Thoughts on Instructional Design and Technology

In the pictures found in the caves at Lascaux, France,  several of the principles related to message design and visual display can be found: the use of representational pictures (The images are bulls), the use of color, arousal of attention (Motion is used in the images), and a focus on specific objectives (Hunting?) a. Viewing these pictures 17,000 years after they were drawn we can see that humans were already adept at recreating their external world through visual means. It might be a little extreme to claim but really when we create visuals now we’re not working with any more than these cave people were when we create visual now. All the things that can help to inform us are there.  Some authors have even speculated that the pictures were teaching aids to instruct the young (Brasseur, 2003; Meegs, 1992). Thus, it may have been the first instructional design effort!

More message design principles can be found several thousand years later in the writings found in ancient Mesopotamia. These examples include the use of columns to visually organize information, spacing lines  to improve legibility, the use lines to connect information and a standard convention of writing symbols for familiarity. By 8000 BC two of the main components of message design, pictures, and text, had been invented and improved upon. So, why aren’t we still in caves looking at cuneiform?

Early Examples of Instructional Message Design

Eventually pictures and text and visual principles were use by those interested in using them for visual instruction. One of the earliest known examples of instructive illustrations and text together were the works in the late tenth century by Abu al-Qasim al Zaharawi, a Spanish Muslim who died in 1013.  Zaharawi developed an encyclopedia of medical knowledge intended for the instruction of apprentices (Hamarneh, 1961). This encyclopedia clearly displays medical tools and their purpose in a manner that is easily recognizable today: There’s the things and there’s the text explaining what the thing is. It’s a very basic principle of images and text.

In some circles Johann Amos Comenius is thought of as the first true forerunner of modern educational technology. Comenius recognized the role of sense perception in learning (Goodman, 1954) and recommended that pictorial content be presented to students whenever possible (Saettler, 2004).  This application of Empiricism, a theory that states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience, is interesting and timely because it happens right around the time when Empiricism was beginning to be debated in the halls of academia.

Comenius states in the author’s preface to Orbis Pictus, “Now there is nothing in the understanding, which was not before in the sense“ (p.xiv).  With his understanding of the link between the sense and visual instruction, Comenius helped to create a fundamental principle of instructional message design. Two of the numerous design principles found in the Orbis Pictus included: simplified representation and the use of numbers to label examples.

The Visual Instruction Movement

There were other technological developments that were a part of the evolution of educational technology. The first documented use of the magic lantern in instruction dates to 1653 when a Jesuit priest displayed painted transparent pictures of a journey from China to the Netherlands (Staubermann, 2001). So, it could be argued that PowerPoint is 350 years old. What have its improvement been in those 350 years?

By the early 20th century many technological developments had fallen under the guidance and vision of people who understood these developments as being part of a Visual Instruction Movement. The visual instruction movement sought to utilize new twentieth century technology, but they also balanced this with an attempt to understand its proper use. For instance, William Duffy (Duffey, 1918) stated that, “visual instruction is not a new method of teaching, but merely an attempt to emphasize and to clarify the proper use of the visual element in thought” (p.3). Those active in the visual instruction movement utilized many visual aids for instructional purposes including graphs, photographs, school museums, motion pictures, and stereographs. When using these tools, they also employed specific design principles. Design principles for a school museum considered at this time included: a short introduction to every section, a summary typed in all caps with wide spacing, and use of bold heading and white lettering on a black background (Daukes, 1929). Anna Verona Dorris’ (as cited in Dent, 1939) recommendations for teaching graph production included: graph bars spaced evenly, text should not be printed directly on graphs, guidelines should be noted at regular intervals, and pictures should be placed to the left of graphs so as not to interfere with reading of the graphs. But the visual materials used during this period were mainly seen as teaching aids (Januszewski, 2001) and a more systematic approach to developing a relationship between visual teaching materials, instructional message design methods, and learning would come later.

However, several notable experiments during this period were performed by Joseph Weber (1922) when he compared the effectiveness of numerous visual aids. In one experiment, designed to determine the value of a simple line drawing in creating a composite visual image, Weber read a description of an animal to one group, showed a picture of the animal to the second and showed a picture and read a description to the third. Students who saw the picture along with the description remembered more parts of the animal. Weber used pictorial tests in this study and became the first researcher to test learning results using pictures instead of verbal tests (Saettler, 2004). Weber also recommended that future researchers investigate the problem of individual differences as well as the interrelationships between animation and psychological factors.