Two of the many conveniences of the “good ol’ days” was that it was easier to define learners and the then-popular cognitive theories were easier to apply to designing for the learners.
While some people truly practiced life-long learning, the formal structures we have today were not in place in the past. Life-long learning was an individiual effort for the most part. While community colleges had started in the first decade of the 20th Century, it was not until the ’60s–when the number doubled to more than 900 (AAAC figures, http://www.aacc.nche.edu/Content/ NavigationMenu/AboutCommunityColleges/HistoricalInformation/ CCGrowth/ CC_Growth_1961-1970.htm)–that the possibility for organized lifelong learning became a reality.
Before then, learners were K-16; an overwhelming majority were K-12; and a strong percentage were K-10 or less. They were college prep (bright), business (smart) or vo-tech (average).
Behaviorist theory centered on concrete, defineable outcomes with assessment based upon observation. Without having to contend with multiple intelligences, social constructivism, and other inconvenient theories, the tightly-defined concept of “learners” was easy to design for.
Nowadays, we have an expanded and increasingly diverse learner population, whose definitions are shaped by cognitive theories, learning strategies, distributive cognition,cultural influences and language barriers. All of this is in addition to a wider range of ages, ADA accomodations, and the need for career-enhancing and career-changing skills, to name a few factors.
Not only has the learner population grown in terms of both size and scope, but the resources–and the requirements–to successfully design for these learners has expanded. No one system, approach, theory, or strategy can possibly fit all situations. It will be up to responsible and focused educational research to supply us with answers to a multitude of very specific questions. And it will be up to a cadre of very flexible designers to provide effective treatments that will not only bring fundamental knowledge to the diverse masses, but will also be able to satisfy the needs of many demographic sub-groups within our society.