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Definition of Instructional Technology

Donald G. Perrin

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration:

History changed on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I. The world's first artificial satellite . . . ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments . . the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R space race.

One outcome was an infusion of federal funds into U.S. public schools through the National Defense and Education Act (NDEA), to upgrade curricula and teaching methods, especially in science and engineering. Dr. James D. Finn, a national leader in audiovisual and innovative methods of education, participated in writing the legislation. Later, he was awarded a multi-year research grant by the National Education Association to study the role of technology in American Education. I was his research assistant. We engaged top researchers from across the country to write papers in their area of specialization, and initiated research from our project office to measure the impact of technology on classroom instruction. Results of the Technological Development Project were published in ten Occasional Papers, a final report, journal articles, and presentations and workshops at professional meetings.

The Project was in constant contact with innovators in military, business, industry, government, health care, and education, especially county offices of education and higher education. IT studied educational products of corporations such as RCA, General Learning, Eastman Kodak, and IBM; audiovisual equipment manufacturers such as DuKane and Bell & Howell; and startup companies such as Teaching Machines Incorporated (TMI) and Western Design. The study extended to current theory and research in communication, learning and methods of teaching.

Many innovative technologies were not audiovisual devices in the traditional sense. The overhead projector made it possible to teach with lights on facing students, permitting a more interactive kind of teaching. Language laboratories, teaching machines and computers were designed for individualized learning with interaction and feedback from the device itself.

One day, after a weekend with Charlie Hoban, Finn called together his project staff and graduate students to discuss a new definition. The term Audiovisual was too limiting; an expansive definition was needed to incorporate newer technologies as they are introduced. The definition must integrate theory and practice, methods and materials, and men and machines into systems of learning – systems that encompass empirical data, research, and instructional design. Finn and Hoban settled on the term “instructional technology”. The group embraced the new definition, and almost a decade later, it was used by the Commission on Instructional Technology to introduce its two-volume report:

Instructional technology is more than the sum of its parts. It is a systematic way of designing, carrying out, and evaluating the total process of teaching and learning in terms of specific objectives, based on research in human learning and communication, and employing a combination of human and non-human resources to bring about more effective instruction.

Tickton, Sydney (ed.) To Improve Learning:
An Evaluation of Instructional Technology.
Vol.1. p.21. Bowker, 1970

Today, instructional technology is a sub-set of information technology, which adds storage and retrieval systems, information processing, and global networks. The computer facilitates Learning Management Systems (LMS), customized learning based on diagnostic / prescriptive evaluation, and criterion-based learning so that all learners, including face-to-face and distant learners – reach established benchmarks. For almost half a century, instructional technology has defined key aspects of learning systems for instructional designers, teachers, and learners.

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