Instructional Technology: Pedagogy for the Future

Instructional technology (IT) has moved to the forefront of education in a big hurry. Leading educational journals tout endless sources of grants and funding opportunities earmarked for new IT programs. Multimedia computer classrooms, video distribution centers, satellite downlink conference rooms, and network connections to the Information Super Highway are common themes in many professional periodicals.

Technology may be advancing, but are changes in the pedagogy that will make the best use of these new teaching tools keeping pace?

This article examines three new learning paradigms and proposes matching the most popular instructional technologies to the best classroom practices. The three paradigms include: Enactive Classroom Learning; Learning and Classroom Focus; and Presenting Student Learning. If teachers can identify which paradigm is best suited to their particular learning situation, they will be able to fully exploit the strengths of instructional technology.

Letís begin with a look at the most popular technologies supporting classroom learning. (For a complete definition, see Table 1, Glossary of Terms.)


Instructional Technologies in the Classroom

  • Audio Only
  • Audioconference
  • CBT (Computer-Based Teaching)
  • CDI (Computer Delivered Instruction)
  • CMI (Computer-Managed Instruction)
  • Computer Conference
  • Electronic mail (Email
  • Internet
  • Videoconference
  • Video Only


Paradigm One: Enactive Classroom Learning


Learning by doing is arguably the most efficient and effective form of exchange between the teacher and student. According to Jerome Bruner an educator develops more effective instruction by matching the method of presentation to the most appropriate learning style of the student.[1] A child progresses from sensory (enactive) to concrete (iconic) to abstract (symbolic) representation while simultaneously maturing from a state of dependency to one of autonomy. Examine Figure 1.

Enactive learning (the Y-axis) spans a range from low to high interaction. The employment of enactive learning in most classrooms is directly affected by the level of autonomy, or learner independence (the X-axis). Hands-on learning should match the studentís progression along this developmental corridor. From a pedagogical viewpoint, the greater a learner's autonomy, the higher the level of active learning that can be successfully employed.

The rising slope in Figure 1 is testimony to that relationship. Instructional technology mirrors this slope and provides a basis for the proper application of IT in the classroom, as shown in Figure 2.


IT Applications. Figure 2 plots the appropriate uses of technology to take full advantage of enactive learning without fear of presenting information at an inappropriate level of autonomy for younger learners. Consistent with the slope, computer-managed instruction (CMI) supports low levels of enactive learning combined with learner dependence on the teacher. Audio-only and video-only also provide for low levels of hands-on learning while relying on a learner's autonomy growing. Audio and video conferencing provide more interaction and therefore push the limits of learner autonomy, while the Internet and computer conferencing heighten the use of both high interaction and a high reliance on individual-learner independence.


IT Misapplications. Figure 2 can also help us explain some of the most common errors in the use of IT. Computer-based training (CBT), often applied in earlier grades, is fraught with potential problems for the highly dependent student. Dispersion of teacher attention and time on task, so critical for the less-autonomous student, violates the strengths of CBT, which is much more effective for students further along the rising slope of Figure 2's diagram. The Internet and computer conferences, so highly enactive as methods of presentation, are inappropriate learning environments for students demanding more of a teacherís time and attention.


Summary. Some children thrive in an environment of autonomy, especially when it comes to enactive learning. Others require a more hands-on approach. Instructional technologies run the gamut and while they can be a boon to the teacher in the classroom, they can also explain the failure of certain IT applications when applied at incorrect points along our slope.


Paradigm Two: Learning and Classroom Focus

The discipline of educational psychology recognizes certain theories regarding how individuals master material. Pedagogically, they are consolidated under three major schools of learning: behaviorism, cognitivism and humanism. In simplistic (and hopefully not misleading) terms, Figure 3 depicts a view that will help us define targets of opportunity in the use of instructional technology. We do not see a sloping line; we see windows of application, with the bordered windows being the strongest meld of theory and focus.

Behaviorism purports that learning is evidenced by a change in behavior: the teaching role is one of presentation of facts and skills; learning takes the form of drill and practice. The classroom is primarily teacher-centered.

Cognitivism views learning as the continued development of schemata; teaching provides the structure for constructing individual knowledge. Teacher and student share responsibility for active learning.

For the Humanist, learning is a two-step process involving the acquisition of knowledge followed by individual personalization. The teacher must ensure a classroom free of threat, provide an abundant resource of materials from which the student can choose, and teach the process of learning (metacognition) to their charges.

As seen in Figure 4, certain implementations of IT provide the best match of focused teaching to theoretical learning.


IT Applications. Computers, education and behaviorism form a natural partnership. Computer-assisted instruction (CAI) has its roots in the behavioristic principles of repetition, sequencing and reinforcement. And it is enhanced with such technologies as computer-managed instruction (CMI) and computer-based training (CBT), depending on whether the instruction is teacher-centered or student-centered.

Schema development for the cognitivist is augmented by a series of tools ranging from teacher-centered applications of Email and computer-directed instruction (CDI) to audio and video material and exposure to the Internet. Each of these IT tools is instrumental in helping students develop their metacognitive skills with all but CDI falling into the optimum range of effectiveness for the cognitive teacher.

On a humanistic level, interpersonal skills are encouraged by audio and video conferencing, with computer-aided conferencing and the Internet sitting at the highest level of humanistic effectiveness.


IT Misapplications. Violations of these tenants are common and Figure 4 readily demonstrates the inherent problems. Use of the Internet, for example, in a behavioristic, teacher-centered classroom violates the strengths of this technology as an instructional tool. The Internet is much too hands-on, much too dependent on prior student knowledge to be effective as a "facts and skills, drill and practice" media. Another example would serve to explain the frustration of some humanistic classrooms and their student-centered emphasis with the structure of an audio-only presentation.


Summary. Learning and classroom focus moves our analysis of instructional technology from a series of points along a line to windows in an array. As in our consideration of enactive classroom learning to explain the failure of certain IT applications applied at incorrect points along our slope, we can now possibly recognize success and failure as a factor of placing the correct IT in the most appropriate window. Unlike the previous paradigm, however, using IT applications in less-effective windows is not a violation of the paradigm.


Paradigm Three: Presenting Student Learning


The final construct centers on the modes for presenting student learning in the classroom. Examine Figure 5.

Educators accept the notion that children in earlier grades are best taught using concrete examples -- not entirely, but primarily. Piaget would further offer that until children reach the age of 11 or 12, they are unprepared cognitively to grasp abstract ideas as their primary vehicle for their learning.[2] As they mature physically, they also mature cognitively; they are progressively more able to deal with abstractions in learning. Letís take a closer look at the unique way in which these technologies gather in Figure 6.


IT Applications. Consistent with the Piagetian theme of formal operations, IT use follows a pattern of convergence at the top-right focus of the graph -- where age and abstraction form a peak representing the most sophisticated learning. This paradigm seems to offer a view of certain technologies as migrations toward enhanced learning rather than as points along a slope or even windows of opportunity.

The ITs employing technology for the primary purpose of presentation are represented by flat lines depicting their immediate and continued value to learning at any age -- although at varying, and typically lower, degrees of abstraction. However, this values d'es not push the learner to new heights as do technologies that focus on the strengths of personal interactions and shared experiences. Conferencing, video material and the Internet are rich in these experiences and, as Figure 6 vividly depicts, can grow with learners as they mature their thinking processes from the concrete to the abstract.


IT Misapplications. Figure 6 also provides a rationale for serious shortcomings in the application of some instructional technologies in the classroom. Often, more "flashy" IT media is targeted at younger learners whose metacognitive strengths lie in concrete thinking. The Internet, some conferencing applications, even Email are not for the concrete student. Conversely, the benefits of computer-based training (CBT) are quickly surpassed by more mature, abstract learners. Such misapplications can be costly, both in terms of money spent for ineffective lessons and opportunities missed in the teaching experience.


Summary. Perhaps in this paradigm lies some of the most fundamental strengths and weaknesses of IT. Teaching at an inappropriate level results in either frustration or boredom. Frustration occurs when the material is presented at too high a level of abstraction; a student cannot envision the concept being taught and is therefore confounded when attempting to apply the knowledge to concepts already acquired. Boredom, on the opposite scale, results when the material, best presented as abstract concepts, are instead handled as concrete ideas. Figure 6 shows the educator how to match the most effective application of instructional technology to address the mode of presentation that is most appropriate for the target learner.



Three different views of learning are matched to the most complimentary uses of technology in the classroom. And each paradigm proposes instructional technologies based on sound pedagogical principles.

  • l Proponents of active learning and teachers with independent student thinkers will find that Paradigm One plots the most effective ITs for their applications.

    l Teacher-centered classrooms are successfully paired with certain technologies; student-centered environments with still others. Paradigm Two opens windows on the most productive uses of ITs.

    l Finally, teachers view learning from the perspective of the age of the student and a desire to teach not only facts and skills, but the very process of learning itself. Paradigm Three moves IT from the concrete to the abstract supporting a lifetime of learning.

  • Whatever degree of acceptance these paradigms may receive, a more critical examination of the why and how ITs are used can only help teachers promote success in the future use of instructional technology while avoiding the failures of the past.


    The presentation of the theories and paradigms in this article is an evolving process. If you use your own paradigms for teaching that incorporate a different view of technology in the classroom, if you can identify other technologies that did not but should have appeared in these figures, or if you have a critique regarding the placement of these technologies within the paradigms, please email those comments to the author at [email protected].

    Lawrence Tomei is the Director of Institutional Technology and an adjunct School of Education faculty member at Duquesne University.

    E-mail: at [email protected]


    1. Jerome Bruner, Jerome (1997), The Culture of Education, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    2. Brainerd, C.J. (1978), Piaget's Theory of Intelligence, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.