In the case of ‘Teaching Machine’

Teaching Machine Cover: The History of Personalized Education by Audrey WatersTeaching machines: History of personalized learning By Audrey Waters

Published August 2021

An observation by Audrey Waters explores her in depth Teaching machine Ed-tech evangelists rarely try to learn the history of educational technology. For those who are motivated (ideologically or financially) to keep technology at the center of education, the only relevant time frame is the future.

What came before the ad-tech champions to acknowledge this reluctance (much less fight) is that the helpful lessons are uneducated.

Without relevance to our work in the long history of technology-centric interventions in teaching and learning, we (and here I reluctantly count myself among the category of digital learning evangelists) risk misjudging the potential impact and success of our efforts.

In short, knowing some history of educational innovation can help us control our stimuli, temper our commitments, and be aware of the potential for harm.

In creating a historical and sociological case for the limitations of technology for the advancement of education, Waters brings the story back to the pre-digital age.

Today’s learning tools, MOOCs and adaptive learning platforms, and even our (my) scaled online degrees are rooted in a series of analog devices and educational ideologies that gave birth to their innovations.

Khan Academy first announced the year of the MOOC, long before its first appearance in 2008 New York Times In 2012, the dream of technologically capable self-sustaining education was realized and fruitful.

Waters carefully tells the story of the inspiration, creation, financing, expansion, and impact of the pre-digital learning device.

The story is told by Ohio State Professor Sidney L. Presy and his presy testing machine began in the 1920s. The narrative continues until the middle of the 20th century, B.F. Skinner created his “learning instrument”, which revolved around Skinner’s principles of operant conditioning that predominated the theory of psychology.

It is impossible to exaggerate the care that Waters takes in telling the history of educators and their corporate partners and the instruments of teaching enemies. Waters carefully tells the story of Presy and Skinner and others in their orbit through initial documents, letters, contemporary news accounts and other archival material.

The story of this pre-digital educational technology is contextually created in the cultural, political and social environment where these innovations (and later business endeavors) were conceived and introduced.

A central takeaway for anyone working in the education innovation industry complex (including online education) is that some of our most “progressive” ideas are, in fact, a good century old.

The idea that education can gain productivity in other information industries if we can only apply the right technologies and methods and incentives, goes far beyond the invention of the digital computer.

Our belief in the power of self-paced learning, fragmented content, and frequent low-stack evaluations and feedback will not go unnoticed around the mid-century promise of Skinner’s teaching machine.

Inside Teaching machineWaters has provided a solid historical basis for skepticism about the effectiveness of most of its long-running (and highly influential) educational technologies.

Teaching machine A book, and Waters is a scholar, and both deserve a central place in our academic conversations about the future of education and learning.

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