Short History of Learning and Instructional Design Technology

Trina Harding

Learning and instructional design technology provides a key bridge between the theories of learning and instructional practices (Reigeluth, 1983, p. 5),  including the use of technology (and other tools) in education. Both of these fields continue to develop, and the need for educational improvement will be ongoing as our world evolves. The skills and insights of a trained instructional design technologist will be in demand for years to come.

In many regards, the need for a specialization in learning and instructional design grew out of the incredible technological and psychological advances of the 20th Century. In the early 1990s, school museums were established to provide materials such as photographs, charts, slides, and film to nearby schools. Though these materials, and later radio broadcasts and sound recordings were used in classrooms, they did not revolutionize instruction as many people, including Thomas Edison, had predicted (Reiser, 2001).

Films were used extensively during World War II to train soldiers and pilots on how to operate their newly-developed machinery. There was a parallel need for training for civilians working in manufacturing that supported the war effort, and film was a major part of that instruction as well. These training efforts were hugely successful, and have been credited with playing a key role in the outcome of the war (Reiser, 2001 vol. 1, 56-57).

The next “big thing” in education was television. Despite billions in funding and an overall enthusiasm for the medium, by 1965 many of the over 50 “educational television” stations had stopped broadcasting. Education went on essentially as it had for decades.

Computers were used minimally in higher education beginning the in 1950’s, but it wasn’t until the 1980’s, with the advent of microcomputers, that this technology was small enough and inexpensive enough to be used in public schools. Even with that availability, very few computers ended up being used for instructional purposes. Computer use in education has increased a great deal since 1995, particularly due to the Internet and the options it offers to connect learners with information and people around the world. We are just now beginning to see the kind of technological pervasiveness in education that was predicted almost 40 years ago, and the applications of this technology are continually evolving.

This evolution has been heavily influenced by decades of research dedicated to understanding how we learn and how best to promote that learning through instruction. Learning theorists in this century began with a behavioral approach. Part of that approach included trying to create a “teaching” machine that would reduce the burden on teachers (McDonald, Yanchar, & Osguthorpe, 2005). Further technological advancements provided a new model for theorists to consider; The brain was seen to function much like a computer and the cognitive approach to understanding learning as a process of receiving, storing, and retrieving information was born. Research in the last 50 years has expanded to include theories of constructivism, situated learning, and connectivism, which has been called a learning theory for the digital age.

The instruction that occurred during World War II is a great example of the success that can come from using available technological tools to apply the best of these learning theories in instructional practice. In this case, researchers and educators were called on to prepare effective training processes that included the use of training films. These early instructional designers (including Robert Gagne) continued their work after the war and laid strong theoretical and research-based groundwork for modern instructional design (Reiser, 2001 vol. 2, p.58).

Technology will continue to evolve as will its many, varied applications in all types of instruction. As an instructional design technologist, I make curricular decisions based not on the fad of the moment, but on proven theory and practice, founded in decades of research, to apply technology to effectively enhance the educational experience for learners and teachers alike.  

By focusing on the unique needs of early learners (particularly preschool age through 6th grade), I hope to create curricula and learning programs that utilize technology and innovative psychological approaches to create experiences and classroom environments that allow meaningful learning to occur through play and real-world application. The goal is to find ways to make information accessible to learners of all levels, from learning disabled to gifted.

I see the instructional designer as being a key partner with educators, empowering them by providing effective, proven tools that utilize the latest in technology and learning theory. I do not believe that technology can ever supplant knowledgable, trained educators who directly work with students and can understand their educational needs. But as part of a comprehensive, research-supported approach, technology can allow teachers to help their students in more effective ways.

McDonald, J. K., Yanchar, S. C., Osguthorpe, R. T. (2005). Learning from programmed instruction: Examining implications for modern instructional technology. Educational Technology Research & Development, 53(2), 84-98.

Pressey, S. L. (1960). A machine for automatic teaching of drill material. In A. A. Lumsdaine & R. Glaser (Eds.), Teaching machines and programmed learning: A Sourcebook. Washington, DC: National Education Association of the United States. 42-46.

Robert Reiser. (2001).  A History of Instructional Instructional Media.  Part I:  A History of Instructional Design.  Educational Technology Research and Development, 49(1), 53-64.

Robert Reiser. (2001).  A History of Instructional Design and Technology.  Part II:  A History of Instructional Design.  Educational Technology Research and Development, 49(2), 57-67.

Siemens, G. (2004). A learning theory for the digital age. Retrieved from