Teaching Machines

I’ve just finished reading Audrey Watters long awaited book, ‘Teaching Machines’. I would have read it earlier but it is difficult to get,at least in Spain, taking four weeks to reach me courtesy of Blackwell in Oxford. And it is every bit as good as others have said. It is rare that I get so engrossed in what is  for me a ‘work book’, but Audrey really is a  very good writer. Anyway here are my eight main take aways from the book.

  1. Ed-tech is not a recent invention. There is a clear line of development between the mechanical teaching machines developed from the 1920s onward in the USA and the computer based Ed-tech we use today.
  2. OK – this is a US based history book. But it is interesting to note that the various companies making or thinking about making Teaching Machines were primarily or more commonly solely interested in the bottom line – ie potential profit and had little or no interest in education per se.
  3. There was already in the last century an ambiguity as to whether technology would replace teachers or was just there to assist them.
  4. Despite the importance of partnerships with industry to manufacture and distribute teaching machines, the driving force behind the development was academics, particularly from the then emergent discipline of psychology
  5. The predominant pedagogic approach was behaviorism with the teaching machines designed to support operant conditioning.
  6. The major motivation behind  advocating the widespread adoption of teaching machines was the idea that the American education system was failing, particularly in languages, sciences and STEM subjects. This was given a huge boost when the Soviet Union beat the USA in first putting a satellite into space.
  7. Teaching machines were largely dependent on standardization and standardized testing in education, both of which were a response to the idea that education was failing
  8. There was no clear evidence that teaching machines actually led to improved learning and learning outcomes

All these things sound horribly familiar to me, having only twenty five or so years experience of the development of educational technology. But then, I guess that  is why Audrey wrote the book in the first place. As a reviewer in Forbes said: “Reading this story, one suspects it might be fair to say that it is ed tech, not public education, that has not made a significant step forward in the last 100 years.”

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