In the next week I’ve promised to get a more complete and academic version of the following onto the blog. But I have 30 minutes to spare so I thought I’d get a rough and ready version out.

The following continues some themes I’ve been focusing on over the last couple of weeks including the failure of prescription as a method for improving learning and teaching, the tendency towards faddish or fashionable adoption of learning technologies (including e-portfolios and open source LMSes), the negative impacts of the technologists alliance, and an attempt to learn from history.

Using the “learn from history” approach, this post suggests that there is a recognisable cycle in the literature around new technologies used in education. This cycle is somewhat similar to the one Birnbaum identifies in his book on management fads in higher education. It argues that this recognisable cycle is based on the predominance of the technologists’ alliance, their ignorance of People and Place and their emphasis on prescription.

I’m pretty sure this observation isn’t all that new. Birnbaum has made a similar point and I will have to integrate his perspective. I’m sure others have made similar points, if you know of them, please let me know.

But, I will probably argue that the difference is in the solution I will propose (though I won’t propose it here). The solution is not to make the prescription more appropriate or to better sell it to the academic community. The solution is to reject the common underlying process used in most of these cases in favour of an approach that better suits the circumstances and will achieve better outcomes.

The cycle

My current description of the cycle includes the following steps (this will evolve over time)

  • Recognition of the revolution.
  • Creation of the technologists alliance.
  • Evidence of limited impact.
  • Blame the teacher.

Let’s illustrate this with some specific examples from history. Most of the quotes in the following are taken from Petrina (2004) or Reiser (2001), with a couple from Hew (2004).

If you have any references around the history of educational technology that could improve this, please let me know. I do know of Saettler’s work (1968 and 1990). I’m trying to get a hold of that now.

Motion pictures

Let’s start with motion pictures

  • Recognition of the revolution.
    Thomas Edison, in 1913, on the revolution offered by motion pictures

    Books will soon be obsolete in the schools…It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture. Our school system will be completely changed in the next ten years.

  • Creation of the technologists alliance.
    Reiser (2001) points out that the 10 years following Edison’s quote from above saw the development of five national professional organizations for visual instruction, five journals focusing on the topic, twenty teacher-training institutions offerings courses in visual instruction and at least a dozen school systems developing bureaus of visual education.
  • Evidence of limited impact.
    Reiser (2001) quotes McCluskey (a leader in the field) from 1930

    the educational community at large was not greatly affected by that growth

    in the use of motion pictures

  • Blame the teacher.
    Haven’t got a direct quote for the motion picture yet, but Reiser (2001) writing about instructional television – one of the evolutionary extensions to the use of motion pictures – says

    Many reasons have been given as to why instructional television was not adopted to a greater extent. These include teacher resistance to the use of television in their classrooms, the expense of installing and maintaining television systems in schools, and the inability of television alone to adequately present the various conditions necessary for student learning (Gordon, 1970; Tyler, 1975).

Automatic teaching machines

The development of automatic teaching machines during the first couple of decades of the 1900s was quite common. The best known example of this is the work of Sidney Pressey – at least that I’ve been able to find. There are connections between this work and that of Skinner and eventually computer-based learning and quiz systems.

  • Recognition of the revolution.
    Pressey from the 1920s

    Within the next twenty years special mechanical aids will make mass psychological experimentation commonplace and bring about in education something analogous to the Industrial Revolution. There must be an ‘industrial revolution’ in education in which educational science and the ingenuity of educational technology combine to modernize the grossly inefficient and clumsy procedures of conventional education.

    If we extend this to the computer in the 1980s, then Seymour Papert is saying that the computer will be

    a catalyst of very deep and radical change in the educational system” (p. 422) and that by 1990 one computer per child would be a very common state of affairs in schools in the United States”

  • Creation of the technologists alliance.
    No direct quotes for this yet, but Pressey worked with colleagues, professional associations and eventually a vendor to get his machines sold. CBL/CAL has had journals, university courses and professional associations arise out of it. Actually, here’s a related quote from White (2006)

    In the US significant universities developed campus-wide initiatives such as that reported on by Kiesler and Sproull at Carnegie Mellon University [29] and Isaacs’ comparison across Carnegie Mellon, MIT and Stanford [26]. In the UK, the National Development Programme in Computer Assisted Learning (NDP-CAL) had an objective of taking Computer Aided Learning out of the laboratory and into the institution [24]. The Teaching And Learning Technology Programme (TLTP) of the 1990s took forward some of the conclusions of NDP-CAL [17, 25], and established specific objectives which focused on the implementation of technology from an institutional perspective.

  • Evidence of limited impact.
    Pressey’s machines never sold well and he gave up in the 30s/40s (need some work here). Reiser (2001) on computers reports

    Surveys revealed that by 1995, although schools in the United States possessed, on average, one computer for every nine students, the impact of computers on instructional practices was minimal, with a substantial number of teachers reporting little or no use of computers for instructional purposes. Moreover, in most cases, the use of computers was far from innovative.

  • Blame the teacher.
    Pressey, quoted in Petrina (2004), describes the obstacles he had to face

    The intellectual inertia and conservatism of educators who regard such ideas as freakish or absurd, or rant about the mechanization of education

The process

So the process goes something like:

  • An innovation is recognised as offering the chance of a revolution in learning and teaching.
  • Those interested in it form Geoghegan’s (1994) technologists’ alliance – innovators, vendors and instructional technology professionals – to promote the appropriate application of the innovation to revolutionise education.
  • The alliance identifies and develops recommended “prescriptions” to follow in implementing the innovation.
  • They express some surprise when the academics don’t accept the prescription as outlined.
  • The alliance blames the “bad” teachers for preventing the innovation from achieving it’s revolution.

The solution

It is NOT to project manage the roll-out of the prescription in a more effective or appropriate way. It’s the act of prescribing change to academics that is the flaw, not the implementation of the prescription.

The solution is to work with academics to develop an approach that works within the local context. Much like what I suggest here.

No chance of revolutionary change

A common criticism of this approach is that it can only ever produce evolutionary change. There will never be revolutionary change. This perspective assumes that the context/system within a higher education institution is a simple system. A system where there is simple cause and effect, where a small change only every produces evolution.

I believe that universities and learning and teaching are complex systems. Consequently, I believe with a small amount of change it is, because of the nature of the system, quite possible to generate revolutionary change.


Geoghegan, W. (1994). Whatever happened to instructional technology? 22nd Annual Conferences of the International Business Schools Computing Association, Baltimore, MD, IBM.

Hew, K. F. (2004). Past Technologies, Practice and Applications: A Discussion on How the Major Developments in Instructional Technology in the 20th Century Affect the Following Qualities ? Access, Efficiency, Effectiveness, and Humaneness. 27th Conference of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology. Chicago, AETC.

Petrina, S. (2004). “Sidney Pressey and the Automation of Education, 1924-1934.” Technology and Culture 45(2): 305-330.

Reiser, R. (2001). “A History of Instructional Design and Technology: Part 1: A History of Instructional Media.” Educational Technology Research and Development 49(1): 1042-1629.

White, S. (2006). Critical Success Factors for Institutional Change: Some Organisational Perspectives. Critical Success Factors for Institutional Change, a workshop of the European conference of Digital Libraries, (ECDL’06). Alicante, Spain.