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Major Developments in Instructional Technology:
During the 20th Century

Alena R. Treat, Ying Wang, Rajat Chadha, and Michael Hart Dixon
Department of Instructional Systems Technology
Indiana University


The field of Instructional Technology is fundamentally a 20th century movement with the major advances occurring during and immediately after World War II. What began with an emphasis on audiovisual communications media gradually became focused on the systematic development of teaching and learning procedures which were based in behavioral psychology (Ely, 2000). Later, major contributing fields were cognitive psychology, social psychology, psychometrics, perception psychology, and management (Ely, 2000).

The following timeline, framed according to values associated with Instructional Technology (access, efficiency/effectiveness, and humaneness), will describe these trends in more detail:

Qualities Associated with Instructional Technology

Pre-World War II




1920’s-1930’s: Great growth in accessibility and quality of film, radio broadcasting, and sound recording helped transition the movement from visual to audio-visual.

Early 1900’s: Edward Thorndike brought the use of empirical investigation in instructional techniques and learning theory to the attention of educators. These methods became of interest to the United States during World War II and are considered to be the basis of the modern systems approach to instruction (Reiser, 1987).

Analysis of the level of realism in audio-visual materials in the classroom led to Edgar Dale’s famous “Cone of Experience” which proposed that the effectiveness of these materials comes from their realism.

1912: The modern individualized instruction approach was developed by Frederic Burk.  

1920’s: Burk’s staff developed Dalton and Winnetka Plans for individualized instruction, which increased the focus on learners being able to work at their own pace, and that basic skills must be mastered before learners can go on to new skills.

World War II




U.S. Government produced 457 instructional training films and purchased 55,000 film projectors.

Audio-visual devices were widely and effectively used for military and industrial training. This propelled the wider use of audio equipment for foreign language instruction and simulators used in flight training. America’s victory at war was attributed to “their quick and complete mastery of film education” (Reiser, 1987).


1950’s- 1960’s




1950’s: Instructional television usage grew and computers began to be used in education and training, though instructional television use faded by the mid-1960’s (Reiser, 1987).

Late 1960’s – early 1970’s: Graduate programs in instructional design were initiated.

1950’s: The audiovisual instruction movement shifted focus from devices to the entire process (sender, receiver and medium) (Reiser, 1987).

1958: National Defense Act was passed. Afterwards, the government funded media research and curriculum development (especially in mathematics and science), as well as University-based research and development (Reiser, 1987).

Early 1960’s: Refinement in task analysis procedures and the emergence of criterion reference testing contributed to the development of the systems approach. Gagne developed the concept of superordinate and subordinate tasks (Reiser, 1987).
1960’s-1970’s: Instructional technology emphasized the application of scientific principles as well as the equipment for presenting instructional materials (Lumsdaine, 1964 p.372 cited in Reiser, 1987).

1967: Scriven coined the terms “formative evaluation” and “summative evaluation” (Reiser, 1987).

Mid 1950’s: Programmed instruction movement began.

Late 1950’s-1960’s: Skinner developed the system of Operant conditioning. His influence guided developments in programmed instruction. Piaget formulated models of cognition which led to the “possibility of developing a technology of instruction that can be based on an individual rate of cognitive rate development” (Saettler, 1990 p.72).
The publishing of Bloom’s “Taxonomy of Behavioral Objectives” in 1956 and Robert Mager’s “Preparing Objectives for Programmed Instruction” in 1962 boosted the popularity of behavioral objectives. (Reiser, 1987).

1960’s: Several systems of individualized instruction developed: Personalized System of Instruction, Audio Tutorial Approach, Individually Prescribed Instruction (IPI), Program for Learning in Accordance with Needs (PLAN), Individually Guided Education (IGE) (Reisner, 1987) and Learning for Mastery (Davis & Sorrell, 1995).

Late 1960’s: Programmed instruction was coming to an end (Reiser, 1987).


Early 1970’s: The Department of Audiovisual Instructional changed its name to the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT) and The National Society for Programmed Instruction changed its name to the National Society for Performance and Instruction. AECT played a critical role in defining the field of educational technology (Instructional Technology Global Resources, n.d.a).




The number of graduate programs continued to grow. Hiring opportunities for people trained in instructional programs also increased. Literature on systems approach expanded “as a large number of new books were written (Sachs & Braden, 1984) and the Journal of Instructional Development was established” (Reiser, 1987).

Late 1970’s: Apple II computers were introduced into schools (Petrina, 2003) but  “by the end of the decade these devices were still a very small part of the educational picture” (Reiser, 1987).

Burgeoning interest in Instructional Design (ID), the chief aim of which was to improve employee performance and to increase organizational efficiency and effectiveness (Rothwell & Kazanas, 2003).

Early 1970’s: Systems approach concepts began to draw increased attention.

Three systems of ID flourished and faded: Individually Prescribed Instruction (IPI), Programs for Learning in Accordance with Needs (PLAN), and Individually Guided Education (IGE).

Late 1970’s: Increased interest in individualization through computer-assisted instruction (CAI). The University of Illinois PLATO system was an influential source of CAI (Reiser, 1987, U.S. Department of Education, 2001).





Use of microcomputers in schools grew tremendously.

1983: Center for Social Organization of Schools reported that computers were used for instruction over 40% of elementary schools and over 75% of secondary schools (Reiser, 1987).

1980: Systems approach popularity had grown quickly. Andrew and Goodson reported on 40 different models.   (Reiser, 1987) 

Reiser (2002) noted these developments:

  • Growing interest in the application of cognitive psychology principles in the instructional design process to make it more effective.
  • Increasing use of computers required developing new models of ID to accommodate computers’ interactive capabilities.
  • Performance technology movement emphasized front-end analysis, on-the-job performance, business results, and non-instructional solutions to performance problems.
Computers began to be used “as tools to automate some instructional design tasks” (Merrill & Li, 1989).

Reiser (1987) reported that “Due to its interactive capabilities, the computer can be programmed to adapt instruction to the needs of the individual learners.”





Plotnick (1996) described how (1) almost every student (12:1) in formal education settings had computer access; (2) networking was one of the fastest growing applications of educational technology; (3) school access to television resources was almost universal; (4) educational technology in homes and community settings increased dramatically; and (5) delivery systems for educational technology applications grew geometrically.
The ratio of computers in public schools reduced to 6:1 (Reiser, 2002). Although most schools had Internet access, student access was limited and few were able to use it for schoolwork (Anderson & Ronnkvist (1999).

1997-98: Enrollments in distance courses in higher education nearly doubled from 1994-95 (Reiser, 2002). Distance learning was offered by 78% of public four-year higher education institutions (Reiser, 2002), possibly due to being viewed as a low-cost means of providing instruction to students who might not otherwise have had access (Hawkridge, 1999).

1995: Survey of teachers reported that computers were rarely used for instruction, but were used in elementary schools for drill and practice and in secondary schools for computer-related skills such as word processing (Reiser, 2002).

Educational technology became one of the six top issues in schools (Roberts, 1996), the National Educational Association emphasized the importance of preparing new teachers to use technology, and the Office of Educational Research and Improvement awarded five grants for Regional Technology Centers to provide technical assistance to schools.

1995: The National Education Goals stated that only half of all teachers described any professional development opportunities addressing classroom technology applications; educational technology was perceived as a major vehicle in the educational system reform movement.

1999: Advances in computer technology, especially multimedia, enabled constructivist educators to design more learner-centered educational experiences (Reiser, 2002).


During the 20th Century, there was a recurrent pattern of expectations and outcomes (Cuban, 1986). It has been a common belief that advances in technology could solve all of the problems in learning.  Thomas Edison said in 1913 that “books will soon be obsolete in schools…” (Reiser, 1987). This prediction has not become a reality. When a new medium entered the educational scene, there was much initial enthusiasm and interest which eventually faded. An examination revealed that this medium actually had only a minimal impact on instructional practices. While it was predicted in the 1980’s that computers would revolutionize instruction, data from schools in the mid 1990’s showed that revolution still had not occurred (Reiser, 2002). The late 1990’s saw a growing presence and use of computers and the Internet in schools, so it is reasonable to predict that in the first decade of the 21st Century, newer media will bring about greater changes in instructional practices than the earlier media (Reiser, 2002). It is also logical to expect that such changes are likely to happen more slowly and be less extensive than currently predicted by media enthusiasts (Reiser, 2002).  “Human factors such as resistance to factors that require new ways of working and the need for specialized training impinge on trainers’, teachers, and professors’ use of ICT. Because of these human factors, as they play out in training and education, it is inevitable that technology use lags behind technology availability” (Molenda, in press).

For further information, see the following timelines:


Anderson, R. E., & Ronnkvist, A. (1999). The presence of computers in American schools: Teaching, learning and computing: 1998 national survey. Irvine, CA: Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations.

Cuban, L. (1986). Teachers and machines: The classroom use of technology since 1920. New York: Teachers College Press.

Davis, D., & Sorrell, J. (1995, December). Mastery learning in public schools. Paper prepared for PSY 702: Conditions of Learning. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University.

Ely, D. P. (2000). The field of educational technology: Update 2000: A dozen frequently asked questions. ERIC Digest. ED 438807. Syracuse, NY: ERIC Clearinghouse on Information and Technology. Retrieved November 16, 2004, from

Gaff, J. G. (1975). Toward faculty renewal: Advances in faculty, instructional, and organizational development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hawkridge, D. (1999). Cost-effective support for university students via the web? Association for Learning Technology Journal, 6(3), 24-29.

Instructional Technology Global Resource Network, (n.d.). History of instructional technology. Retrieved November 16, 2004, from

Instructional Technology Global Resource Network, (n.d.a). Instructional technology timeline. Retrieved November 16, 2004 from

Instructional Technology Global Resource Network, (n.d.b). Instructional technology timeline. Retrieved November 17, 2004 from

Lumsdaine, A. A. (1963). Instruments and media of instruction. In N. L. Gage (Ed), Handbook of research on teaching. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Lumsdaine, A. A. (1964). Educational technology, programmed learning, and instructional science. In E. R. Hilgard (Ed.), Theories of learning and instructions: The sixty-third yearbook of the National Society for Study on Education, Part I, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Molenda, M., & Bichelmeyer, B. (in press). Issues and trends in instructional technology: Slow growth as economy recovers. In Educational media and technology yearbook 2005: Volume 30. Englewood, Co: Libraries Unlimited.

National Education Goals Report. (1995).Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Petrina, S. (2003). The educational technology is technology education manifesto. Retrieved November 17, 2004, from

Petroni, L. (2003) Instructional development timeline. Retrieved November 18, 2004, from

Plotnik, E. (2000). Trends in educational technology 1995. ERIC Digest. Syracuse, NY: ERIC Clearinghouse on Information and Technology. ERIC Document ED 398 861

Reiser, R. A. (1987). Instructional technology: A history. In R.M. Gagne (Ed.) Instructional technology: Foundations (pp. 11-48). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Reiser, R. A. (2002). A history of instructional design and technology. In R.A. Reiser & J.V. Dempsey (Eds.), Trends and issues in instructional design and technology (pp.26-53). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Roberts, L. (1996). A transformation of learning: Use of the national information infrastructure for education and lifelong learning. In Educational media and technology yearbook 1995-96. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

Rothwell, W. J. & Kazanas, H. C. (2003). What is instructional design? In W. J. Rothwell & H. C. Kazanas (Eds.), Mastering the instructional design process with CD-ROM: A systematic approach (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Pfeiffer. Retrieved November 18, 2004, from

September 2006 IDT Record