The History of Educational Technology

The progression of education practice as it relates to technology can be attributed to several waves of innovation in the practice that arose at different times around the world and for different reasons, but primarily to make learning efficient and effective. As stated by Molenda as cited in Spector (2008), “Research and practice in educational technology are rooted in a primordial human drive to find ways of teaching in ways that are more efficient” (p. 4). This focus on education, rather than the stand-alone virtue of technology and its correspondent media, is born out in the research on the efficacy of instructional media use by Richard Clark (2001). The main argument is that while media does have an important role to play as a vehicle in learning and cognition, it is not the media itself that is the influencer. Rather as Clark (1983; 2001) points out, media can be the avenue through which deeper or more efficient cognitive practice can occur. However, this is only possible through an understanding of cognition and so use of media must be built upon educational theories as opposed to the once touted Strong Media theory, which celebrates the use of technology by virtue of itself as a provider of learning. Moreover, efficiency of learning is shown by Clark to be the core justification for effective media use in educational technology integration as it tangibly benefits education and learning directly.

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Photo Credit: Giorgos~ via Compfight cc

Another pertinent factor in constructing learning that Molenda discusses is the fact that learning does occur in lieu of formal instruction. “Humans have succeeded as a species largely due to their ability to learn from their experiences and to pass along their wisdom to succeeding generations. Much learning and acculturation happens spontaneously, without planning or structure” (Spector et al., 2008, p. 5). It is on this premise that the observed phenomenon of the natural instinct to seek learning can be grounded. Education generally, and correspondingly Education Technology, seeks to help guide this proclivity for learning and structure it so as to cognitively challenge and engage students in constructing deeper understanding. The purpose of this goal and engagement is grounded in the Sophist movement of Ancient Greece in a time where the status quo of accepted rhetoric due to societal rank was challenged in the face of truth through logical argument. In order to have these arguments, education on known truth and the observed world was necessary, and gave birth to an explosion in pedagogical understanding and the beginnings of theoretical research itself.

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Photo Credit: tj.blackwell via Compfight cc

As time progressed and Renaissance era philosophers, much of whose original understanding was from work translated from Asian and Arabian sources, began again to refine educational practice. Systematic planning of lessons, use of media, classroom organization, and curriculum development began to be used to create educational institutions and methods that are somewhat akin to that of today. Curricula began to focus holistically on the child as a composite of a multitude of interests and so students participated in what can be seen today as the core courses of most education systems, Language, History, Science, Mathematics, Music and Art. The masters of the day represent this multi-faceted education as can be seen in Leonardo Da Vinci who was a scientist, mathematician and artist of merit.

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Photo Credit: adesigna via Compfight cc

Into this diverse world of new education the emerging field of education technology was born and the 18th century saw the beginning of the study of the field in regards to the use of maps and other tangible equipment. Of particular note and deemed revolutionary for its day is the arguably now obsolete blackboard, the invention of which was claimed, as stated by Molenda, “by James Pillans, headmaster of the Old High School in Edinburgh in the early 1800s, who used a blackboard and colored chalks to teach geography (Scots Community, 2007)” (Spector, 2008, p. 6). Furthermore in the 19th century the invention of slide projections, silent films and educational radio introduced two new mediums to education: enhanced visual and auditory learning. As with any new technology, the gamut of claims were made about the efficacy of this new use of technology and these gave rise to many now obsolete theories, one of the later ones being the aforementioned Strong Media theory. An example of the impact of media on instruction, is propaganda which was prevalent during and after WWII and utilized the new theoretical understanding of media for instruction in an attempt to teach, albeit sometimes subliminally, societal values and beliefs.

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Photo Credit: rockcreek via Compfight cc

With the invention of television, the combination of audio and visual information changed the dynamic of education technology once more. The understanding of how each, and the combination of each, affected learning were necessary. This gave rise to the revisiting of several theories such as Symbol theory, or semiotics. The basic premise of which is that objects are identifiers that have meaning and a specific linguistic expression. Symbol Systems theory as it pertains to media, analyzes the systems used to portray and understand symbols and how this affects cognition. The application of this theory to educational technology use has changed the way we understand media and its application in learning today. Khan Academy, for example, could be analyzed using Symbol Systems theory to understand the behavior or cognition of students using it’s leveled Youtube tutorials as a learning resource.

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Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

In the final educational advancement, psychological understanding of learning through Behaviouralism initially, and then Cognitivism and Constructivism have helped shape the direction education research has progressed in and the focus of this progression. In terms of education technology, the marriage of education theory and pedagogy with technology use has allowed for the subject to grow and adapt to it’s manifest definition as discussed in the previous posting.

I find the discussion of cognitive and constructivist theories the most interesting element of educational technology. The intertwined yet also competing theories that make up the backbone of current learning practice create a fascinating area of research and a search for a yet discovered single synthesis of the concepts of all. This single synthesis is endeavored by “Merrill’s (2002) framework, which he refers to as first principles of instruction, proposes four phases to the instructional process: (1) activation of prior experience, (2) demonstration of skills, (3) application of skills, and (4) integration of these skills into real-world activities, with all four phases revolving around a problem or realistic task” (Spector, 2008, p. 16). My fascination in this area pertains especially to the implications for online distance learning. With distance learning, the use of cognitive and constructivist principles in designing and engaging students is paramount due to the fact that there are additional difficulties in designing lessons that can be done independently, while at the same time allowing for student expression and engagement at a distance. The task is in some ways more difficult and it is in this realm that a solid understanding of education technology principles and practice is paramount to achieving effective learning.


Clark, R. E. (Ed.). (1983). Reconsidering research on learning from media. Review of Educational Research, 53(4), 445-460

Clark, R. E. (Ed.). (2012). Learning from media: Arguments, analysis, and evidence (Kindle edition) Charlotte, NC: Information Age.

Spector, J. M., Merrill, M. D., van Merrienboer, J., & Driscoll, M. P. (Eds.). (2008). Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Taylor and Francis.

Saettler, P. (2004). The evolution of American educational technology. Greenwich, CT: Information Age.

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