EdTech’s history through two different lenses

As part of an assignment for our Foundations of Learning and Technologies course, we were asked to read two articles based on the history of educational technology. While both authors detail educational technology innovations and movements in the field, Weller (2018) focused mostly on EdTech innovations in the past 20-years, whereas Reiser (2001) distinguished the history of instructional technology and design as independent of each other. Although Reiser’s two-part article was published almost 20-years ago, the information still holds value in understanding changes and recurring themes in both the history of educational technology and design up until 1998.

Despite the time gap in publication dates, both Weller (2018) and Reiser (2001) shared the same argument that examining past EdTech innovations and failures can hold value in making decisions to adopt educational technologies for the future. Where their views differed is in the focus of technology itself. Although Weller (2018) proposed that future lists of historical trends in innovative EdTech might “be better balanced with conceptual frameworks, pedagogies, and social movements” (p. 47), technological innovations dominated his article and limited the role of instructional design.

The lessons that both authors extract from the past can inform decisions we make today.  One lesson I was able to take from Weller’s (2018) article is despite the hype which can be created around new technologies, it is important to consider how sustainable that technology may prove to be. This can be seen when Second Life was adopted as a new technology for Higher Education in the early 2000’s (Weller, 2018). As Weller points out, once the hype wore off, the realization came that the technology was simply a lecture in disguise. The technology was challenging to use and didn’t offer much innovation for learners, so interest waned.

However informing as past lessons can be, there are times when they do not necessarily serve current circumstances. In my former position developing and managing online professional development programs, our unit often overlooked the role of learning hierarchies in the design of programs. Time constraints, funding limitations, client involvement and varying levels of instructional design expertise often determined the level of skill development that was thoughtfully incorporated into modules. Reiser (2001) highlighted learning hierarchies and analysis of those hierarchies conducted by Gagné starting in the 1960’s as important to instructional design. In particular, Gagné determined there is a hierarchical relationship between intellectual skills (as cited in Reiser, 2001). To achieve mastery of a skill, Gagné believed a learner would need to demonstrate proficiency of skills subordinate to it (as cited in Reiser, 2001). Given the challenges, as mentioned, in my former work, learning modules were sometimes designed without a deeper understanding of the hierarchy of “learning task analysis or instructional task analysis” (as cited in Reiser, 2001, p. 61). This often resulted in not only challenging and frustrating learning experiences for learners with varying skill levels, but also impacted the instructor’s ability to support a successful online learning experience.


Reiser, R. A. (2001). A history of instructional design and technology: Part I: A history of instructional mediaEducational Technology Research and Development49(1), 53-64.

Reiser, R. A. (2001). A history of instructional design and technology: Part II: A history of instructional designEducational Technology Research and Development49(2), 57-67.

Weller, M. (2018). Twenty years of EdTechEDUCAUSE Review, 53(4).

6 thoughts on “EdTech’s history through two different lenses”

  1. Great post Mel!

    I remember the hype around Second Life well, and can’t help but think about the dollar figures associated with all of those deserted education islands.

    Your post also made me think though, is it possible to be on the leading edge of educational technology while being prudent that you are only adopting sustainable technology?

    1. Thank you Jessica! It’s a great question you pose and perhaps there will always be a certain level of risk associated in adopting technology in terms of the sustainability. I think it can be a double-edged sword as many organizations are driven to adopt the newest technological innovation, yet organizational culture, funding timelines, and a host of other factors may also impact the decision making around adoption of a selected technology. Added to this is that decisions can be made in a vacuum with limited research informing decisions. Sometimes these results of such decisions are not favorable. As Weller (2018) also mentioned “edtech is not a game for the impatient” (p. 48), so quick decisions to adopt a technology may not take into consideration its sustainability. Either way, there is surely to be some risk involved!

      1. I truly agree that whatever any institution/ corporation/inventor does entail many risks and potential failure. As you correctly quoted Weller (2018) “edtech is not a game for the impatient” (p. 48). Not an educational technology, but Dyson spent 15 years and creating more than five thousand versions and failed before his vacuum cleaners hit the store… (Source: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/224855).
        I also saw somewhere (could not find an original source) a funny definition what FAIL means: first attempt in learning…

        1. Hi Beata – I love this additional definition of FAIL! Thank you for sharing it! It is particularly relevant as you pointed out in Dyson’s experience. Sometimes we are so concerned about failing because it can be perceived as a negative that it can prevent growth and discovery. I read through the article you shared and particularly liked what Dyson had to say about creativity, “You don’t have to bother to be creative if the first time you do something, it works”. Had never thought about it like this – very insightful. Thanks again for sharing!

  2. I enjoyed reading your post, Mel! I particularly liked your reference to ISD and the issues related to material not fulfilling the learning outcomes and results in performance gaps, learner disengagement and disappointment. In my area of work, it’s obligatory to conduct and job task analysis and identify gaps in learner performance. I’d like to share some principles here (http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/sat1.html). This website has a wealth of knowledge which I hope you find useful.

    1. Hi Dino – Wow, thank you for sharing this website! I spent the afternoon reading it through it. Particularly informative was that Donald Clark makes the distinction between “instructional design” and “instructional system design”. On his website, he clarifies that ID models focus on the analysis and design, while ISD takes a broader focus breaking the process down into 5 phases: Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation and Evaluation. This is a great gem, Dino – very useful. Thank you again!

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