Learning from programmed instruction: Examining implications for modern instructional technology

Based on my thesis research.


This article reports a theoretical examination of several parallels between contemporary instructional technology (as manifest in one of its most current manifestations, online learning) and one of its direct predecessors, programmed instruction. We place particular focus on the underlying assumptions of the two movements. Our analysis suggests that four assumptions that contributed to the historical demise of programmed instruction—(a) ontological determinism, (b) materialism, (c) social efficiency, and (d) technological determinism—also underlie contemporary instructional technology theory and practice and threaten its long-term viability as an educational resource. Based on this examination, we offer several recommendations for practicing instructional technologists and make a call for innovative assumptions and theories not widely visible in the field of instructional technology.

At BYU Scholars Archive

At Academia.edu

At ResearchGate


McDonald, J. K., Yanchar, S. C., & Osguthorpe, R. T. (2005). Learning from programmed instruction: Examining implications for modern instructional technology. Educational Technology Research and Development, 53(2), 84–98. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02504867

The rise and fall of programmed instruction: Informing instructional technologists through a study of the past

My thesis.


Instructional technologists have recently been called upon to examine the assumptions they hold about teaching and learning, and to consider how those assumptions can affect their practice of the discipline. This thesis is an examination of how the assumptions instructional technologists hold can result in instructional materials that do not accomplish the original goals the developers set out to achieve. I explored this issue by examining the case study of programmed instruction, an educational movement from the mid-20th century that promised to revolutionize education but never lived up to its potential. Programmed instruction was heavily influenced by the assumptions of behavioral psychology, such as determinism (human behavior is controlled by scientific law), materialism (the only real world is the physical world), and empiricism (individuals can know the world around them only through the natural senses). It was also influenced by the assumptions of social efficiency (society must actively find the most efficient solutions to social problems) and technological determinism (technology is the most important force in causing social change). These assumptions manifested themselves in a variety of ways in the programmed instruction movement, including a redefinition of all learning problems into the terms of behavioral psychology, an over-reliance on standardized processes of instruction, and a belief that technology alone could solve educational problems. The ways in which programmed instruction manifested itself resulted in the movement prescribing a very rigid and inflexible method of instruction. Because of its inflexibility, programmed instruction quickly fell out of favor with educators and the public.
Some modern applications of instructional technology, such as online learning, seem to rely on the same assumptions as programmed instruction did. I conclude this thesis with a discussion of how understanding the assumptions of programmed instruction, and how they led to the movement’s rigidity, can help modern instructional technologists develop online learning materials that are more flexible and able to meet the needs of the students for which they are intended.

At BYU Scholars Archive

At ResearchGate

Introduction to instructional design

Sample Syllabus

Introduction to Instructional Design Syllabus – Fall 2020

Textbooks I Use/Have Used

Design for Learning: Principles, Processes, and Praxis, edited by Jason K. McDonald and Richard E. West

Design For How People Learn, by Julie Dirksen

Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work, by Nigel Cross

An Architectural Approach to Instructional Design, by Andrew S. Gibbons

The Design Way: Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World (2nd ed.), by Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman



Understanding your audience

Needs analysis



Design processes

Problem framing

Learning goals

Content and task analysis

Topic analysis

Procedure analysis

Critical incident analysis

Generating lots of ideas


Measuring student learning

Holistic design

Being an instructional designer


Critical incident analysis

Empathy map

Environment and needs analysis

Ideas for instructional activities

Ideas for learning measurements

Ideas from instructional strategies

Ideas from precedent

Learner analysis

Learning goals


Planning instructional activities

Problem framing

Procedure analysis

Testing prototypes

Topic analysis


Content analysis rubric

Environmental and needs analysis rubric

Final project rubric

Idea generation rubric

Learning goals rubric

Persona rubric

Problem framing rubric

Prototype rubric