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The development of the field of Instructional Design during the World War II.

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Learning Design and Technology.

World War II Era.

Natalia Isupova. Purdue University. EDCI 513



The six years of the most horrific events of the World War II played an enormous role in forming the field of educational technology. For the first time both the instructional media and instructional design were viewed and utilized for the benefit of learners. It would probably not be an exaggeration to say that all of the instructional materials were designed for the use of the military forces and for the civil workers in the industry, who needed to learn new skills quickly to help the front.


Robert Reiser (2012) reports that, “during the war [only] the U.S. Army Air Force produced more that 400 training films and 600 filmstrips … during a two year period (from mid-1943 to mid-1945)” (p.19). Another number that Reiser (2012) gives is 475 training films produced by the federal government in order to prepare civilians to work in industry.


The photograph is purchased from and licensed by The National WWII Museum.

 If we look at the instructional materials produced at that time and read about the process of designing and implementing them in learning situations, it becomes clear that all the major principles of instructional design were applied. The government even created a special Division of Visual Aids for War Training (Reiser & Dempsy 2012).

This process does look like identifying goals, conducting instructional analysis and research, planning, developing strategies, and designing instructional materials. It seems that this model lacks assessment and evaluation, but in the times of war there probably was no time for any other assessment than practical application in real life situations. 

Saettler (1990) explains that firstly, the Division identified the most critical areas where instructional materials were needed, then subject matter specialists conducted preliminary research to decide on the specific aspects to be filmed. Then a visual aids specialist and a technical specialist co-wrote a content outline or synopsis. Once the synopsis had been approved by the division, the film was produced. (p.180).


28 Dec 44. 5/MM-44-32573. Fifth Army, Sesto Area, Italy. S/Sgt. John Kindler holding board which was his idea to instruct new men in the use and appearance of various enemy incendiaries used in starting fires. He is with the 1980th Engineers of the Fifth Army. The men were also given practical demonstrations in the methods used in fighting fires. Photo by Mason. 3131 Signal Service Co.” Sesto Area, Italy. 28 December 1944

The photograph is purchased from and licensed by The National WWII Museum.

Here’s an amazing WWII American Army Air Forces training film created by famed cartoonist Gus Arriola.

Retrieved May, 14, 2014 from

American film actress Veronica Lake, illustrates what can happen to women war workers who wear their hair long while working at their benches, in a factory somewhere in America, on November 9, 1943. (AP Photo)

Retrieved from:

The content was very effective because it was relevant to the learners, the materials were visual, the learners could watch them many times; moreover the teacher’s materials were quite efficient and included “ the motion picture, a correlating silent filmstrip. And an instructor’s manual” (Saettler 1990, p.180).

It would be a mistake to think that only films were massed produced for the army; a great number of printed materials such as manuals, handbooks, combat photography, “graphic portfolios or “transvision” booklets illustrated a sequence of related equipment or processes” (Saettler 1990, p.186) were developed to assist learning as well. 

U.S. Army Signal Corps photograph, Gift in Memory of Maurice T. White, from the collection of the National World War II Museum.

The photograph is purchased from and licensed by The National WWII Museum

 WOUNDED' MEN ABOARD AN LCVP DURING TRAINING IN MORRO BAY, CALIFORNIA ON 25 FEBRUARY 1944. Servicemen sitting with men pretending to be wounded onboard an LCVP during amphibious training exercises. 


This is a good example of experiencial learning, when the real-life situation is simulated with the instructor scaffolding the trainees





One of the greatest areas that received a lot of attention from instructional designers and specialists was language learning. Saettler (1990) calls it “ the beginning of the modern language laboratory” (p.187). The recordings could be played back and were supplemented with print assignments; there were even special language radio stations, which would broadcast something, like news, and the students would have to listen to it at a certain time, comprehend and reproduce to the teacher the following lesson; for example, such radio station was in Boulder, Colorado (Saettler 1990). What an amazing use of technology at the time, which created real-life learning environment. 

The period of World War II played a significant role in the development of the field of learning technology.


  • The best specialists in psychology, visual aids (aka graphic designers), and pedagogy were involved in designing and production of training materials and courses. Reiser (2012) names such prominent individuals as Robert Gagne and his colleagues Leslie Briggs and John Flanagan. Later they could analyze and evaluate their experiences and move the field considerably forward.
  • For the first time the instructional media and design was viewed as a system (Reiser, 2012).
  • It became clear that instructional media is an effective instructional tool and a component of the designing process. Saettler (1990) cites the Division of Visual aids for War training, which concluded that, it would be wrong to call those films as only training films, “serving only skill objectives … it might be more accurate …[to say that] the entire body of productions was “instructional films”” (p. 182).
  • A whole new application of the field- adult training- appeared.
  • As a result of successful work, and as a desire to continue to research and develop the field, there appeared such organizations as the American Institutes for Research, which was founded by John Flanagan and, which sees its mission as, "to conduct and apply the best behavioral and social science research and evaluation towards improving peoples’ lives, with a special emphasis on the disadvantaged"(AIR, 2014).


AIR History. (n.d.). American Institutes for Research. Retrieved May 12, 2014, from:


Reiser R. A., and Dempsey J.V. (2012). Trends and issues in instructional design and technology. (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson.


Rare WW2 Training Cartoon Film. (n.d.). Royal Air Forces Association. Portcullis Club. Retrieved May 12, 2014, from:


Saettler, L. P. (1990). A case study of education technology: 1940-1946. The evolution of American educational technology (178-196). Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited.


Taylor, A. (2011, September 11). World War II: Women at War. The Atlantic. Retrieved May 12, 2014, from


The National WWII Museum. (2014). The national World War II Museum. Retrieved May 12, 2014, from:



Soldiers watching training film at camp San Luis Obispo. The photograph is purchased from and licensed by The National WWII Museum. (2014).

1980 engineers platoon member with identification tool. The photograph is purchased from and licensed by The National WWII Museum. (2014).

Wounded men aboard an LCVP during training. The photograph is purchased from and licensed by The National WWII Museum. (2014).