The Case for “Teaching Machines”

Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning by Audrey Watters

Published in August of 2021

One of Audrey Watters’ observations in her deeply researched Teaching Machines is that edtech evangelists seldom make an effort to learn the history of educational technologies. For those incentivized (ideologically or financially) to place technology at the center of learning, the only relevant timeframe is the future.

This unwillingness among edtech champions to identify (much less grapple with) what came before is helpful lessons remain unlearned.

By not contextualizing our work within the long history of technology-centered interventions in teaching and learning, we (and here I am reluctantly counting myself among the tribe of digital learning evangelists) are at risk of misjudging the potential impact and success of our efforts.

In short, knowing some history of educational innovation can cause us to curb our enthusiasm, temper our promises, and be aware of our potential to cause harm.

In a building a historical and sociological case for the limits of technology to advance learning, Watters rewinds the story to the pre-digital era.

The teaching machines of today, the MOOCs and the adaptive learning platforms, and even our (my) unbridled enthusiasm for a variety of analogue devices and the educational ideologies that spawned their inventions.

Long before Khan Academy first emerged in 2008, or The Year of the MOOC was first proclaimed by the NYTs in 2012, the technologically-enabled self-paced learning had been dreamt and productized.

Watters carefully tells the stories of pre-digital learning devices’ inspirations, creations, financing, diffusion, and impact.

The story starts with Ohio State professor Sidney L. Pressey and his invention of the Pressey Testing Machine in the 1920s. The narrative continues through the middle of the 20th century, with BF Skinner’s creation of his “teaching machine”, built around Skinner’s principles of operant conditioning that came to dominate psychology theory.

It is not possible to overstate the care Watters takes in unpacking the stories of the academics and their corporate partners and foes in telling the history of teaching machines. Watters meticulously tells the stories of Pressey and Skinner and others in their orbit through primary documents, letters, contemporaneous news accounts, and other archival materials.

This pre-digital educational technology story is contextualized within the cultural, political, and social milieus in which these inventions (and later business attempts) were conceived and launched.

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

The notion that the digital technologies have the benefit of other kinds of information industries.

Our faith in the power of self-paced learning, chunking content, and frequent low-stakes assessment and feedback would not be out of place in conversations around the mid-century promise of Skinner’s teaching machine.

In Teaching MachinesWatters has provided a sturdy historical foundation for a long-running (and highly influential) skepticism of the efficacy of most educational technologies.

Teaching Machines is a book, and Watters is a scholar, that both deserve a central place in our academic conversations about the future of teaching and learning.

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