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Donald P. Ely
A Significant Contributor to the Field of Educational Technology

Qi Li
The University of Georgia

Thomas C. Reeves
The University of Georgia

A quarter century ago, a national survey executed by Moore (1981) indicated that Donald P. Ely was recognized as No.2 among individuals considered most influential within the field of educational media. If a similar survey was conducted today and included criteria such as passion and dedication to the field of educational technology, Ely’s ranking would no doubt be as high or higher. It is impossible to summarize all the work Ely has contributed to the development of this field as an academic researcher, leader, teacher, facilitator, mentor, and international consultant in a brief article. So our paper focuses on two aspects of his illustrious career: his research agenda and his leadership and service to the profession.Before going into more details in these two areas, a brief biography of this educational technology pioneer is presented.

An Amazing Career

Don Ely came to Syracuse University in central New York in 1951 to pursue a Masters degree in Audio-Visual Education, as Educational Technology was known then. After earning his M.S. in 1953, he became the director of Audio-Visual Education and an assistant professor at the State University of New York – College at New Paltz. He later directed the audiovisual program at the Hicksville Public Schools, also in New York. Before long, Don returned to Syracuse University as an associate director and instructor in education in the fall of 1956. At the same time, he continued graduate study toward a Ph.D. which he completed in 1961. In the spring of 1959, he became the director of the Audio-Visual Center at Syracuse University. He moved upward through the academic and administrative ranks at Syracuse to become a full Professor, a department chair, a division director, and director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Information and Technology. He retired in 1995 and was awarded the status of Emeritus Professor by Syracuse University shortly thereafter.

In 1964, Ely was elected President of the Department of Audio-Visual Instruction (DAVI) of the National Education Association, the professional association now known as the Association of Educational Communications and Technology (AECT). He served as a visiting professor at the Soweto College of Education in South Africa and at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. He was a Fulbright scholar in both Chile and Peru. Over the years, Ely served as an educational consultant to several international ministries of education as well as numerous institutions of higher education. For example, in Southeast Asia, he assisted in establishing the Center for Communications Technology in the Indonesia Ministry of Education and Culture and participated in the planning of the Indonesian Open University. In Iran in the 1970s, he helped design training for the staff of the national Educational Radio and Television Agency. In addition, Don served on the editorial boards of several refereed journals in the USA and abroad including the Educational Technology Research and Development journal (U.S.), the British Journal of Educational Technology (U.K.), the Educational and Training Technology International journal (U.K.), and Tecnologia Educativa (Chile). He was also a frequent contributor to Educational Technology magazine.

The energy Ely dedicated to these and other activities was infectious, and he inspired numerous others to follow in his footsteps as contributors to the field of educational technology. Over the decade since his “retirement,” Ely has worked part-time in the Instructional Systems program at Florida State University and in the Instructional Design, Development, and Evaluation (IDD&E) program at Syracuse. At the time this article was written in 2006, Professor Ely was preparing to join the celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the IDD&E program at Syracuse University.

Research Agenda

Searching the ERIC database with the author keyword “Ely, Donald P.” reveals over 100 pertinent records. Classifying these works is challenging, but three major scholarly interests emerge: (a) the philosophy underlying the field of Educational Technology, (b) definition, development and trends of the field, and (c) conditions that facilitate the implementation of educational technology innovations.

The Philosophy Underlying Educational Technology

As the intellectual base from which people perceive and explain the world, philosophy is needed in every realm of scientific and professional practice. Philosophical inquiry allows us to reflect on the things we often take for granted in any science or profession. As professionals in the field of educational technology, we should reflect on what our expertise and practice ultimately mean in relationship to teaching, learning, development, and performance. Arguably, Ely has been the primary scholar focused on the philosophy of the field of educational technology for many years (Solomon, 2000).

Ely (1970) summarized his thinking about the philosophy of the field in these four statements:

    1. Instructional technology is not yet a discipline.

    2. The behavioral science concept of instructional technology is more valid than the physical science concept.

    3. Technology offers the best organizing concept for the development of the field and its evolution into a discipline.

    4. Any statement of philosophy regarding instructional technology is tentative. (p. 81)

When Ely (1999a) reexamined the four statements 30 years later, he concluded that these statements were still valid. The first and third statements are about the status of Instructional Technology. Is it a possible that this field will eventually evolve into a discipline? If so, what will guide the evolution process? The third statement gives the answer. Technology offers the best organizing concept for the development of the field. Of course, technology in this field refers more to processes such as instructional design than it does hardware such as computers. Historically, educational technologists have not developed their own key technology (neither hardware, software, nor method dimensions). Rather, the development of the field has been based upon the adaptation and diffusion of technological advances from other disciplines such as educational psychology, communications, cognitive science, engineering, and computer science.

Ely’s second statement emphasizes that the practice of educational technology should be based on the dynamics of human behavior instead of upon hardware devices and systems procedures. This statement reveals the mission of our field should be focused on human development rather than on perfection of the tools employed. Ely supports the movement of the field toward more emphasis of the humanistic aspects of its practice. Evidence of this trend includes greater attention to non-instructional solutions, redesign of learning environments to address higher level outcomes, and a focus on learning communities. Some may argue that the humanistic aspects still do not receive enough attention, but the trend is positive.

Ely’s fourth statement acknowledges that the development of this field is a dynamic process. Ely (1999a) stated:

A colleague once said, “In our field, the only constant is change.” This is a field that embraces new approaches to teaching and learning (e.g., constructivism), new media (e.g., interactive video), new ways to assess information (e.g., the Internet), new communication techniques (e.g., email) and new concepts of human behavior (artificial intelligence). (p. 308)

Definition, Development and Trends of Educational Technology

Ely led the definition and terminology effort that resulted in the 1963 publication of The Audiovisual Process in Education: A Definition and a Glossary of Related Terms. In 1971, Ely and Vernon S. Gerlach coauthored, Teaching and Media: A Systematic Approach, a ground-breaking book that recast instructional systems concepts into terms related to the specific concerns of teachers. This book also changed the medium-by-medium approach other textbooks employed to a blended media and methods approach. The influence of this book is obvious in AECT’s 1977 definition of IT, which encompasses both systems and process perspectives.

Spanning much of the history of the field, Ely has authored numerous works related to developmental trends in educational technology. A brief, but influential, paper, The Field of Educational Technology: A Dozen Frequently Asked Questions, was first published in 1994 and updated in 1995, 1997, and 2000. He authored and coauthored Trends and Issues about IT in 1988, 1989, 1992 and 2002, and served as the editor of the Educational Media and Technology Yearbook in 1988 and from 1992 to 1996. He co-edited the second edition of the International Encyclopedia of Educational Technology with Tjeerd Plomp in 1996. Ely’s Classic Writings On Instructional Technology (1996 & 2001), co-edited with Tjeerd Plomp, is one of the most popular books in the field. Ely has worked throughout his career to define the educational technology field and to bring order to its terminology, and in the process helped many people in and out of the field achieve a better understanding of this diffuse field.

Conditions that Facilitate the Implementation of Educational Technology Innovations

In the 1970s, Ely’s interests expanded to include the role and use of information technology in education. In 1977, he and others obtained funding to move the ERIC Clearinghouse on Information and Technology to Syracuse University. Ely and his collaborators maintained and enhanced this important educational resource until its funding was eliminated in 2004. During his administration, ERIC encompassed valuable resources from educational technology, information technology, and school library media. Regrettably, although the existing ERIC database is still accessible, it is no longer being extended. 

The ERIC project stimulated Ely’s long term interest in conditions that facilitate the implementation of educational technology innovations. Ely (1999b) identified eight factors other than cost that influence effective implementation:

  • dissatisfaction with the status quo,

  • existence of knowledge and skills,

  • availability of resources,

  • availability of time,

  • rewards or incentives,

  • participation,

  • commitment and

  • leadership. 

Embodying Ely’s consistent systems perspective, these eight conditions highlight the factors we need consider to implement technology in education successfully. Despite Ely’s contributions in this critical area, it is surprising how often the same issues go unresolved each time a new educational technology is introduced (Cuban, 1986). Better research is needed to reveal how educational technology can be a more effective catalyst for positive change in education.

Leadership and Service

Ely’s substantial efforts in administration, leadership, teaching and service have contributed to our field in many meaningful ways. During his tenure, Syracuse University earned and retained a reputation for having one of the best graduate programs in the field. Many of the students he mentored are now among the most productive in the field.
Ely’s leadership and service continue to have a lasting impact on the field around the globe. Few scholars make meaningful contributions to their field for more than 50 years, but Ely has. Ely would be the first to admit that he was fortunate because he worked with many other pioneers of the educational technology field. But any accounting of the top ten contributors to educational technology would have to include “Don.”


Clearly, the field of educational technology is still in the process of defining itself. Ely’s work prompted this developmental process and is still contributing to it. His systems perspective and his vision of educational technology as a dynamic field still guide the evolution of the field. Anyone who wishes to become an educational technology scholar would have to seek long and hard to find a more productive role model than Professor Donald P. Ely.

Qi Li recently completed a Masters degree in the Instructional Design and Development (IDD) Program at The University of Georgia.

Tom Reeves, a Contributing Editor, is a Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology (EPIT) at The University of Georgia. Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Qi Li at: alertli@gmail.com


Cuban, L. (1986). Teachers and machines: The classroom use of technology since 1920. New York: Teachers College Press
Ely, D. P. (1970). Towards a philosophy of instructional technology. Educational Technology, 1(2), 81–94.

Ely, D. P. (1995). Technology is the answer! But what was the question? The James P. Curtis Distinguished Lecture, Capstone College of Education Society, University of Alabama. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service ED 381152).

Ely, D. P. (1999a). Toward a philosophy of instructional technology: Thirty years on. British Journal of Educational Technology, 30(4), 305-310.

Ely, D. P. (1999b). Conditions that facilitate the implementation of educational technology innovations. Educational Technology, 39(6), 23-27.

Gerlach, V. S., & Ely, D. P. (1971). Teaching and media: A systematic approach. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. 

Moore, D. M. (1981). Educational media professionals' perceptions of influence and prestige in the field of instructional technology: A national survey. Educational Technology, 21(2), 15-23.

Solomon, D. L. (2000). Philosophical inquiry in instructional technology: The forgotten pathway to learning. Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), Long Beach, California. Retrieved April 22, 2005, from http://www.learndev.org/dl/SolomonPhilosophy.PDF


Updated on April,20 2005