Thursday, September 5, 2013

Are We What We Are Not?

As I explore the definitions of instructional technology throughout the ages, one observation stands out in particular. A lot of the discussion surrounding what it is has been focused on what it is not. Perhaps, this is because instructional technology is such a broad, fluid, dynamic field that describing what it is not is easier and/or less time-consuming than describing what it is. I hope that is the case. Sometimes, non-examples help more than examples. Still, I like to feel my feet on solid ground, but there has been no firm foundation with regard to defining instructional technology.

In A History of the AECT's Definitions of Educational Technology (2008), Januszewski and Persichitte describe some of the discussions that led to the various definitions over time, starting with the 1963 definition back when AECT was DAVI. Reiser (2008) reminds us that prior to this time the focus was on "instructional media." The 1963 discussion centered around what was wrong with the definition of audiovisual communications. Januszewski and Persichitte (2008) state that the major problem was the definition was product-based rather than theory-based. "The 1963 definition was heavily influenced by James Finn's (1953) six characteristics of a profession.... Finn (1953) evaluated the audiovisual field against each of the six characteristics and determined that the audiovisual field did not meet the most fundamental characteristic: an organized body of intellectual theory and research" (Januszewski & Persichitte, 2008). The 1963 definition was meant to correct that.

Less than a decade later DAVI became AECT. Leadership wanted to emphasize that the field was not just about audiovisuals anymore. This seemed like a good time to also emphasize that the field preferred learner-centered education, not teacher-centered education. The authors of the 1972 definition no longer supported the view of educational technology as a theory. Instead, they viewed it as a field of study.

The 1972 definition was short-lived. The 1997 version grew from more things the field was not. For example, the field is not just instructional technology. "The reasoning was that since instruction was considered a subset of education then instructional technology was a subset of educational technology (Januszewski & Persichitte, 2008). This definition also emphasized that educational technology was not a theory like the earliest definitions, not a field like the previous definition, but a process that encompassed both of these, as well as it being a profession.

This definition managed to last a long time. The next definition was not until 1994. This time, we were back to instructional technology because the thing we were not was inclusive. Apparently, educational technology had been too broad and all-encompassing. The authors of the 1994 definition wanted to be more specific, not just with the title of the field, but with how the word theory was defined with regard to it. Unfortunately, this definition did not last, either. We eventually decided we were not "the systems approach to instructional development" (Januszewski & Persichitte, 2008) and wanted everyone to know it.

Admittedly, this analysis has been a bit "glass half empty." A more even-handed view would be to say that while each definition attempted to separate itself from what we did not want to be, there were also moments of recognizing what we do want to be. We want to be more than just a product. We want to be more than just a theory or a field. We want to empower learners. We want to define ourselves as a profession, so that there is no mistaking who we are and what we are about. According to Reiser (2007), "the 1977 definition statement was the first such statement to mention the analysis phase of the planning process." By the time we get to 2006, the definition has been cut down to only one sentence. Still, there was a lot being said in that one little sentence.

Perhaps, wherever there is change, there will be both moving away from and moving toward something. "A fundamental aspect of educational communications and technology is change" (Spector, 2008). If that is true, perhaps I should make peace with the fact we will sometimes have to focus on what we are not. Still, I hope we will place most of our attention on what we aspire to be.


Januszewski, A., & Persichitte, K. A. (2008). A history of the AECT’s definitions of educational technology. In A. Januszewski& M. Molenda (Eds.), Educational technology (pp. 259-282). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Reiser, R. A. (2007). What field did you say you were in? Defining and naming our field. In Trends and issues in instructional design and technology (2nd ed.) (pp. 2-9). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc. 

Spector, M. (2008). Theoretical foundations. In J. M. Spector, M. D. Merrill, J. V. Merriƫnboer, & M. P. Dirscoll (Eds.), Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (3rd ed.) (pp. 21-28). New York: Taylor & Francis Group.

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