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1960's - Educational Technology's split personality

By Peter Avis October 8th 2014

Educational Technology can of course mean many things - 'Technological devices used for educating' but also 'Applying Technological Methods to Educational Processes'. Pragmatically it came to mean both. One of the results of the Brynmor Jones report and the formation of NCET with its many council members was to create in the UK a broad based, pragmatic approach, home to many different pioneers and experts, interested in the technology but also the systematic design of learning such as programmed learning, open and distance learning.

The phrase "Educational Technology" was first used in the Brynmor Jones Report of 1965 and came to cover a wide range of areas from audio visual education to programmed learning to instructional technology to the early use of computers. In particular the phrase 'Educational Technology' was used to mean two completely different ideas:

  1. Technological devices used for educating - i.e. using audio visual equipment, computers etc. to teach and learn different subject matter, and later providing general tools such as word-processors and spreadsheets to improve a learners productivity.
  2. Applying Technological Methods to Educational Processes - i.e. treating education as any other systematic process and applying technological methods to it such as creating a systems approach identifying clear goals, programming learning, creating new ways of delivering learning etc.

A Systematic Approach

Geoffrey Hubbard (1976), Director of CET, when commenting on an American Report in 1976 said:

"The fact is that technology has not developed primarily for educational applications; education has in fact ridden piggyback on technology for other purposes. Or, to put it in less perjorative form, educational technology consists of applying a systematic approach to the development of teaching-learning situations and exploiting the available reprographic and distributive technologies."

Educational Technology is not to be confused with electronic gadgetry. (Rowntree 1974 p.1)

The concept that education could be better organised and made more efficient was of significant interest during the 1960s and of course in later decades: programmed learning, open and distance learning, instructional technology, managed learning, resource based learning, flexible learning all came, and often went - at least as fashionable phrases.

Programmed Learning

In the 1960s programmed learning was high profile in the USA. Skinners work on behaviourism and programmed instruction - breaking instructional content into small units and rewarding correct responses early and often -led to the development of early teaching machines. (Wikipedia).

With the advent of computers, a number of projects such as PLATO(Wikipedia, 2014a) in the USA attracted considerable attention. The Plato project was started at University of Illinois in the early 60's. Initially on the
Illiac I computer with a single terminal (Hebenstreit, 1986) it began to build a computer system with a great number of terminals with the aim of competing in terms of cost per hour and per user with the traditional educational system.
The PLATO system was re-designed between 1963 and 1969 to allow teachers to design lesson modules using the TUTOR programming language developed by Paul Tenczar(Wikipedia, 2014b).

Brynmor Jones

An early Skinner teaching machine

Educationalists in the UK were both wary and interested in these kinds of approaches and the Plowden report took programmed learning seriously.

para 728. We have left till last the consideration of the most recent and controversial of teaching aids, the making of teaching programmes and their presentation in books or by machines. It has roused strong feelings in the teaching profession because more than any other aid it has seemed to some that it might take over part of the teacher's job. Since most programmes for primary school children have been concerned with the acquisition of factual knowledge, programmed learning has seemed counter to current trends of basing children's learning on interest and discovery...

para 731. We are glad to know that the Department are supporting research projects which are designed to discover the best methods of programming school learning and of using programmes in schools of all kinds. The Department have also encouraged institutes of education to provide short courses to train teachers to write programmes. Until more programmes have been produced, research results cannot be convincing. Furthermore it is stimulating for teachers to make programmes since they are forced to think hard about what they are teaching and why and to test its success. Scrutiny of the difficulties encountered by pupils in using programmes can give teachers new insight into the processes of teaching and learning. (Plowden, 1967)

Open and Distance Learning

jenny leeA different area where educational technology was expanding fast was that of open and distance learning. A number of experiments were developed and the Open University and the National Extension College were both founded in the 1960s.

The Open University has always been strongly linked with the BBC and distance learning. As early as 1925 the BBC appointed its first director of education, JC Stobart. In 1926 hewrote a memo to colleagues that advocated a "wireless university". (Chalabi, 2014)

Such a venture required strong and persistent political support and Harold Wilson, Michael Young, and particularly Jennie Lee (see photograph) were instrumental in launching the OU despite considerable scepticism and hostility from higher education and industry. The importance of educational technology to the Open University was recognised in the speech of the university's first chancellor, Lord Crowther, at the OU inauguration on 23 July 1969.
"The world is caught in a communications revolution, the effects of which will go beyond those of the industrial revolution of two centuries ago. Then the great advance was the invention of machines to multiply the potency of men's muscles. Now the great new advance is the invention of machines to multiply the potency of men's minds. As the steam engine was to the first revolution, so the computer is to the second. It has been said that the addiction of the traditional university to the lecture room is a sign of its inability to adjust to the development of the printing press. That of course is unjust. But at least no such reproach will be levelled at The Open University in the communications revolution. Every new form of human communication will be examined to see how it can be used to raise and broaden the level of human understanding. There is no restriction on techniques."

In the same year, 1969, the OU set up its 'Institute for Educational Technology' and a year later formed their partnership with the BBC. On 9 February 1971, the OU was broadcast on TV for the very first time. Tuning in were many of its 25,000 students that were enrolled in one of four multi-disciplinary courses in the arts, social sciences, science or maths. (Chalabi, 2014) For a full history of the OU see their wikipage here.

Bringing it all together as Educational Technology

In 1972 the DES published a report (DES, 1972) that helped define the field of Educational Technology

"para 8. Educational technology comprehends a number of distinguishable areas of activity. The most familiar is the use of technical devices to support the processes of teaching and learning. These include visual projection apparatus, radio and television systems, tape recorders for sound and vision, duplicating, photographing and other reprographic equipment, language laboratories and teaching machines, from the very simple to the highly elaborate, some of which require staff with special training or experience to operate and maintain them.

para 9 .However, the use of technical aids is not self sufficient.They are devices for conveying learning material which has to be supplied either by the individual teacher or by some other teacher or author on his behalf. Other aspects of educational technology relate therefore to the production of this material. Sometimes it stems from the general interaction of teacher and student with a range of problems and situations. At other times, it is necessary to construct the material more systematically in the light of research into the processes of learning, particularly of learning by a carefully designed sequence of steps. This process is characteristic of what has become known as programmed learning, although even here, current practices frequently embrace course structures considerably broader than those originally conceived. Thus the teacher constantly requires facilities to make resource material for himself, or to adapt to his own needs, material supplied from other sources. These needs will vary from time to time, perhaps in response to changing local circumstances or to the evolution of new attitudes and approaches to learning.

para 10. Moreover, in responding to his day-to-day problems, the teacher who decides to integrate new systems and techniques into his work will find that his innovation has implications beyond the confines of his own classroom. It may impinge on the work of his colleagues or create new demands on time, accommodation and financial resources.The more obvious material aspects of educational technology cannot sensibly be dissociated from consideration of organisation and management, or curriculum content, innovation and development."

"In the end you cannot teach anybody anything; you can only help him to learn. (Hubbard 1972)

As Hubbard (1972) says this means "On the one hand it's just audio visual aids writ large; on the other it's so broad it almost comes to anything that improves the quality of education". Luckily he goes on to resolve this 'split personality' of educational technology saying a move towards more effective learning can only come about by better defining what needs to be learnt, putting a great deal of thought into the creation of a better learning system, measuring how well it works and revising it in the light of that evidence. As he says the disadvantage about this idea is that it involves a great deal of effort, a great deal more time and effort than is required for more orthodox lecturing or teaching. As he says it is here that the two stream converge, for the way to get an adequate return from the greater investment in developing effective systematic learning systems is by applying technology to replicate them and by 'the use of modern communications systems, to make them widely available.'

Commentary - Pragmatism rules OK
Although it was confusing for the phrase 'Educational Technology' to cover such a range of activities it was useful and helpful over the years to the organisations that had it in their title, CET, NCET, Becta. In practice its two meanings are clearly entwined. As Geoffrey Hubbard made clear, new approaches to teaching and learning needed to exploit new technological devices, and quite often were dependent on them. Whilst an Open University could have been created using a postal service, it only really became economically and educationally viable with television. Programmed learning only became big business with computers and integrated learning systems. Equally, computers in the classroom are only really effective when teachers change their methods of teaching, moving away from didactic teaching so techology immediately takes you into new methods - as Harold Wilson predicted. As a phrase 'Educational Technology' also has the advantage of being technology non-specific so useful in naming an organisation that you want to last. Anything with microelectronic, computer, etc. in the title is by its nature likely to go out of fashion or be retired once the job is done (MEP, MESU, NDPCAL) whilst Educational Technology will always have new devices to consider and explore. The great danger of such a wide definition is that it impinges on all elements of education; pedagogy, curriculum, management, governance structures etc. putting it, and any government organisation in direct conflict with established methods. For example Becta in the late 1990s had great problems having any dialogue with the National Literacy and Numeracy Projects, because they perceived educational technology as a distraction.


Chalabi M. (2014) Distance learning: who's doing it now? The Guardian, Thursday 30 January 2014 Available at:

DES (1972) 'Central Arrangements for Promoting Educational Technology in the United Kingdom' Report of the Working Party appointed by the Secretary of State for Education and Science' Her Majesty's Stationery Office,London, 1972 - quoted in Hubbard (1972)

Hebenstreit J. (1986) ''The Use of Informatlcs in Education, Present situation, trends and perspectives
Computers and Education: Which role for Research, Unesco [online]

Hubbard G. (1972) 'Keynote address', Proceedings of the Canadian Symposium on Instructional Technology (Calgary, Alberta, May 24-26, 1972) [online]

Hubbard G. (1976) Issue and Public Policies in Educational Technology, British Journal of Educational Technology, 7-7 p51-58

Rowntree D. (1974) Educational Technology in Curriculum Development, Harper and Row, London

The Plowden Report (1967) Children and their Primary Schools - A Report of the Central Advisory Council for Education, London: HMSO Available at:

Wikipedia (2014a) [online]

Wikipedia (2014b) [online]