In the case of “teaching machines”

Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Education by Audrey Waters

Published August 2021

An observation by Audrey Waters explores her in depth Teaching machine That edtech missionaries 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 edtech champions to acknowledge this reluctance (much less fight) is the helpful lessons 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.

Long before Khan Academy first appeared in 2008, or in 2012 when MOYC was first announced by the NYTs, the dream of technologically-capable self-paced education was realized and fruitful.

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

The story is told by Ohio State Professor Sidney L. Presy and his presy testing machine began in the 1920s. The narrative goes back to the middle of the twentieth century, when BF Skinner created his “learning instrument”, which was built around Skinner’s operative conditioning principles that dominated psychology theory.

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 innovation industry complex (including online education) is that our most “progressive” ideas are actually a good century old.

The idea that education can enjoy the productivity gains of other information industries if we can apply the right technologies and methods and incentives prior to 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 who deserves a central place in our academic discourse on both the future of teaching and learning.

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