Friday, June 18, 2010

Is Educational Technology a Discipline?

The question about whether or not educational technology is a discipline is not new. One can imagine at least three contexts for such a question. First, it might be motivated in response to those who question or fail to appreciate what educational technologists do. Second, it might be motivated by efforts to consolidate programs/units and cut costs. Third, it might be motivated by educational technology professionals (instructional designers, technology and media specialists, performance technologists, training developers, university professors, etc.) who are seeking to identify the central theories and principles that drive educational technology research and practice. My main interest here is with the third context, but I feel compelled to comment on the first two as well.

An academic discipline can be defined in an operational way as simply any field of study or branch of knowledge that is typically taught and researched at the college or university level. Using that simple and straightforward definition, one would conclude that educational technology is a discipline, at least in North America, as there are relevant courses and programs at many colleges and universities in educational technology, instructional design, instructional systems, instructional technology, learning design and technology, and so on. These program prepare professionals for careers in many contexts, including business and industry, higher education, secondary and elementary education, and governmental and non-governmental agencies. Positions in these contexts include school library media specialists, technology coordinators, instructional designers, program evaluators, training developers, training managers, performance technologists, curriculum planners, among others. In addition to there being university programs and recognized jobs in a wide variety of contexts, there are professional associations that support the work these professionals, including the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI), the International Society for Technology in Education, the Instructional Technology Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association, and many more. Moreover, there are many journals and professional publications that support the research and practice of educational technology professionals.

Given the abundant evidence, one might wonder who would ask such a question. Such a question could be a form of challenge or even a form of disparagement by someone who simply does not understand or appreciate the challenges and specific knowledge and skills required to effectively plan, design, implement, evaluate, and manage instructional programs, learning environments and performance support systems. One response to such a person that I have found effective is to ask that person about an educational goal he or she might have set for students. I then explore how that person elaborates the goal in terms of specific objectives, learning activities and assessments. This usually turns the conversation into something productive and much less challenging and confrontational. However, there is no cure for arrogance, and I have also had to simply walk away from such discussions.

In response to those who pose the question because of cost-cutting considerations and program consolidation, I can only say that it makes sense to keep the conversation focused. It is one thing to cut costs and consolidate programs. It is quite another to go to argue that the newly merged mega-department reflects the real discipline and the merged programs did not really reflect separate disciplines. One can concede the need to cut costs without giving up the identity of a program or discipline – and that is the best one can do once the economic planners take over. In short, the justification for consolidating programs need not include any claims about the legitimacy of a discipline. I urge those who might be involved in such efforts to make this distinction very clear to the cost cutters and program choppers.

Finally we start to get to the heart and soul of the question. What are the theories and principles that drive our research and practice? We are asking the question – not someone else who wants to eliminate or disparage our program. We want to know what our core knowledge base is and what the primary kinds of problems and issues are that define us as a discipline. This is a legitimate form of the question, I think. I am reminded of similar questions that arose in the early years of applied computing in what is now the well-established software engineering community. Much soul searching went on in response to computer scientists were brow beating a group they viewed as having inferior knowledge and skills (the first type of question indicated earlier). That led those in the community to accept the question and go on to define themselves in terms of knowledge and skills that were different from those of traditional computer scientists. Our situation is somewhat akin to that, but there are additional factors to consider. We work in the education sector. Unfortunately there are many people who imagine themselves as educational specialists simply because they managed to survive or even thrive in a particular educational system. There are some who think our principles are obvious, common sense ideas or perhaps vague, feel-good notions. Others fail to understand and appreciate the differences between basic research contexts and applied, real-world settings that have constraints and unanticipated and dynamic factors requiring attention.

So, what are the foundation and guiding theories and principles of educational technology? There are very good books that one might consult to begin answering this question. Among the more notable are: (a) a classic text is Instructional Technology Foundations edited by Robert Gagné; (b) a more recent classic is Principles of Instructional Design by Bob Gagné, Walt Wager, Katharine Golas, and John Keller; (c) The Conditions of Learning (4th ed.) by Gagné should be considered a foundation piece; and (d) the International Encyclopaedia of Educational Technology edited by Tjeerd Plomp and Don Ely is another good source. One could also visit the Websites of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology ( and the International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction ( and find pointers to other relevant sources and considerations.

In these short remarks, I want to add my initial take on our foundation. I think our foundations come primarily from the learning of psychology, broadly conceived to include communications theory and the role of mental models and language. There are many principles on which we build that can be located at this level, including, for example, the familiar limitations of short term memory that has strong implications for the design of units of instruction and computer interfaces. I am referring, of course, to George Miller’s (1956) claim that people typically can only hold about seven (plus or minus two) information chunks in short-term memory at any given point in time (in the case of administrators, it is minus two … in the case of digital happy teens, it plus two … in the case of aging authors of blogs such as this, the actual number approaches one). Figure 1 reflects one way to imagine the underlying foundations of our discipline. There are others ways to depict educational technology, such as layers (an onion metaphor) or pillars (a bridge metaphor), and so on. If one were to examine a number of these representations, I am convinced that there would be a great deal of similarity and overlap, which is further evidence that educational technology is an important discipline.

I close with my memory of what Bob Gagné once told me: “Our goal is to help people learn better.” When one begins to reflect on that goal, one will surely be left thinking that we have a huge responsibility. It is probably more productive to focus on that goal rather than spend time worrying about whether or not educational technology is a discipline.


Gagné, R. M. (1985). The conditions of learning and theory of instruction (4th ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Gagné, R. M. (Ed.) (1987). Instructional technology foundations. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Gagné, R. M., Wager, W. W., Golas, K., & Keller, J. M. (2005). Principles of Instructional design (5th ed.). New York: Wadsworth.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits in our capacity for processing information. Psychology Review, 63(2), 81-97.

Plomp, T., & Ely, D. P. (1998). The international encyclopaedia of educational technology (2nd ed.). Dordrecht: Springer.