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The field of educational technology is rich with speculation about dramatic improvements in learning and instruction that will be realized through innovative applications of new technologies. History tells a somewhat different and sobering story, however. Thanks to such technologies as interactive simulations, the Internet, streaming media, and virtual reality, educators have the opportunity to go where none have gone before. We can introduce representations of a great variety of complex phenomena into school settings that would have previously required expensive field trips and only limited opportunities for meaningful interaction. We can apply voice recognition technology to foreign language training and use conversational interfaces so learners can practice speaking skills in realistic settings. We can record and replay noteworthy events from all over the world. Rich digital resources exist for nearly every topic of concern while technology development continues at a mind-numbing pace. Is this not an embarrassment of riches? I believe that it is. What is more amazing than the wealth of educational resources that we have produced and accumulated is how far we have not come in improving learning and instruction.

In the 1980s, it was predicted that intelligent tutoring systems would produce dramatically significant improvements in learning, similar to the two-sigma effects that Bloom (1984) had documented for some one-to-one human tutoring situations. Such improvements did not materialize. What did materialize were less significant improvements in some well-defined learning situations and the realization that it was extremely difficult to create a dynamic computer model of what a learner understood about a particular domain at any given moment in time.

In the 1990s it was predicted that distributed learning and tele-collaboration would make classroom teaching and teachers obsolete. This has not happened. What has happened is that we have realized that collaboration at a distance is often quite difficult and challenging. We have also realized that the role of the teacher is not likely to be eliminated by technology. Rather, the role of teaching in technology-intensive settings is more difficult and more crucial than ever before. Only a rare few master the skills required to effectively integrate technology into learning and instruction.

Yet we continue to invest resources into technology-enhanced learning and instruction. Many have implicit faith that technology will make education better. Such faith is ill founded. While it is true that technology has been a centerpiece in many instructional systems and learning environments, technology is not what learning is all about. Learning is essentially about change. Learning involves changes in attitudes, beliefs, capabilities, knowledge structures, and skills. When these changes have been observed and can be believed to be relatively stable and persist for some time, we are inclined to say that learning has occurred. Technology can certainly be used to promote learning. It can also impede learning.

Learning Goals

How far have we not come? Consider Robert Gagné's views on educational technology (see, for example, The Legacy of Robert M. Gagné edited by Rita C. Ritchey, available through ERIC-IT. For Gagné, the learning goal (especially the kind of knowledge or skill to be learned) determines to a great extent how to design effective support for learning (i.e., instruction). What has happened along with advances in technology is that many educational researchers explicitly or implicitly discredit this and other fundamental principles of instructional science. The result is that while many dramatic educational technology applications are being created there is very little empirical research being conducted with regard to their effects on learning. As a consequence, we have little evidence on which to base a judgment with regard to the advantages of using specific kinds of technology in various educational settings. We continue to invest in technology and proceed on the basis of our implicit faith in technology-enhanced learning and instruction.

Lessons Learned

The big lessons that we should have learned about educational technology in the last 50 years include the following:

Technology intensive education is not necessarily inexpensive and the benefits are not always clear; it typically requires significant initial investments in resources and training; long-term learning outcomes and generalizable results are seldom studied with the rigor associated with more established solutions; if we apply the WYMIWYG principle (what you measure is what you get), then we really do not know what we are getting.

Wholesale replacements of one form of delivery with another have seldom proven effective across a variety of settings; hybrid or mixed-delivery solutions can offer a path for graceful growth and development while retaining the best features of proven solutions.

Many learning objectives are unstated or not explicitly formulated; ignoring these is not likely to lead to systemic improvement in learning and instruction.

Some legitimate learning goals are effectively met with traditional and well-established methods; we need not abandon what we know works well when embracing new technologies.

However, some advocates of technology in learning go so far as to claim that schools should be abandoned or radically reformed (see Engines for Education for an elaboration of this perspective). Perhaps the most disturbing trend in educational technology appears to be an abandonment of a scientific attitude with regard to learning and instruction. Some even regard learning theories as harmful; see Brent Wilson's article "The Dangers of Theory Based Design" in the ITFORUM archives). For an argument in favor of retaining a scientific attitude see Dave Merrill's paper titled "Learning Strategies Then and Now: Same of Different?" (posted on the International Forum of Educational Technology and Society Web site).

Educational Innovation

In spite of justifiable skepticism with regard to educational technology, it seems quite likely that innovative applications will continue to emerge and that educational technology will be used more pervasively and in an increasing variety of ways. Are there specific concerns about this irresistible trend toward technology-centered education that deserve attention? I believe that there are. Peter Goodyear argues that we should take life-long learning seriously and, therefore, re-examine learning as a kind of work, in stark contrast with those who advocate using technology to make learning more like entertainment (see his paper in the Journal of Courseware Engineering). Yvonne Wćrn addresses the need to re-examine the concept of performance improvement in light of distance learning possibilities (see her paper in the Journal of Courseware Engineering). Goodyear and Wćrn both address what is now being called the ecology of learning and learning spaces. Alexander Voiskounsky addresses cultural issues in "Internet Diversity of Unification?". Voiskounsky argues that a kind of cultural shock is arising in subtle ways on account of the pervasiveness of the Internet, but he is optimistic that we can effectively respond to these cultural issues through planning and implementations that make cultural aspects explicit throughout the process.

The design and planning of instructional systems and learning environments have not become simpler on account of advances in technology. Rather, they have become significantly more difficult. The fact that it is more challenging than ever to properly design and implement technology-intensive learning solutions has not been fully appreciated by very many organizations, although it is well understood by the International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction IBSTPI) and reflected in their recent update of the Instructional Design Standards (see http://www.ibstpi.org/98comp.html).

Educational Improvement

The greatest potential for educational technology to improve education perhaps exists in support of understanding complex problems and domains. We know reasonably well how to support learning simple concepts and procedures, and we know how to make effective use of technology to support such learning. The educational research community is now addressing how to effectively promote understanding of ill-structured problems that occur quite naturally in many complex settings (e.g., how to maintain sustainable levels of resources in a region with an increasing rate of development and population growth). A genuine sign of the maturity of educational technology is that serious research is now occurring in areas where there is relatively little known about improving learning and understanding (Spector & Anderson, in press).

I close with five principles that I regard as fundamental as we forge our way through the information fog toward a new and improved sense of learning and instruction:

Learning is fundamentally about change—the Learning Principle.

Experience is the starting point for understanding—the Experience Principle.

Context determines meaning—the Context Principle.

Relevant learning contexts are often broad and multi-faceted—the Integration Principle.

We know less than we are inclined to believe—the Uncertainty Principle.

If we wish to come further than we have in advancing education, then such principles should guide research and development. The Uncertainty Principle is perhaps the most fundamental of all and might well be the departure point for all educational research.


Bloom, B. S. (1984). The 2 sigma problem: The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. Educational Researcher 13, 3-16.

Spector, J. M., & Anderson, T. M. (Eds.) (in press). Integrated and holistic perspectives on learning, instruction and technology: Understanding in complex domains. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.

Biographical Information

J. Michael Spector is professor and chair of Instructional Design, Development & Evaluation at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York. Prior to coming to Syracuse University in January 2000, Dr. Spector was director of the Educational Information Science & Technology Research Program at the University of Bergen, Norway. From 1991 through 1997, he was senior scientist for Instructional Systems Research at the United States Air Force Research Laboratory (Armstrong Laboratory). He is a distinguished graduate of the United States Air Force Academy (1967) and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (1978). Before joining Armstrong Laboratory in 1991, Dr. Spector was associate professor of Computer Science at Jacksonville State University, specializing in Software Engineering and Artificial Intelligence.

Spector's recent research is in the areas of intelligent performance support for instructional design and in system dynamics based learning environments. He has published numerous refereed journal articles and book chapters in the area of instructional design research, and he has edited special journal issues and books in his specific research areas.

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