wasting bandwidth since 1999

What is Instructional Technology?

I should be able to answer that question. After all, my job title says I’m a specialist on the subject.

Seriously though, that relatively simple question has been running around in my head for the past few months, triggered by a major (re: expensive) project being rolled out this year by our overly-large school district.

The effort is supposed to provide schools with an online “curriculum resource tool” – basically a large database that will give teachers access to practice standardized test items and other curriculum materials.

Whatever you call it, the system will take up a lot of our training time and just about everyone in the schools is going to under a lot of pressure to use it.

But in spite of the fact that the project is listed under the general category “instructional technology” in the budget and the phrase is even in the name of the office responsible for managing it, can you call this “instructional technology”?

And what about the gradebook, attendance, and IEP tracking systems we’ve also spent lots of dollars and manpower on in the past? Do they fit in the category?

No. At least not according to the definition of the term that has been evolving in my head.

Instructional technology is any digital tool that someone could use to enhance their personal learning.

That may need a little work. Maybe a lot of work.

But my intention here is to find some simple terminology that will differentiate between tools for managing grades, attendance, and other classroom paperwork, and those that are used by learners to create, collaborate, communicate, and improve understanding.

Our new “curriculum resource tool” doesn’t qualify as “instructional” since it won’t be used directly with kids.

And, let’s be honest. It’s function is really more about teaching them to pass tests than it is about increasing their ability to learn.

Which is another reason why I’m trying to sort all this out.

We talk a lot about using technology in the classroom, often in very general, somewhat vague terms.

I think we need to make clear to everyone involved that there’s a big difference between the tools that teachers use for their administrative tasks and those that need to be in the hands of – and controlled by – their students.

Between a single-purpose system used to increase scores on standardized tests and tools that can empower genuine learning.

So, I’ll continue working on the wording and the concepts as I try to find a simple way to explain to our teachers (and others) that instructional technology is about far more than this district-wide project with a clever acronym and nice logo.

It’s about putting powerful technology in the hands of kids and then helping them understand how to use the tools for learning beyond just this school year.


  1. Miguel Guhlin

    As I rediscover Voicethread.com for my own district purposes, I wonder if this wouldn’t be a great vehicle for sharing responses to this question, “What is Instructional Technology?”

    Up to contributing?

  2. John Hendron

    There’s one district around here that divides the roles as “administrative tech” and “instructional tech.” We recently purchased a system that warehouses data and gives tests on the computer. I expressed disinterest in it.

    “But it’s instruction!”

    “No it’s not.”

    “Yes it is. You’re going to have to learn it and train people.”

    I think I had a super-fast thought in my head, much like you, but only you have spent far more time than the microseconds I had in my boss’ office.

    He said: “These tests are assessments, and assessment is part of instruction.”

    That point was very true. I had forgotten that.

    But I also believe that just because something has “technology” in its name, now in 2008 (and how many things don’t work digitally?), that it shouldn’t get “assigned” to us.

    I’m not getting out of mine conundrum, and I doubt you are either. But I am sure the more we’re pulled in, we’ll find ways to enhance the “real” instruction, too.

  3. PLCweb

    In teaching a course on Special Education Assistive Technology, we found, “The definitions of Assistive Technology and Instructive Technology fuse in the classroom where the use, and not the intent of the software define it as Assistive or Instructive.”

    It is the use which defines technology as “instructive”, not any budget line title or administrative palaver. If a technology is used for instruction it is “instructional”. If it a teacher productivity tool and not used for instruction, then it is not instructional. That’s how I see it. It seems in Educational Technology everybody is trying to be everything, so they can sell to everybody else.

    “Good” at everything, expert in nothing. It’s the buyers of these things that perhaps are forgetting what a bad idea building VCRs into TVs was. So many had external VCRs just a few years later.

  4. Dave

    My attempt at a definition: The Instructional Technology department provides and supports optional and required education-specific software and hardware.

    I find the situation a little frustrating because I am -not- in the instructional technology department, but I’m supporting teachers using a certain technology tool because the inst. tech. department decided they didn’t want to do it. If someone shrugs off something that they don’t think fits with their perception of their department, it doesn’t just go away, someone in an even less appropriate department has to handle it. So “Instructional Technology” might not be the best name for describing what you do, and maybe an online curriculum tool doesn’t fit what you think the department does…but if you don’t do it, then who will? That’s when you end up with HR and facilities and transportation and curriculum people making technology decisions with no training or experience to back it up. That’s when fast-talking, low-quality education software vendors with 8-year-old code and glossy fliers (or in 2008, animated flash websites) come in and dupe someone into spending tons of money on crap.

    Can you tell this is a big deal to me? We spend $20k/year more than we need to on the technology I’m supporting because of a situation like this. Beyond the direct cost, who knows what kind of productivity and opportunities we’re missing by being locked in to poor-quality software.

    (deep breath)

    Ideally, management would identify, prevent, solve problems like this. If you’re supposed to support a system, you should help select it. If you didn’t help select it, you should say no to supporting it.

  5. Tim

    I’d be glad to add my small contribution, Miguel.

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