A good question

I get asked a lot of questions about online learning, educational technology and distance education, but recently I was asked one that really stumped me, and forced me to reflect on the whole history of educational technology, at least as it has affected me.

The question was simple:

‘You’ve been working in the field now for 44 years. What have been your most seminal moments in terms of what you’ve learned?’

I’ve been able to boil the answer down into seven seminal moments.  Here I merely summarize these ‘aha’ moments. I will do a different post on each that will describe both the circumstances that led to the ‘aha’ moment, and the consequent heuristic implications for making more effective decisions about the use of technology.

1. 1970: Media are different

By this, I mean different media have different educational effects or affordances. If you just transfer the same teaching to a different media, you fail to exploit the unique characteristics of that medium. Put more positively, you can do different and often better teaching by adapting it to the medium. That way students will learn more deeply and effectively.

2. 1974: God helps those who help themselves

This stems from my experience of working in developing countries. Ever since I started working in this field, people have argued that ‘Western’ technology is the solution to educational problems in developing countries. This is hubris, and just plain wrong. Progress in education in developing countries has to start at home. Western technology can help, but only as long as it is adapted and transformed locally.

3. 1978: Asynchronous is better

Everyone learns better from media and technologies that allow them to study anywhere, at any time. In particular the ability to repeat and revise recorded material makes learning much more effective than live, synchronous teaching. This ‘insight’ stemmed originally from research on the effectiveness of audio-cassettes compared to broadcast radio, but has subsequently been found true also for television and the Internet.

4. 1986: Computers for communication, not as teaching machines

Until 1986, I had always been skeptical of computers as an effective teaching medium, especially in distance education. Up to then, I had seen them as ‘teaching machines’, attempting, ineffectively to replace teachers. The Internet changed that. In 1986, I realised that computers could allow learners and teachers to  communicate effectively over space and time. This fits much better with my philosophy of teaching and learning. Despite developments since then in artificial intelligence, this seminal moment still holds true today.

5. 1995: WWW: a universal standard

Like most people in education, I was caught cold by the World Wide Web. Until 1995, I was still using non-web technology for teaching online. The web allows rich multimedia material to be transmitted to any computer, any software system, anywhere in the world, with an Internet connection. This has had profound implications for the design of online teaching which we still have by no means fully understood or exploited.

6. 1995: Convergence of online learning

This was the year I moved from a distance teaching organization to a campus-based university. The move was partly driven by a growing realization that the technologies being introduced into distance education would eventually transform campus-based teaching as well. This is just beginning to be fully realised 18 years later, through developments such as hybrid learning. The challenge now is to identify what is best done on campus, and what online, when students have the choice of both.

7. 1997: Strategy matters

Having worked as a manager by this time for 7 years, I was beginning to understand the bigger picture regarding the planning and management of learning technologies, and it wasn’t pretty. For educational technology to be used effectively, it has to be planned and managed well, and there were almost no specific guidelines at the time. Almost everything was left to the IT people. This had to change. Academics had to get involved as well.  This also is now beginning to happen but we still have a long way to go to be better planners and managers, despite my two books on the subject.

The time perspective

Why nothing in the last 16 years? Well, the further back in time you go, the clearer becomes the signal from the noise. Also, if something is universally true, you are likely to recognize it earlier than later. And in the educational technology field, I doubt if many things are universally true, because it is an area that is still rapidly developing.

The one exception though I might make (an eighth aha) is 2008 when I realised the importance of web 2.0 for enabling more learner-centered teaching and learning, but I still need more time to see the real significance.

In the meantime, I will develop each of these seven themes further in later posts.


What are your ‘seminal,’ aha moments in educational technology? Why?


  1. Thanks for sharing these evoking “principles” with all of us, Tony! I think they will be very useful specially because lots of people are still doubting on the first ones … by trying to jump to have more than a dozen of “true” future statements, even if they didn’t understand the previous ones.

    I will think on it, but I must assume several will be similar to yours because you helped me many times …

  2. Great post, my university still hasn’t learned your 1997 lesson – IT still drives all technology decisions.

    Some ‘aha’ moments I can think of relating to technology and education:

    I stumbled across the Mosaic browser in a mac lab in 1994, and it was neat, but I had a real ‘aha’ moment when I visited the whitehouse.gov page and saw that you write a letter right then and there and immediately submit it (CGI forms, Perl, etc.). The ‘aha’ realization was that the web was for more than just receiving information. You could send information and do interactive things, as well.
    I quickly realized we could use this feature for our student Amnesty International group since all we basically did was right letters. A web site could assist by providing a template for the letter already typed up for you. I signed up for webspace at Georgia Tech, learned HTML and Perl and CGI and a year later over 30,000 people had visited our site and AI-USA was contacting me to do their site (turned out though at the time, they still thought of the web as an electronic brochure – glad to see now they are using Drupal, which I use for most all my sites).

    1993 I had a human-computer interaction class and we were asked to create a mockup of a student registration system in Hypercard. We were supposed to just create a visual interface, but I couldn’t help but see that it wasn’t that hard to add interactivity, too, via things like buttons and Hypertalk. So I created an interactive demo of a registration system where students could add courses they were thinking about taking into a temporary ‘satchel’ (this was before Amazon ‘cart’). I got counted off for doing so, but I had the ‘aha’ realization that you could actually create useful things with programming, not just lame BASIC stuff that I had previously been exposed to.

    For another ‘aha’ moment, I encourage people to watch the first 5 minutes of the video ‘Minds of Our Own’: http://www.learner.org/resources/series26.html
    In it, graduates of MIT & Harvard, still in cap & gown, are handed a battery, bulb, and wire. Many cannot make the bulb light, despite being trained in circuits and engineering. The ‘aha’ realization was that these were the top students in the country, at the top schools in the country, and the top professors in the country, but they still were not understanding something conceptually. We can longer make excuses and blame the students for a lack of learning, or blame the quality of the school. When the best students at the best schools are still having fundamental difficulties learning and understanding, we have to rethink how we teach and how we learn. Eric Mazur co-opted this topic years later, but there are hundreds of studies on physics education, science education, misconceptions, conceptual change, etc. from the 1980s and forward on this topic. The connection to technology – look at studies of microcomputer-based labs and animated computer simulations – within mere minutes students get the conceptual understanding they didn’t get after years of traditional instruction. For example, look at this animated circuit simulation: http://falstad.com/circuit

    • Thanks, Doug – great comment. Can’t agree more about the need to move from memorization to understanding, and from understanding to application. This is where the use of different media can help most.

  3. […] In a previous post, I listed the seven ‘aha’ moments that have been the most seminal ‘discoveries’ in my researching and working in educational technology. This is the first of seven posts that discusses why I believe these ‘discoveries’ to be important, and their implications specifically for online learning. […]

  4. […] In a previous post, I listed the seven ‘aha’ moments that have been the most seminal ‘discoveries’ in my researching and working in educational technology. This is the second of seven posts that discuss why I believe these ‘discoveries’ to be important, and their implications specifically for online learning. (The first was: Media are different.) […]


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