Academic specialties are like clown cars: They look much bigger when you’re on the inside. For those of us who oppose calculus on humanitarian grounds, the entirety of mathematics consists of “stuff with numbers.” I’m sure that my recent jobs look to most people like “stuff with computers,” or at most like some sort of glorified IT.

I’m teaching a course this fall—my first—and I want to offer my students a coherent and concise alternative to that outsider’s vision of educational technology. So I read some books. These books were Definitive Works on the subject.

You could tell because they were both titled Educational Technology.

One was published in 2008, the other in 1964. If you’ll forgive me, I’ll refer to them as the Januszewski (2008) and the DeCecco (1964), after their primary editors.

The official modern definition of “educational technology”

To the degree that such books are interesting, these were interesting. They were even coherent, although they didn’t improve my own ability to explain the field coherently. The problem? I learned new things. This always complicates matters, and is therefore undesirable.

What is educational technology? The books offered concise definitions, but these did not satisfy me. From the Januszewski:

“Educational technology is the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using, and managing appropriate technological processes and resources.”

—Definition and Terminology Committee of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Educational Technology: A Definition with Commentary

That’s… fine. I can’t think of any significant exceptions. It’s vague, but I don’t see how it could be more specific without becoming unwieldy or inaccurate.

It’s also mostly jargon, which is why an entire chapter of the book is spent defining the definition. Remember, this definition is for undergraduate students. More to the point, it’s for meToo many adjectives and verbs—out comes the red pen.

Learning theory and educational technology in the 1960s

Teaching machines, clearly keeping students engaged in classroom learning. He looks positively scintillated. Source and date unknown.

If the De Cecco confines its jargon to fairly practical matters, it is only because the experts of the era had a smaller field in view. Technology today is more complex and more deeply integrated into our daily lives. We also think differently about learning, teaching and education.

Those of us who have a mental picture of educational technology in the mid-20th century—and if you don’t, well, whatever are you doing with your time?—probably think first of…

  • Skinner.
  • “Behaviorism works.”
  • Pigeons.
  • The teaching machine.
  • The idea that we shouldn’t worry about what that goes on between the ears, because we can’t observe or measure it.

The De Cecco bears this out, in part.

The introduction to the chapter on learning theories describes stimulus-response experimental models as a reaction against educational theories focused on “internal behavioral events,” as well as those based on imprecise, subjective or misapplied psychological theories. “Freudian psychology left the teacher fairly helpless in the face of aggressive psychosexual forces entirely out of reach,” De Cecco writes, to my continuing delight. Skinner himself seems to have fallen out of fashion by this time, but the tiff was over minor questions such as whether periodic rewards were critically important, or only very important.

“That these are the basic learning processes cannot be denied…”

Was Skinner really so bad?

I like to play devil’s advocate (maybe because his dictionary is so wonderful).

Skinner’s own paper in the book highlights several of the lesser-known elements of his beliefs about education:

  • punishment is counterproductive;
  • learning is an active process;
  • students do not learn all at the same pace, and this is OK;
  • assessment should require learners to apply knowledge in realistic contexts;
  • there are different kinds of thinking and learning (i.e. verbal vs. mathematical vs. musical);
  • study skills are important and should be explicitly taught;
  • and that “the goal of education should be nothing short of the fullest possible development of the human organism.”

Not so bad when taken out of context, although the last one is a little creepy in a Social Darwinism kind of way. He did tend to refer to a research subject as “the organism.”


Behaviorism is over-represented in the De Cecco, relative even to its own era, as far as I can tell. Noam Chomsky had dissected the theory in the previous decade, in his 1959 review of Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior, but editor John P. De Cecco was clearly still a disciple. In the introduction to a paper by Sidney Pressey, the “father of the teaching machine,” De Cecco regards Pressey’s rejection of classical and operant conditioning with a condescending air. “That these are the basic learning processes cannot be denied,” he writes. Well, hoot-toot to you too, buddy.

Shut up about Socrates

In an essay earlier in the book, philosopher James A. Jordan, Jr. raises his hackles at the assertion that “programmed instruction” replicated the Socratic method. It may sound like an odd thing to get exercised about, but apparently it was a common and repeated claim from the teaching machinists.

Jordan couldn’t care less about educational technology, but he sure wants the people who do to shut up about Socrates.

Jordan’s main points are twofold:

  1. The Socratic method of inquiry was not a teaching method, but a way of exploring knowledge and beliefs through logic.
  2. Predetermined multiple choice questions were incapable of replicating the open-ended dialogue at the heart of the method.

De Cecco’s introduction presents Jordan’s paper as a “refreshing” diversion from the “positivistic world” of the book’s other authors, which I take to be a polite way of saying, “have fun with this unprovable poppycock.”

My definition of “educational technology”

In spite of the technological and philosophical gulf (gulves?) between 1964 and 2012, I think De Cecco does a decent job of summing up the field then and now:

“Our schools exist in a technological culture and it is difficult to see how they will be able to resist the invasion of machines.”

—John P. DeCecco, Educational Technology: Readings in Programmed Instruction

That’s not a definition, but it’s a pretty good summation of educational technology’s raison d’être. Follow his logic and you can come up with your own definition.

Educational technology helps people use technology wisely when teaching and learning.

Something like that. Mine is more abstract and subjective than the AECT definition, but I think that actually makes it easier to start a discussion about the pieces that I didn’t fill in. This definition is also instantly contextual: the wise thing to do in classroom X might be foolish in classroom Y. Or online course Z.

You may note that I avoided offering an alternative to the first part of the AECT definition. Finding language to describe what educational technology is is more difficult than pinpointing what it does. Some options:

  • Academic discipline
  • Branch of a larger academic discipline, such as education
  • Professional discipline
  • Potato

I think we can safely rule out potato. I only put that one in there so that we’d feel like we were making immediate progress.

I am aware of no established criteria for an “academic discipline,” so we’re either on firm or very shaky ground here, depending on your point of view. There’s research, and practice, and praxis, but frankly much of the research is fraught with confounding factors (case studies) or insanely narrow. I’m looking at you, Clark & Mayer. The idea of a “science of instruction” reproducible in real-world conditions is laughable, unless you want to bore your students silly. Now I’m looking at you, Gagne.

Educational technology touches on computer science and behavioral science, so… maybe it’s a science? All the actual scientists are grinding their teeth now. You’re welcome, scientists’ dentists.

Picture of the Mog "Barf" from Spaceballs

He’s a mog. Half man, half dog. He’s his own best friend.

Perhaps we are closer to an applied science, like engineering. Or phrenology. My sense is that, like practitioners of other applied sciences, educational technologists are not fully comfortable or fully welcomed on the upper floors of the ivory tower. We wander around a bit, we teach classes in the basement, we move back and forth to private industry. We help the administration to pursue this lucrative “online learning” thing without frightening the scholars or shortchanging students. We stay on top of what is becoming possible, and we pay attention to what is happening on the ground. Where changes are necessary, or when their potential benefits outweigh the costs and dangers, hopefully we advocate for and undertake these changes.

An interdisciplinary whatever

Practitioners of educational technology are hard to pigeonhole. Dean Caplan’s 1998 taxonomy lists nine distinct job types, and even that is “by no means complete.” I dare you to be surprised that, 15 years on, we find ourselves even more specialized and hybridized. It’s in the nature of the field to evolve at an exponential pace relative to related disciplines. Changes in educational technology equal changes in educational practice times changes in educational theory times changes in technology.

In my limited experience, I have come across relatively few educational technologists who are pure faculty. Usually, my teachers and colleagues have held staff positions and taught in addition. That’s my situation. I have also met faculty members from other disciplines whose research interests or teaching practices overlap with “our” field. Some usual suspects:

  • Education
  • Educational psychology
  • Computer science
  • Business
  • Marketing
  • Communications

I’m a hybrid humanities-technology guy, personally. My educational background veers from a BA in English to MS in Educational Technology. My work history took me from gigs in journalism and PR to web and graphic design to, at the moment, content strategy, information architecture, and teaching. At the risk of quoting Steve Jobs, this rings true for me:

“I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics. Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

—Steve Jobs, in his biography by the Walter Isaacson

Rather than argue for some imaginary ideal of “purity” in educational technology, I welcome this hybridity as fundamental to the field. We can be academics, if we want to, but we’ll always be partly mechanics. We exist to facilitate learning, and that’s a support class—there’s no getting around it. Nor is there any reason to want to get around  it. We get to learn about everything, because you never know what kind of instruction or activities you’ll work on some day. It’s all relevant.