Module 01: The Field of Educational Technology

The topics in this module include:

The Field of Educational Technology

From where do educational technologists come?

One of the perks of our profession is associating with the eclectic assortment of people who take up the pursuit of educational technology. A few come right out of college and enter the field, but many others come to it by more circuitous routes.

Walking into a masters degree course in educational technology you are likely to find a variety of people. They include some already working in this or a related field -- developing or conducting workshops, designing or producing educational video or multimedia programs, teaching in schools, or evaluating instructional products.

Others arrive from more exotic occupations like engineering, health care, business, the arts… the list could continue indefinitely! Suffice it to say that professionals in many fields discover that helping people learn -- about their own or other fields -- is sufficiently satisfying to induce them to make educational technology, the art and science of learning and teaching, the central direction of their career.

One characteristic that unites this diverse group is that educational technologists themselves typically love to learn. In addition to learning about the psychology of learning and all that the systematic approach to instructional development entails, we get to satisfy our craving to learn about what lots of other people know and do -- the subject matter experts and learners with whom we work.

Luckily, the dawn of the information age has generated growing demand for our services. Adults need or want to change careers several times during their working lives. They need to learn new conceptual frameworks, information technologies and production techniques to keep their skills competitive. They want to spend more of their leisure time traveling and learning about the world around and within them. Children still need to learn the basic knowledge, skills, and attitudes of an increasingly global culture while dealing with a proliferation of media and the explosion of information.

Where do educational technologists work?

It's difficult to imagine any organization these days, public or private, that has no need for educating or training its members or constituents, be they students, managers, employees, clients, or customers. So it's tough to think of places where educational technologists don't work. For purposes of illustration, however, we could identify several of the largest markets for educational technologists.

One, of course, is schools. Many elementary and secondary school classroom teachers pursue their own professional development by becoming educational technologists, some remaining in the classroom, others moving to computer laboratories or media centers. Schools and school districts are increasingly discovering the need for technology coordinators to help plan and implement school technology integration at all levels. Colleges and universities also hire educational technologists to assist in course design and delivery, distance learning programs, and faculty support and development.

Perhaps the largest employers of educational technologists are the myriad businesses, from large corporations to small companies, with educational and training needs. They cover the spectrum of private enterprise, from real estate to high tech firms, from fast food franchises to telecommunications giants. Human resource development (HRD) departments, human performance divisions, corporate training -- whatever the name, these are the folks who help the people in their companies take advantage of new opportunities, solve performance problems, obtain new skills or update old ones. They work with clients as well, helping assess customer needs for company services, training customers' employees to use their new systems, and helping them evaluate effectiveness. They may create or deliver workshops and courses, serve as consultants, or develop print or multimedia instructional materials.

Another steady employer in our field is the military. Educational technologists develop and deliver courses, training programs, and other instructional materials for each of the armed services. They create manuals and job aids to help personnel learn how to assemble and operate remote radar equipment, drive aircraft carriers, or plan strategy. They may help develop print or multimedia instructional products like submarine or flight simulators or second language tutorials.

Finally, there are whole companies that specialize in educational technology, providing their expertise to other organizations. Courseware developers like IVID or Andersen Consultants design and develop print and multimedia projects for business. Others, like Creative Learning Systems, Lightspan, or Jostens, specialize in developing curriculum and software for schools and colleges. Still others are primarily defense contractors, developing courses or products for military customers.

The tasks and products educational technologists work with are as diverse as the organizations that employ them and the content the people in those organizations want or need to learn. With a little foresight, you can easily position yourself for a career in which boredom will be the least of your problems. There are plenty of people who need to learn lots of new skills and knowledge, plenty of interesting stuff to learn and teach, and plenty of organizations that will gladly pay you for good, solid educational technology skills. So, what exactly are those skills?

What do educational technologists do?

It's pretty tough to describe a "typical" or "average" educational technologist. For one thing, it's pretty likely that, outside of graduate school, you won't be called an "educational technologist" at all. What you are called depends to some extent on the type of organization with which you associate, and to a greater degree on the specific role you play in the process. Here are a few of the more important niches that educational technologists fill.


There are a growing number of educational technologists that specialize in analyzing human performance problems and opportunities. The executive calls you into her office. "Sales are down. I don't get it, we bought all the salespeople new laptop computers that were supposed to streamline the ordering process." Or, "I just played a round of golf with Pete over at MegaBubble, and he says their productivity is skyrocketing since they started this TQM stuff."

Or the school principal drops by your classroom. "We want to put a program in place to help our kids transition from school to work." Or, "I need you to get a group together and write a proposal for one of these new state technology grants."

Each of these situations seem to call for immediate and specific action, but an experienced (or well-trained novice) educational technologist will recognizee that these are all simply instances of human performance problems or opportunities. Some people want to do something new, or better, or perhaps just aren't doing something as well as they're "supposed" to be doing it.

To hit on the right solution, the effective action, you need to look into the problem a little more deeply. Is there something wrong with the salespeople, or are their new laptops missing a vital piece of software? Beyond getting some new equipment for the school, what do teachers and students need to really start using technology for learning in their classrooms?

Educational technologists who specialize in analyzing the goals and the variety of means of accomplishing those goals (instructional and otherwise), are sometimes called human performance technologists or "front-end" analysts. They listen to people, talk with them, observe them, look at documents, conduct surveys, gather data, work with people to devise solutions, and write reports with their recommendations. They often get the "big bucks," because this is frequently the most critical stage of any project or initiative. If you get this right, the rest will fall into place with less effort and prove more effective. If you get it wrong, the initiative will likely derail and fall off a cliff.


Assume that the analysts have discovered that, indeed, part of the solution to the problem or part of the key to the new initiative involves some folks in your organization who want or need some new skills or knowledge. Here come the instructional designers.

They pin down vague, "fuzzy" instructional goals and make them clear, focused and observable. They pick the brains of subject matter experts to find out how best to implement TQM. They talk with the teachers to find out what they already know and don't know about word processing. They formulate specific, measurable objectives to address instructional needs. They even design tests or other instruments to eventually measure whether the learners learned anything. They classify the learning objectives and choose or invent instructional strategies that will help the learners meet them. They devise instructional games and simulations. They decide whether to use workbooks or multimedia instruction, workshops or job aids, or some combination of media.

This is the real "creative" stage of the process. Designers work with everyone involved to make the key decisions that, when successful, result in effective, satisfying learning instead of dull, ineffective instruction.


Developers themselves come in many flavors, and work in a variety of niches. There are the artists and craftspeople who create graphics and animation; producers, directors, and entire crews who plan, shoot, and edit video material; writers who create scripts, workbooks, and manuals; audio technicians who record and digitize sound; computer programmers who pull all these "assets" together into multimedia programs; editors and production staff who assemble print materials. This list could go on and on. Many of these folks are specialists, and may or may not be educational technologists.

During the development stage of the process, educational technologists frequently find themselves involved in two important activities: writing instruction and/or supervising the rest of the development process. They may need to know how to write for Kindergarten students and PhDs, for managers and shipping clerks, for engineers and pipe fitters. They have to understand what it's going to cost to revise a line of dialog in a video after it has been shot and edited. They need to know how much resolution is needed in a picture, the best way to label a diagram, and whether the extra cost to animate a graphic will pay off in greater learning.

These are the folks who actually put together the books, job aids, and multimedia materials that find their ways into the hands of learners and, who knows, perhaps win an award along the way.


There is no such word as "implementers," as far as I can tell. But there are many types of people who implement instruction. They range from classroom teachers, standup trainers, and workshop facilitators to the people who distribute or schedule multimedia instruction. They may need to know how to motivate an audience of learners and how to keep them interested, how to organize small group practice activities, and how often to schedule breaks. They may need to understand how to use a variety of media to prepare and deliver instruction. They may need to manage digital storage or network bandwidth.

These are the folks who take the instructional plans or materials and deliver them to the learners, often face-to-face. This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. They need excellent people skills, good management abilities, and the sense to know when the instruction is flying and when it's taking a dive, and perhaps how to pull it out of a tailspin on the spur of the moment before it crashes and burns.


A growing number of educational technologists specialize in evaluation. They often further specialize in either instructional program or product evaluation, and sometimes even further by the subject matter or industry in which they work. They may evaluate products during design and development (formative evaluation) or during implementation (summative evaluation). They work with clients to plan assessments, they create tests and other instruments, they administer those instruments, compile and interpret the data, and write summary reports. They "alpha" test multimedia programs, write "bug" lists, and recommend improvements.

They need to know what to measure, how and when to measure it, and how much detail to report. They need to be able to represent piles of abstract data with clear, meaningful charts and graphs. They need to know how to be unobtrusive, non-threatening, and constructive.

Evaluators who specialize in assessing instructional programs need to understand program goals, get a sense of how much time is enough to show real results and know which data-gathering methods will be most cost-effective in a given situation. They must be able to communicate their results clearly and succinctly.

Educational product evaluators need to understand the process of rapid prototyping and usability testing of multimedia products. They should know how to get users to make useful observations and give them helpful feedback. They need to be able to analyze a mass of data and synthesize specific recommendations for product improvement.

Without the evaluators, the whole process is running blind. The client never knows whether they are meeting their goals. The analysts don't ever hear about the key issue they may have missed. The designers never know what works and what doesn't. The developers and implementers never find out how to do their jobs better. In short, the rest of the educational technologists don't get one of their chief perks -- learning to improve their own knowledge and skills.

Project managers

A fair number of educational technologists sooner or later wind up as project managers, supervising the work of other educational technologists and the artists and craftspeople with whom they work. In some ways, managing educational or instructional programs or product development is much like managing anything else. You need to be able to organize people, create and manage budgets, meet deadlines, and ensure quality.

Project managers must master the arts of running efficient meetings, communicating with clients and colleagues, negotiating with vendors, and motivating and supervising employees. Educational technologists must also keep their colleagues focused on educational goals as well as the bottom line, on instructional strategy as well as marketing strategy.

Managers of educational product or program development projects are involved in each phase of the process, and often have sales, marketing, or other responsibilities as well. Some people revel in working at this high level of responsibility and oversight. Others miss the day-to-day, hands-on activities of analysis, design, development, implementation and evaluation.

Where do you fit in?

Of course, rarely do educational technologists find themselves fitting neatly into one of the roles described above. In some larger companies you may have a single, specific task you do day in and day out. You might just write instruction, for example, or conduct usability testing. In smaller companies or departments, you might get to exercise more of your educational technology muscles. One week you're busy conducting performance needs assessment, and the next you're writing instructional specifications. You move from a storyboard meeting with video producers in the morning to conducting a usability session in the afternoon. Again, some folks like the variety of doing "everything," others get more satisfaction from doing one or two specific tasks in which they particularly excel.

Choose the organization you work for by the type of opportunity you see to do the activities in which you're most interested. Awhile back I got a call from a former Ed Tech student who had landed his "dream" job with a multimedia publishing company. This very talented guy had gotten what he asked for -- a good paying, challenging development job creating educational multimedia products with sound, animation, video -- the works. After a year or so, though, he found himself restless. He missed what he'd experienced in graduate school, working directly with clients, making design decisions, seeing his stuff in action. He ended up moving over to a job in higher education that will probably limit the dollars he'll make over the years but, for the moment at least, feeds his soul -- provides an environment in which he works directly with smart clients, gets to experiment with new learning strategies and technologies, and sometimes even gets to see his work in action in the classroom or on the World Wide Web.

What do educational technologists create?

As you can see from the description of what educational technologists do on a day-to-day basis, you can expect to participate in the creation of educational and instructional products and programs.

Instructional Products

Even the short list of instructional products covers a good deal of territory. It includes textbooks, workbooks, manuals, job aids, educational video and multimedia, and even museum displays. You might design products for preschoolers, helicopter pilots, water filtration workers, or graduate students. You might author an educational game, write a video script, or edit a workbook for use in a course or workshop. You could build a Web site, produce a CD-ROM, or compile a manual.

The scope and variety of educational and instructional products is truly staggering these days. It's imperative to be familiar with the strengths and limitations of various products, though few of us master the details of all of them. At a minimum, an educational technologist should be able to talk intelligently with specialists who develop products in each of these areas. We should be able to talk page layout and bandwidth with Web developers; illustration, copyright, and type design with layout artists; and screen design, video compression and interactivity with CD-ROM producers.

Before discovering educational technology, I spent many years working in radio and television. Starting out I worked at small stations where I had to do many jobs. I learned some lighting, served as a camera operator, sound technician, video operator, videotape editor, floor manager, and technical director. I frequently got to design sets, create graphics, write scripts, and even interview people on camera. By the time I started producing and directing TV programs, I had a pretty intimate understanding of what each of the people on my crew could accomplish with the tools they had at their disposal.

When I began teaching educational video production I noticed that a few students, sometimes with very sound ideas and feeling the need to control their projects, chose to direct their own productions. Success or failure in this undertaking seemed to hinge almost exclusively on whether the "director" in question had taken the time to serve awhile in each of the subordinate roles on the production team. Breezing in with a grand scheme and little understanding of the nuts and bolts of how images and sound get onto videotape, they and their crew soon experienced massive, sometimes terminal, frustration. Those with a clear idea of what everyone was doing, how much warning they needed to do it, and what limitations they were up against, were far more successful.

The moral of this story for us as students of educational technology is that, while we may be interested in the big picture, in designing brilliant educational games or managing instructional product development, we need to keep ourselves grounded in a solid understanding of what everyone on the team is doing, when they need to do it, and how much time other resources their activity is going to require.

Even if you decide to specialize in performance technology, say, or evaluation, you will serve yourself and your colleagues well to build a broad base of experience in all aspects of educational technology, including design and development. Write some instructional specifications. Do a little multimedia authoring. Serve on a video production crew. The same is true for those who plan to specialize in, say, educational multimedia development. Get a little background in performance needs assessment, try your hand at usability testing. You'll have a much better sense of where your role fits in the process as a whole, and you'll be able to communicate with clients and coworkers more intelligently and effectively.

Instructional Programs

Educational technologists also create and deliver instructional programs such as classes, workshops, and whole courses. Again, the range of venues and audiences is as broad as can be imagined. Elementary school classrooms, naval training centers, community health clinics, corporate training facilities, and so on ad infinitum are everyday scenes of teaching and learning. Leadership workshops, history classes, courses in celestial navigation, and museum tours are all examples of educational or instructional events which someone, preferably an educational technologist, design and/or deliver.

An educational program may last a few minutes, such a patient orientation to a medical facility, or may stretch over days, weeks, months, or even years, in the case of school curricula. In all cases, there are some basic principles about how people learn, remember, and apply new skills and knowledge that you, as an educational technologist, bring to the project. There is also a systematic approach for assessing the needs, the limitations, and the resources in a specific situation, designing an appropriate solution, developing the materials and organizing the people that will implement that solution, and evaluating the results of the program.


The theme here seems to be diversity. As an educational technologist you can work almost anywhere, for any size organization you prefer, learn and teach practically any subject, and play a variety of roles within the overall process of making educational products or running instructional programs.

In fact, a big problem for some new educational technologists is deciding how to focus their energies, what skills to emphasize, what particular knowledge to pursue. Our advice is to begin by casting a broad net. Gather as much information and talk with as many people as you can. If you're in graduate school, play as many roles as you can in group and individual projects. Join an association or two -- our field has a number of good ones -- and attend some meetings to get a feel for what different educational technologists are talking about. Then, as the weeks and months go by, pay attention to what you seem to be good at and what interests you most. Before too long you'll have a sense of the area or areas where you'll be most satisfied and can make the greatest contribution.

Good luck, and welcome to the community of educational technologists!

Page authors: Bob Hoffman & Donn Ritchie
Last updated: January 30, 2000

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