The Case for “Teaching Machines” | Inside Higher Ed


Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning by Audrey Watters

Printed in August of 2021

One in every of Audrey Watters’ observations in her deeply researched Educating Machines is that edtech evangelists seldom make an effort to be taught the historical past of academic applied sciences. For these incentivized (ideologically or financially) to put expertise on the middle of studying, the one related timeframe is the longer term.

This unwillingness amongst edtech champions to acknowledge (a lot much less grapple with) what got here earlier than is that useful classes stay unlearned.

By not contextualizing our work inside the lengthy historical past of technology-centered interventions in instructing and studying, we (and right here I’m reluctantly counting myself among the many tribe of digital studying evangelists) are susceptible to misjudging the potential influence and success of our efforts.

In brief, understanding some historical past of academic innovation could trigger us to curb our enthusiasms, mood our guarantees, and pay attention to our potential to trigger hurt.

In constructing a historic and sociological case for the boundaries of expertise to advance studying, Watters rewinds the story to the pre-digital period.

The instructing machines of right now, the MOOCs and adaptive studying platforms, and even our (my) unbridled enthusiasm for scaled on-line levels have their roots in a collection of analog gadgets and within the academic ideologies that spawned their innovations.

Lengthy earlier than Khan Academy first emerged in 2008, or The Year of the MOOC was first proclaimed by the NYTs in 2012, the dream of technologically-enabled self-paced studying had been dreamt and productized.

Watters fastidiously tells the tales of pre-digital studying gadgets’ inspirations, creations, financing, diffusion, and influence.

The story begins with Ohio State professor Sidney L. Pressey and his invention of the Pressey Testing Machine within the Twenties. The narrative continues by the center of the twentieth century, with B.F. Skinner’s creation of his “instructing machine”, constructed round Skinner’s ideas of operant conditioning that got here to dominate psychology principle.

It isn’t attainable to overstate the care Watters takes in unpacking the tales of the teachers and their company companions and foes in telling the historical past of instructing machines. Watters meticulously tells the tales of Pressey and Skinner and others of their orbit by major paperwork, letters, contemporaneous information accounts, and different archival supplies.

This pre-digital academic expertise story is contextualized inside the cultural, political, and social milieus through which these innovations (and later enterprise makes an attempt) had been conceived and launched.

A central takeaway for anybody working within the schooling innovation industrial complicated (together with on-line studying) is that a few of our most “progressive” concepts are, in actuality, century previous.

The notion that schooling can benefit from the productiveness positive factors of different data industries if solely we will apply the proper applied sciences and strategies and incentives lengthy pre-dates the invention of the digital pc.

Our religion within the energy of self-paced studying, chunked content material, and frequent low-stakes evaluation and suggestions wouldn’t be misplaced in conversations across the mid-century promise of Skinner’s instructing machine.

In Educating Machines, Watters has offered a sturdy historic basis for her long-running (and extremely influential) skepticism of the efficacy of most academic applied sciences.

Educating Machines is a guide, and Watters is a scholar, that each deserve a central place in our tutorial conversations about the way forward for instructing and studying.

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