Is Instructional Technology and Distance Education a Profession?

Someone holding a cell phone and the words distance education all around
        Above: Instructional technologists are experts in the latest distance education tools and techniques. Photo/Getty Images.

During my time as a doctoral student in instructional design and technology, we were asked to write an essay in response to this question: Is instructional technology/design and distance education a profession? 

Here is my response:

Teachers, doctors, and lawyers each have a profession. So, what about an instructional technologist? Historically, instructional technology and distance education (ITDE) have been viewed as a subset of the teaching profession. Some consider instructional technology/design a profession and a field of study by others. They also work with faculty to develop curricula incorporating technology and measure their effectiveness. Some scholars think that instructional technology and distance education are professions, but others disagree during the advent of the profession. 

Over 50 years ago, no overarching framework existed to organize the field of educational technology or direct its development. Jim Finn is well-known for helping change the field's name from audiovisual education to educational technology (Januszewski, 1994). Finally, his concept of technology as a process contributed to the professionalization of educational technology (Januszewski, 1994). Finn contributed significantly to developing some of the most influential theories and models relating to technology in education (Januszewski, 1994). 

Finn introduced the "concept of programming," the importance of programming, and the difference between a scientific and an empirical approach to developing instruction (Januszewski, 1994, p. 3). His role in establishing educational technology as a distinct field makes Finn responsible for creating the modern discipline of educational technology (Januszewski, 1994). Also, Finn's distinction between automation and technology provided a basis for designing, developing, and evaluating modern-day educational technologies (Januszewski, 1994). 

Finn (1953) discussed professionalizing the audiovisual field—working collaboratively with other professionals and the community to develop a theoretical framework. He identified professional isolation as the most significant impediment to this type of professionalization, creating schisms between practitioners when collaboration was most needed (Finn, 1953). Although Finn's aims were not fully accomplished, his work provided leeway for developing a framework and initiating collaborative efforts. 

Absent from Finn's work, its focus was primarily on the humanistic side of educational technology—where he first initiated his professionalization efforts. He recognized the importance of cooperation between instructional technology specialists and their peers in other disciplines, but he was afraid that such collaboration would become a goal (Finn, 1953). An instructional technologist is responsible for designing and implementing new and emerging technologies in education. They also work with faculty to develop curricula incorporating technology and measure their effectiveness. ITDE professionals may train teachers to use new programs and technologies or provide support as needed. 

The debate on whether it is a profession will continue, but it is essential to be aware of what an instructional technologist does. Instructional technologists are responsible for designing and implementing new and emerging technologies in education. Instructional technologists also work with faculty to develop curricula incorporating technology and measure their effectiveness. Instructors may see instructional technology as a profession because they oversee integrating new technologies into their courses. Instructional technologists have a wide variety of tasks to complete daily. Some people may see it as a profession, while others may not, which has led to much debate on whether instructional technology and distance education constitute a profession. Understanding what an instructional technologist does and why some people may see it as a profession is essential. 

Instructional Technology and Distance Education: A Brief History 1970's-present

The 1970s saw the beginning of modern computer-based learning environments and rapid advances in video technology that led to an increase in educational television programs, with teachers using educational videos to help their students learn (Reiser, 2001). Reiser (2001) notes that "by the early 1970s, educational technology and instructional technology" had "replaced" audiovisual instruction as terms for using media to teach (p. 59). The shift from the term "audiovisual instruction" to "instructional technology" started in 1970 when the Department of Audiovisual Instruction became the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT). AECT's two journals, Audiovisual Communication Review and Instructional Innovator were renamed (Reiser, 2001). The Commission on Instructional Technology was also created by the United States government "to examine the impact of media on learning and instruction" (Reiser, 2001, p. 59).

The 1990s saw the growth of educational technology in major academic conferences, significantly as instructional technology was abbreviated to ICT (Reiser, 2001). By the mid-1990s, blended learning environments proliferated from schools to universities, and many institutions were still working on accommodating the new technologies into their traditional university structures. As video technologies become more user-friendly and are produced at lower costs, instructional videos, courses, and multimedia computer applications are widely adopted in classrooms worldwide. These developments were described using the term instructional technology. Instructional technology became an umbrella term for various technologies, and, once again, the education sector was in the vanguard. By the start of the twenty-first century, instructional technologists had come up with and published many standards, guidelines, and teaching methods.

ITDE journals and training programs were widely available, covering technical, pedagogic, and management issues. The training was done in ignorance of broader technology fields and the nature of the ecosystems within which technologies are embedded. Consequently, the literature on evaluating educational technology products was sparse and ineffective. In general, there was little recognition that even the best educational technology products had no independent raison d'être and hence were worthless unless and until their potential users had been convinced that these new technologies best served their educational objectives. Rather than referring to a vision for the future of education, new technology was frequently proposed because it would be cheaper or better. Too much focus was placed on the technology itself rather than on how these technologies might support changes in pedagogic practice.

Studies of educational technology are often inherently problematic due to the difficulty of evaluating novel and complex educational interventions. Moreover, where funds were available to evaluate educational technology, these often depended on the goodwill of research and development departments that could fund such evaluations; responsibility for the evaluation was thus disowned. It is important to remember that there was much doubt about the value of information technology 10–20 years ago, in the 1980s and early 1990s, too (Simonson et al., 2019). The field began to consider preparing scholars who combine the theoretical with the practical to pursue emerging trends in educational technology as a full-time career. ITDE has all the elements considered a profession, illustrated by Finn's (1953) extensive research. One side of this argument is that it focuses on rights and privileges, including the ability to negotiate working conditions and salaries, a standard career progression and salary range, the profession's autonomy, and the right to self-governance. The elevation of ITDE to a true teaching profession will depend not upon further graduate study but on developing rigorous standards that define content, procedures, and conduct essential to the discipline.

Finn's Criteria on How to Professionalize the Audio-Visual Field

From educators and information systems managers to information technology professionals, the expectations for educational technology at all levels have been ambiguous until Finn. Finn's (1953) criteria for determining if the audiovisual occupation is a profession and how to professionalize the audiovisual field: (1) intellectual technique; (2) application of the technique to practice; (3) a long training period; (4) association of members with a high quality of communication; (5) a series of standards and an enforced statement of ethics; and (6) an organized body of intellectual theory constantly expanding by research. From these six criteria, the ITDE satisfies all of them. 

#1 - Intellectual Technique

Instructional technology is respected because it is held to reasonably high standards, there are recognized training and certification procedures, its domain of application or disciplinary field is in demand, and it uses a scientific approach. Ultimately, instructional technology is a profession, and here is why. As with most professions, specific skills and knowledge are required to succeed in the field. Instructional technologists must understand and utilize technology tools and design learning experiences that meet students and the instructional needs of teachers. 

#2 - Application of Technique to Practice

Instructional technologists must also have experience with learning and performance theories, instructional design, and subject matter. Instructional technologists must also keep up with changes in technology and current research on learning and teaching. Keeping up with recent studies can be a challenge, but it is critical to the success of students and educators. At its core, instructional technology involves using technology to enhance learning, anything from using it to create and deliver lessons to assessing student learning. 

There are many different applications of technology in education, which means that instructional technology professionals can have a variety of specialties. Some might argue that because instructional technology is so broad, it cannot be considered a profession. However, others might say that the variety of skills and knowledge required make it a distinct profession. Finally, instructional technologists must exhibit strong problem-solving skills and collaborate effectively with others. They often work with educators, designers, and developers, and Instructional technology is an exciting field that crosses multiple disciplines. It can be challenging to define, so there is some debate about whether it is a profession.

#3 - A Long Training Period

Finn (1953) defines a profession as a vocation in which specialized knowledge and skills are used to solve problems or improve the quality of life. Instructional technologists meet this definition. They have specialized knowledge and skills in using technology for learning found through training programs in different models, but there are degrees in higher education. There is highly specialized knowledge in instructional technology that involves technical skills such as hardware and software and content skills such as instructional design and development. 

According to Finn (1953), knowledge alone is insufficient for a profession, but there must be a way to improve the quality of life. Instructional technologists use skills learned in formal training to solve problems related to learning and teaching, and they enhance the quality of life by helping people learn. These skills also extend to system design. Through continuous monitoring and updating the curriculum, learning technologies, organizational structures, and systems, instructional technologists influence the environment in which students learn.

Some may believe it is not a profession because an instructional technologist can have varying qualifications. There are many types of instructional technologists, and they come from different backgrounds. They work in diverse educational settings, meaning their expertise level can also vary. The other reason some may think it is not a profession is that it is new compared to teaching, doctoring, and lawyering. When people think about a profession, they usually envision something that has been around for a long time. Instructional technology and distance education may eventually become professions independently, respectively, with enough time.  

#4 - Association of Members with a High Quality of Communication

There are a variety of associations in the ITDE field. Some of the most notable include the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), the International Association for Distance Learning (IADL), and the Online Learning Consortium (OLC). These associations have different focuses, but they all share a common interest in advancing the ITDE field. The AECT is a professional association that focuses on promoting and advancing technology in education. The IADL is an international association that promotes best practices in distance learning. These associations offer best practices for professionals in the ITDE field, including journals, conferences, and networking opportunities. They also provide standards and guidance that help to ensure quality instruction through technology-mediated approaches. ITDE research is necessary because it ensures that the contribution to the body of scholarly knowledge is not interrupted or diminished. 

#5 - Standards and an enforced statement of ethics

ITDE associations have standards and ethics. Their standards promote effective teaching and learning using technology. They also have a code of ethics that supports responsible practices among their members. 

 #6 - An organized body of intellectual theory constantly expanding by research

Research is always guided by theoretical considerations in every field of study. There are a variety of theories that instructional technologists use to conduct their research, including diffusion theory, cognitive load theory, communication theory, and learning styles theories, among others. Like most researchers, Instructional technologists are guided by the scientific method in their work. As a multidisciplinary field of inquiry, ITDE research draws on various other disciplines within the social sciences and humanities to answer its questions about how people learn. ITDE researchers research various topics, including teaching methods, teacher education, curriculum development, and student evaluation. However, studies of instructional technology and distance education (ITDE) are often inherently problematic due to the difficulty of evaluating novel and complex educational interventions.

Educational research can improve educational practice in various ways, depending on the situation. It is expected that instructional technology and distance education jobs will keep growing because more people will take courses and get degrees through distance learning. As instructional technology improves, it will become increasingly important for the instructional technologist to have a wide range of new responsibilities and skills. Technology-enabled education is being led by instructional technologists at the forefront of the movement. 


In the meantime, as technological advancements continue to be made, instructional technologists must continue to do their part in integrating those advancements into the educational system. This is particularly true for those who can mobilize that technology and occupy an academic space of their own, within or beyond the boundaries of the campus or classroom. Curriculum developers and instructional designers work together to develop technology-enhanced teaching and learning practices that can be implemented in various educational settings. They must provide educators with the tools they need to effectively use technology in their instruction, which may or may not be at an institution of higher education. 

Educators who work as instructional technologists may collaborate with other professionals to develop instructional goals and objectives and train students and educators in using educational technologies. This work typically includes a combination of hands-on and technological instruction. Instructional technologists and designers have a wide variety of tasks to complete daily. Some people may see ITDE as a profession, while others may not. ITDE has reached the critical mass of practitioners and legitimacy to be considered a profession. The field has expanded to include secondary schools, post-secondary education institutions, and businesses and persists in its marginalization; with time, the world will understand its instructional design and technology, and its legitimacy as a profession. 


Finn, J. D. (1953). Professionalizing in the audiovisual field. Audiovisual Communication Review, 1 (1), 6-17.

Januszewski, A. (1994) James D. Finn's contribution to the development of a process view of educational technology.

Reiser, R. A. (2001-a). A history of instructional design and technology: Part I: A history of instructional media. The Journal of Educational Technology Research and Development 49(1), 53-64.

Reiser, R. A. (2001-b). A history of instructional design and technology: Part II: A history of instructional design. The Journal of Educational Technology Research and Development, 49(2), 57–67.

Simonson, M., Zvacek, S. M., & Smaldino, S. (2019). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education, 7th edition. 




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