization of every method and medium of communication which can contribute to the development of the learners' full potential. (pp. 18-19)

This definition failed to recognise the process of instructional design in a meaningful partnership with instructional media. However, Sidney Tickton of the Commission on Instructional Technology (1970) provided two definitions in order to maintain a better balance between the two historical camps.

In its more familiar sense, it means that media born of the communications revolution which can be used for instructional purposes along the teacher, textbook and blackboard…The second and less familiar definition of instructional technology goes beyond any particular medium of device. In this sense, instructional technology is more than the sum of its parts. It is a systematic way of designing, carrying out, and evaluating the whole process of learning and teaching in terms of specific objects, based on research on human learning and communication, and employing a combination of human and nonhuman resources to bring about more effective instruction. (p. 21)

It would be this second definition that would continue to define the field of Instructional Technology.

Educational technology is a complex, integrated process involving people, procedures, ideas, devices and organization for analyzing problems and devising, implementing, evaluation and managing solutions to those problems involved in all aspects of human learning. (AECT, 1977, p. 1)
Instructional Technology is the theory and practice of design, development, utilization, management, and evaluation of processes and resources for learning. (Seels & Richey, 1994, p. 1)

It was this movement towards a definition of instructional technology that reflected the history of instructional media that began the identity crisis for the field.

The Field Today

Through the past two decades, the identity crisis that plagued the beginnings of instructional technology has continued. However, the dual personalities of instructional media and instructional design were no longer the main antagonists in this crisis. It was identified in the early 1980s that there were problematic trends in the body of research for the field of instructional technology. The first of these difficulties was outlined by Clarke (1983), when he reported that “most current summaries and meta-analyses of media comparison studies clearly suggest that media do not influence learning under any conditions” (p. 445). He went on to state that “media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition” (p. 445).

The second difficulty was identified by Sachs (1984) when he recognised that many of the scholars in the field were educational psychologist with interests in technology. In fact, many of the individuals who are identified as leaders in the field of instructional technology today (e.g., Michael Hannafin, Tom Reeves, Richard Clarke, David Jonassen, John Bransford, Tom Duffy, etc.) have their educational foundations in the field of educational psychology. This fact has led to the debate within the field of whether or not instructional technology is a separate field. In an interview with Michael Hannafin of the University of Georgia for the magazine Educational Technology, he described the field of instructional technology as a starburst, “the ‘starburst’ metaphor is probably a good one because a starburst tends to be bright at the center and fades further out. We’re white-hot at the center, but lack direction and sustainable intellectual mass around common problems and issues.” He continues that “what happens in a lot of cases is that our intellectual energy is siphoned off to ‘other’ areas where there is a clear sense of direction.” He concludes by describing instructional technology as “more of a ‘metafield’; we’re not really a well defined discipline on our own… [but] serve the interests of many fields in the work that we do” (Oswald, 2002, 61).

The third difficulty that has faced the field of instructional technology has been the advances in technology and the need for many in the field to be “early adopters” (Rogers, 1995) of these advances. There have been a number of bandwagons that many in the field of instructional technology have hitched their bandwagon to, including the following (non-exhaustive list):

  1. Interactive Videodisc;
  2. Compact-Disc Interactive (CDI);
  3. Intelligent Tutoring Systems;
  4. Hypermedia/Multimedia;
  5. Online Learning/E-Learning;
  6. Artificial Intelligence;
  7. Virtual Reality; and
  8. Learning Objects. (M.A. Orey, personal communication, July 7, 2004 and T.C. Reeves, personal communication, July 8, 2004)

Typically, these advances in technology have been used to research theories from the field of educational psychology.

The crisis of identity can best be summarized by the differing views reflected in the following two passages.

Perhaps it is time to accept that [instructional technology] is a subset of other varied disciplines, and not a discipline by itself. Our destiny, in effect, is shaped through the various disciplines in which we are represented. Our focus should be to assess how instruction and technology are conditionally appropriate within each discipline, not on the portability of the process across often diverse fields. (Hannafin & Hannafin, 1991, p. 308)
We need to replace the body of knowledge from other fields with our own knowledge base in each of the five domains. (Seels and Richey, 1994, p. 116)

Hannafin & Hannafin (1991) call for the field to accept its fate that it is simply a part of a number of other fields, while Seels and Richey (1994) call upon those in the field to begin to construct a knowledge base, focused upon their definition of instructional technology, that can be used to establish instructional technology as an independent field.

Where the Field is Going

As the field enters the new millennium, the identity debate continues. Within the next twelve months, the Association for Educational Communications and Technology will announce the latest definition of the field: “educational technology is the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using, and managing appropriate technological processes and resources” (R.M. Branch, personal communication, June 17, 2004). This definition appears to remove overt indications of either instructional media or instructional design. It also appears to incorporate the reality that instructional technology is indeed a “metafield.”

This new definition may serve to close the book on the identity crisis that has existed in the field over the past forty years. Regardless of that fact, there are a number of trends within the field that seem ready for exploitation. Unlike the previous chapter, which considered many of the learning theories, largely rooted in educational psychology, that have dominated the past two decades of instructional technology, the following will be a discussion of trends that focus upon research, technology and delivery methods that will be utilized by instructional technologists in the next decade.

Trends in Research

In the past, much of the research in the field of instructional technology has focused upon media comparison studies (Clarke, 1983). According to Hannafin & Kim (2003), one of the reasons for this is because “comparison studies may be helpful for bottom-line adoption decisions or to satisfy policymaker demands” (p. 347). In addition to these demands, Gallini & Barron (2001-2002) state that “an increasing number of educators in K-12 and postsecondary settings are experimenting with the potential of the technologies for instruction and learning, but all of this is happening at a pace that is far surpassing the collection of useful data to test the mediational effects of the tools” (p. 143).

These challenges have given rise to a call for a “New Millennium” research agenda, in which

Future research must address squarely the question of why teachers should use technology-based methods. The emerging theory base demands that studies look at technologies not as delivery systems, but as components of solutions to educational problems, and that research questions can be stated in a way that the contributions of methods can be examined and tested. (Roblyer & Knezek, 2003, p. 63)

Specifically, Roblyer & Knezek (2003) propose research initiatives that indicate

(a) that certain technology-based methods have the potential for unique and fairly consistent benefits in response to certain kinds of educational problems; (b) there are ways to implement technology-based methods already in widespread use… that lead to increases in their impact on achievement, retention, and student satisfaction; (c) progress we are making to meet some of education’s most important goals for technology; and (d) how we can shape and direct out technology resources to better accomplish their intended purpose. (p. 64)

Similarly, Reeves (1995) called for a move “toward ‘socially responsible’ researcher questions… [that] attempt to inspire in students a dedication to research that would ‘make a difference.’” He further stated that “socially responsible research… addresses problems that detract from the quality of live for individuals and groups in society, especially those problems related to learning and human development.”

This call for socially responsible research can be met through research with development goals. “Researchers with development goals are focused on the dual objectives of developing creative approaches to solving human teaching, learning, and performance problems while at the same time constructing a body of design principles that can guide future development efforts” (Reeves, 2000). These goals can be achieved through the use of design-based research or design experiments. The main characteristics of design-based research are:

  • addressing complex problems in real contexts in collaboration with practitioners,
  • integrating known and hypothetical design principles with technological affordances to render plausible solutions to these complex problems, and
  • conducting rigorous and reflective inquiry to test and refine innovative learning environments as well as to define new design principles. (Reeves, 2000)

The Design-Based Research Collective (2003) define “design-based research [as] an emerging paradigm for the study of learning in context through the systematic design and study of instructional strategies and tools” (p. 5).

There are four areas that this group of researchers feel are most promising for design-based research

(a) exploring possibilities for creating novel learning and teaching environments, (b) developing theories of learning and instruction that are contextually based, (c) advancing and consolidating design knowledge, and (d) increasing our capacity for education innovation. (The Design-Based Research Collective, 2003, p. 8)

These areas provide opportunities for future researchers in the field of instructional technology.

In addition to design-based research, another research trend in instructional technology is that of grounded design. Grounded design or “grounded-learning systems design is defined as the systematic implementation of processes and procedures that are roots in established theory and research in human learning” (Hannafin, Hannafin, Land & Oliver, 1997, p. 102). In order to be considered grounded, a design practice must meet four conditions.

First, design must be based in a defensible theoretical framework. The framework must be public; that is, it can be both articulated clearly and differentiated from other perspectives… Next, methods must be consistent with the outcomes of research conduct to test, validate, or extend the theories upon which they are based… In effect, grounded designs reflect a close link between empirically verified approaches and those employed in a given learning system. In addition, grounded designs are generalizable, that is, the methods can be applied more broadly than only to a specific setting or problem… Finally, grounded designs and their frameworks are validated iteratively through successive implementation. (p. 103)

At present, there are three primary barriers to grounded design:

(a) the majority of published research and actual practice is not grounded so it is of limited generalizability, (b) theory-based applications are rarely implemented coherently in practice, and (c) design decisions are more often based on intuition and insight than evidence. (Hannafin, Kim & Kim, 2004, p. 6)

Overcoming these barriers, along with conducting socially responsible research, will be challenges for instructional technology researchers in the future.

In terms of areas of inquiry, according to Michael Hannafin “the place of technology in schools as well as technology in teacher preparation are important.” He also includes “emerging technologies and emerging learning models – the notion of how it begins to connect different views of how people learn, study and communicate” (Oswald, 2002, p. 61). However, the sustainability of any of these areas will depend on the interest of the scholars pursuing them, funding opportunities that are available to further programs of research and technology that is suitable to support the inquiry.

Trends in Technology

Looking to the future, Gustafson (2002) believes that instructional designers will focus upon improving human performance; the need for better, faster, cheaper instructional design tool; growing social and economic accountability issues in evaluation; the increased need for anytime, anywhere instruction; and new immersive, interactive, adaptive learning environments. One of the ways that this will be accomplished is through the use of alternative instructional design processes, such as rapid prototyping, concurrent engineering and designing by means of formative experiments. In addition, instructional designers will need to be more aware of various learning theories and brain research.

These demands upon instructional designers will be reflected in their use of new technologies that become available to them. Right now some of these new technologies include interactive media, virtual reality and artificial intelligence; however, the nature of technology has only proven that it is difficult to predict the next latest and greatest technological advance. In addition to new technologies, it is also difficult to predict how current technologies will be utilized for learning purposes in new and innovative ways. For example, in 2004 Duke University gave all 1650 freshman students a new Apple iPod to be used for their education. According to Jane Stancill of the News Observer “the iPods generally are used to store and play music; the 20-GB model, which the students will get, can hold up to 5,000 tunes. But the Duke students, being brainy and all, will use the iPods mostly for academics.” The university hopes that students will “use them for course content, such as recorded lectures, music, language lessons and audio books. Throughout the year, they will be able to download information through a Duke Web site” (Stancill, 2004).

Regardless of which technologies are used in the future, the common theme will be how they are used for educational purposes. One way that this may be accomplished is through the use of resource-based learning environments. “Resource-based learning is an educational model designed to actively engage students with multiple resources in both print and non-print form” (Campbell, Flageolle, Griffith & Wojcik, 2002). One of the attraction features of Resource-based learning is that it “does not imply either a particular form of learning or a specific learning process” (Hill & Hannafin, 2001, p. 42).

According to Hill & Hannafin (2001), resource-based learning environments “are complex environments comprising multiple components: resources, contexts, tools, and scaffolds. The features of specific resource-based learning environments change depending on how components are combined to address unique situational requirements” (p. 42). These type of learning environments need to reply upon many different resources, such as learning objects.

The Learning Technology Standards Committee defines a learning object as:

any entity, digital or non-digital, which can be used, re-used or referenced during technology-supported learning. Examples of technology-supported learning include computer-based training systems, interactive learning environments, intelligent computer-aid instructional systems, distance learning systems, and collaborative learning environments. Examples of Learning Objects include multimedia content, instructional content, learning objectives, instructional software and software tools, and persons, organizations, or events referenced during technology-supported learning. (Wiley, 2002, p. 5)

Wiley (2002) takes issue with this definition because it is too broad. In his words even “the historical event ‘the war of 1812’ or the historical figure ‘Joan of Arc’ [could] be learning objects.” Wiley prefers a narrower definition that reads “any digital resource that can be reused to support learning” (p. 6). He prefers this definition because it limits a learning object to something that is digital. It also emphasizes the re-usability of learning objects. Finally, the change of terminology from “during” to “to support” implies that the learning object will assist in the learning process and not just be present at a time when learning is taking place.

However, as with the early adoption of any new technology, there are others who do not share the same level of enthusiasm. Parrish (2004) describes the learning object movement as an attempt by practitioners to discover “the 20th-century manufacturing models of division of labour, assembly-line production, and distribution channels to overcome the inefficiencies of a craft model of instruction.” He cautions that “the practice of instruction has elements of art, craft, science, and industry, but overstressing the industry aspects can ignore the benefits both of crafting instruction to meet the needs of a particular audience and of the unique contributions of a skilled teacher or instructional designer” (p. 64).

He concludes his consideration of learning objects by stating

The trouble with learning objects is the same as for all new learning technologies. They offer novelty, potential, and apparent economic benefits that can lead down paths that ignore the true nature of learners, and even down paths that are already well trod and generally believed to lack promise. (Parrish, 2004, p. 65)

This advice would have held true with many of the other technology bandwagons that were listed in the previous section.

Trends in Delivery

Over a decade ago Holloway and Ohler (1991) made the prediction that “the next decade and century will see increasingly intensive use of various modes of distance education” (p. 259). They specifically use the term various modes to cover that fact that much of the developed world will be using more innovative forms of technology, while many under-developed and developing nations will be using current and even dated technologies (by our present standards). Some of the reasons hat they feel this increase will occur is due to decreased cost to do distance education, increase ability of technology to reach new markets, limited traditional resources, changing attitudes towards distance education (i.e., not simply a second rate option to classroom-based education).

The accuracy of their prediction is indicated by the fact that Gunawardena & McIsaac (2004) state that “in a 2002 survey of 75 randomly chosen college distance learning programs, results revealed an astounding rate of growth in the higher education distance learning market. In a time of shrinking budgets, distance learning programs are reporting 41 percent average annual enrollment growth” (p. 355). To provide another, more specific example, “a survey completed by the Illinois Virtual Campus shows that online enrollments at Illinois colleges and universities increased dramatically [38%] again during the Spring/Winter 2004 term after an apparent leveling off in online enrollments during the Fall 2003 Term” (Illinois Virtual Campus, 2004). This trend in Illinois is similar all over the United States and Canada.

In addition to growth in the higher education sector in North America, there has also been significant growth within the K-12 sector. The growth of the virtual high school movement for example, according to Clarke (2001) there have been fourteen state sanctioned virtual high schools since 1997 (pp. i-ii). This figure does not include those that have been created as district-wide or county-wide virtual high schools, charter virtual high schools, or private virtual high schools, for example Ohio has 41 different virtual school that operate as charter schools (“Cyberschool,” 2004). In addition to the dramatic increase in virtual high schools, web-based distance education has even filtered down to the middle school and elementary school levels. For example, LinkonLearning.com is a private elementary school in Ontario, Canada that opened in 2002 with about 25 students (Sokoloff, 2002).

In addition to the explosion of distance education (particularly web-based distance education) in the K-12 environment, distance education on the international scene is also a growth area. According to Gunawardena & McIsaac (2004), countries such as Pakistan, India and China has all begun to provide low-cost instruction for basic literacy and job training, along with the creation of an open university in Turkey (p. 387). They also state that it is in many of the economically developing countries that the largest distance learning projects are undertaken [as] a top educational priority is to improve the cost effectiveness of education and o provide training and jobs for the general population” (pp. 387-388). For example, Hawkridge (2002) reports that “in Africa… with 140 million illiterate adults… distance education to raise the professional and academic levels of teachers seems to be a priority” (p. 275).

Whether it is within the K-12 sector or on the international stage, distance education appears to be positioned to become a major source of development and research within the field of instructional technology in the future.


To describe what exactly the future of instructional technology will entail is a tall order. Suffice to say that as the title of Schrum (2002) states “Oh, what wonders you will see.” New research paradigms, agendas and methods, along with advances in technology and the spread of distance education to reach new populations in North America and around the world; the future of instructional technology will entail all of this and much more.

In addition to all of this, the identity crisis that has faced instructional technology from the very beginning will continue to plague it. For example, the May-June 2004 issue of Educational Technology was devoted to exploring the similarities and differences of instructional technology and the learning sciences. In that issue, Ragan & Ragan (2004) playfully discuss how many of the differences that have been outlined by others are simply “false dichotomies, red herrings and straw men.” Furthermore, there are those in both the learning sciences and instructional technology fields who believe that the other is simply a sub-set or smaller component of their own field. Let the identity crisis continue…


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About the Author

At the writing of this chapter, Michael K. Barbour had completed his first year of doctoral studies in the Instructional Technology program at the University of Georgia. Prior to beginning his Ph.D., Michael was a social studies classroom teacher in a rural school in Newfoundland, Canada. He earned his Master's of Education from Memorial University of Newfoundland in Teaching and Learning with concentrations in Literacy and Computers in Education.
Barbour michael.jpg


APA Citation: Barbour, M. K. (2007). What's next for instructional technology: A focused field or crisis of identity. In M. K. Barbour & M. Orey (Eds.), The Foundations of Instructional Technology. Retrieved <insert date>, from http://projects.coe.uga.edu/itFoundations/