The following is a section from my PhD thesis. It is part of the “Past Experience” section of the Ps Framework. It aims to give a potted history of technology-mediated learning and show how it connects with e-learning. Since these terms are somewhat overused, it starts with some definitions. The plan is that this history will be used to identify lessons from history, which e-learning (generally) hasn’t learned.

I’ve been working on this for at least a month. I have been doing other work on the thesis, but the fact that this has take soooo long is not all the heartening. I think perhaps may sights are set a little high. The alternatives are that I’m either a crap writer or I’m currently not in the mood to write. We’ll see where we go from here.

The following has not been proof-read thoroughly. I’m leaving that for a later task. If you have any suggestions for improvement, fire away.

A major area of improvement could be in coverage. This is meant to be a minor part of one chapter of my thesis. It’s already probably longer than it should have been. Almost certainly in the search for some brevity there will have been contributions that were missed or others that were over-emphasised. Not much I can do about that, but if it’s important….

For more detail on this see Reiser (2001) or even more detail Saettler (2000). The Saettler book is in Google Books, so you can get a preview – sorry to tired of this to add in the link.


There already exists some debate and uncertainty about terms and definitions used to describe e-learning, technology-mediated learning (Alavi and Leidner 2001), networked learning, online learning, telematics, Internet-based learning, computer conferencing, computer-mediated communications (Romiszowski and Mason 2004), web-based education (McCormack and Jones 1997), asynchronous learning networks (Spencer and Hiltz 2003) and many others. The description of a history stretching back over more than 100 years only tends increase these problems. Different eras have had similar problems with an explosion of competing terms. For example, in the 1980s the use of computers in education might be referred to as computer-based learning (CBL), computer-based education (CBE), computer-aided (or assisted) instruction (CAI), computer-managed learning (CML) or computer-managed instruction (CMI) (Friesen 1991). Adding to the chance of confusion is the likelihood that in the past, modern terms have been used for different purposes and some terms had definitions that have unexpected nuance not immediately clear through the prism of history.

Rather than engage with an arguably necessary and interesting debate about appropriate terms and their definition, this section takes the pragmatic approach of defining a small set of terms that it will seek to use consistently. These terms are chosen to fit with the focus of the thesis and its topic. The concern of those who prefer precise and nuanced understanding of terms and their implications is acknowledged, but beyond the scope of this thesis. It is recognized that each of the selected terms, from certain perspectives, have weaknesses. However, both are deemed sufficiently useful to serve the requirements of this thesis. Anohina (2005) provides an analysis of terms used to describe the use of technology in learning.

The two terms to be used are:

  1. technology-mediated learning, and
    Technology-mediated learning is used as the broader term to encompass the use of any form of technology is used to mediate learning interaction or materials. As described in the next section, this will used primarily to describe the use of technologies from the 1900s onwards.
  2. e-learning.
    E-learning is used specifically to encompass the use of digital computers and the Internet to support learning and teaching. Generally, this is primarily from the early 1990s onwards.

History of technology-mediated learning

If the definition of technology is expanded to its most inclusive the use of paper and books are early examples of technology-mediated learning. In fact, some argue that every form of instructional delivery is in someway mediated with some form of technology (Reiser 2001). Bates (2008) suggests that technology has always been a defining feature of distance education. In terms of print-based distance education, Holmberg (2005) identifies early examples of correspondence study, entirely by the postal service, in 1728 and 1833. Saettler (2000) cites educational technology antecedents going back to the fifth century B.C and beyond.

Most descriptions of the history of technology-mediated learning, however, categorise the three main technologies of pre-20th Century instruction – the teacher, chalkboard and textbook – separately from other technologies (Reiser 2001). Following this practice, this section starts provides a brief history of technology-mediated learning through 20th century until the rise of internet-based learning. Subsequent sections attempt to draw some lessons for the practice of e-learning from this history.

It is possible to observe two separate streams of technology-mediated learning that arise during the early 1900s: the audiovisual instruction movement and teaching machines. Both these streams continue to have much the same emphasis throughout the century, but continue to evolve in line with increasing theoretical understandings and changes in the available technology. The presence and impact of both streams continues to be in evidence in many of the practices associated with e-learning. Though it is suggested that this on-going evidence does not include a complete and nuanced understanding of the findings from the earlier work. The following seeks to describe these two streams, how they have evolved and where they can be seen within e-learning.

Audio-visual instruction

Early, in 1909, a short story by E.M. Forster called “The Machine Stops” describes the use of a type of video-conferencing network to deliver a lecture. By this time the audiovisual instruction movement has taken its first steps through the use of silent visual media such as stereographs, charts and photographs housed in school museums (Hew 2004). Over the next 20 years the movement grows significantly through the availability of and an interest in the application of a range of related technologies including motion pictures, radio and television (Reiser 2001). The rise of Internet-based e-learning sees a continuation of this work through net-based audio and video, and currently services such as YouTube.

Much of the work around audio-visual instruction has emphasized the value of audio-visual material in their ability to present concepts in a concrete manner, as opposed to more abstract descriptions possible with media such as a lecture and book (Reiser 2001). From the start the theoretical rationale for audio-visual instruction was as an antidote for verbalism (Saettler 2000). The research tradition of the audio-visual instruction movement was largely confined to comparison studies of the effectiveness of the audio-visual media against other methods (Saettler 2000). A key finding arising from these studies is that given a paucity of significant differences there is a need to change the focus of research (Reiser 2001). Saetler (2000) identifies a disconnect between the audio-visual instruction movement and the rest of the educational technology discipline, which is illustrated the absence of any connection for four decades between audio-visual instruction movement and that of teaching machines.

Teaching machines

The second stream, teaching machines also known as programmed instruction, has a foundation in the industrial revolution, automation and the possibility for the application of machinery to solve problems. Thorndike (1912) expresses one of the early problems that underpin the rise of the teaching machine.

If, by a miracle of mechanical ingenuity, a book could be so arranged that only to him who had done what was directed on page one would page two become visible, and so on, much that now requires personal instruction could be managed by print.

From 1900 through 1920s there were a number of attempts to develop machines to automate the application of multiple-choice tests (Petrina 2004). Pressey (1926) develops a mechanical machine that provides drill and practice items for students. Skinner (1958) suggests that Pressy appears to have been the first to propose a system that placed importance on immediate feedback, allowed students to self-pace and the required the student to play an active role in learning. It is on this basis that Skinner (1958) criticises the audiovisual instruction movement as aiding in presentation of material but contributing little towards student/teacher interaction. Skinner (1958) suggests that and widespread use of such material creates the potential problem of the student becoming little more than a “mere passive receiver of instruction”.

It is Skinner’s work during the 1950s that contributes to the rise and establishment of the programmed instruction movement. The key goals of this work included individualized and self-paced learning, application of a science of behaviour to teaching and learning through the principles of reinforcement of learning, and the construction of carefully programmed sequences of learning that lead to pre-determined learning goals (Galloway 1976). Skinner (1958) describes a number of mechanical teaching machines.


By the late 1950s early computers were available and promised to offer a better platform than mechanical devices for teaching machines, however, it was the 1980s before there was widespread interest in the computer as an instructional tool (Reiser 2001). Many early applications of computers to education were demonstrations to show the potential of computers in education (Molnar 1990). The first adaptive teaching system to enter commercial production was the Self-Adaptive Keyboard Instructor (SAKI), developed by Gordon Pask and Robin McKinnon-Wood in 1956 (Patel, Scott et al. 2001). The Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations (PLATO) projected commenced at the University of Illinois in 1959 (Molnar 1990).

Early interest in the application of computers to education is based on the dual beliefs that instruction adapted to the needs of the learner is good and that the computers makes this individualization of instruction easier as it can store and use each student’s own performance as a basis for selection the new problems or concepts for the student (Suppes 1966). Researchers extended Skinner’s work and used sophisticated mathematical models of student learning to help design instructional materials and strategies to achieve the a level of individualization (Molnar 1990). By the late 1960s, the PLATO system was using time-sharing computers to allow large numbers of people interact with lesson modules created by the TUTOR programming language (Molnar 1990).

Programmed instruction arises from perspectives influenced by behaviourism and cognitive science, which tend to reject or downplay the role of conscious will as a dominant element of human behaviour (Bates 1995). Such approaches limits response to within pre-defined boundaries and constrains the ability to personalize the learning or to create knowledge unanticipated in the design of the teaching material (Bates 1995). By 1973 the instructional uses of computers were listed as drill, skills practice, programmed and dialog tutorials, testing and diagnosis, simulation, gaming, and various forms of information processing, storage, management and display (Zinn 1973). Computers were not being used to enable communication between people.

Computer-mediated communication

The use of technology to enable human-to-human dialogue, commonly referred to as computer-mediated communication (CMC) during the 80s, was one approach to address this limitation. In the late 1960s the Office of Emergency Preparedness in the USA introduced systems that led to the first generation of CMC systems such as EIES (Zorkoczy 1989). By 1974 an online community began to emerge on the PLATO system through the availability of a number of online tools equivalent to email, chat rooms, groupware and instant messaging (Woolley 1994). CMC encompassed three types of online services, which were generally seen as discrete elements serving different types of clientele: electronic mail, computer conferencing and online databases and information banks (Kaye 1989). As early as 1982 researchers in computer-mediated communication had developed and published knowledge about CMC including: important considerations in designing or choosing CMC systems; factors influencing success; impacts of CMC systems on individuals, groups and organizations; and appropriate evaluation strategies (Kerr and Hiltz 1982).

Computer-managed learning

During the 1980s The rise of the powerful personal computers and local area networks encouraged rapid growth in computer-managed instruction systems (Friesen 1991). By 1983 40% of elementary schools and 75% of all secondary schools in the United States were using computers for instructional purposes (Reiser 2001). Much of this interest was in the use of computer-managed instruction (CMI) an approach that has origins in teaching machines and programmed instruction. During the 80s there was growing interest and use of Computer-Managed Learning (CML) systems, which manage both the learning sequence and related educational and administrative functions (Friesen 1991). These systems ranged from software design to “teach” a particular topic through to more general CML systems such as Plato.

Connections with e-learning

Kaye (1989) talking from a focus on computer-mediated communications suggested

In the future, it is likely that there will be much more convergence of CMC for interpersonal communication with database access and with local, stand-alone, elements (e.g. CAL, hypertext, audio, video etc.) to form components of a new generation of interactive multimedia and hypermedia systems which will have powerful educational applications

Currently, the most common institutional response to e-learning is the adoption of a Learning Management System (LMS) (Jones 2004). Such systems do provide an integration of the features identified by Kaye, and that have a direct connection with the history of technology-mediated learning. The ability to provide access to audio and video via the Web connects with audio-visual instruction. The provision of features such as quizzes and adaptive release, provide a primitive connection to programmed instruction and CAL. In fact, some authors (Sheridan, Gardner et al. 2002; Szabo and Flesher 2002) suggest that LMSes are simply the next generation of CML systems. Finally, access to information via the Web and the provision of email, discussion forums and other communication means offer a connection to computer-mediated communications.

This section has offered a brief history of technology-mediated learning and identified connections between this history and the current practice of e-learning. Section Error! Reference source not found. – Error! Reference source not found. draws upon this history to identify a number of lessons for the implementation of e-learning. First, the next section seeks to identify and understand in more detail the different paradigms of e-learning.


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