Long before the advent of personal computers, inventors and researchers created what they call “teaching machines”, hoping to revolutionize education. Some of these works date back to the 1920s and are made of wood and brass.

However, Audrey Waters, a long-time critical observer of educational technology, believes that today’s educational technology leaders often ignore or choose to forget this period of history, which she calls “historical amnesia of the past.”

“This is part of the narrative of this idea [by edtech founders] That,’We are innovators, we came up with these ideas, no one, no one thought about these things before. So thankfully, we’re here to save education,’” she said. “I want to show that, in fact, people use technology in the classroom from the very beginning,…especially these personalized learning ideas are not new. “

Waters traces the history of these pre-computer era gadgets in her new book, “Teaching machine: the history of personalized learning. “We contacted Waters for this week’s EdSurge podcast.

She believes that it is very important for today’s educators and policy leaders to understand this history to understand the types of people and institutions that promote the introduction of automation into education. She added that from the beginning, there was a contradiction between the promise of making learning more personalized and the reality that teaching machines usually require a higher level of standardization.

“I want to tell a story that has nothing to do with computers,” she said, noting how mechanized early teaching machines were. “Because I think this happens too often in edtech, and we are so fascinated by technology,” she added. “We are so focused on talking about the latest gadgets, new software, this or that application, that we really seem to be talking about technology somehow. Technology is the driving force of change. Technology is the driving force of history.”

Instead, Waters said, people have been pushing for the idea of ​​how to use technology in education, and this idea supports a specific narrative of what education should be.

One of the people she focuses on in the book is BF Skinner, who invented the early teaching machine when he was a professor of psychology at Harvard University in the 1950s. He is the kind of public intellectual who will speak on TED if he is alive today. He is the main supporter of “behaviourism”. He believes that people’s behavior can be shaped by positive and negative reinforcement (someone may Said to be manipulated).

He often experimented with pigeons, some of which he even trained to play table tennis. “This is indeed the basis of his educational technology-we will build machines, they will give students-like pigeons-positive reinforcement, students-like pigeons-will learn new skills.”

Many of BF Skinner’s studies involve training pigeons to do things like playing table tennis.

Skinner gave an example, his machine will let students learn at their own pace. But Waters is worried that the design of these machines limits what students can learn. “In Skinner’s vision, the degree of freedom is very, very low,” Waters said. “Indeed, Skinner wrote a very famous book,”Beyond freedom and dignity“In the early 1970s, he said that freedom did not exist. Freedom is an appearance.”

After visiting his daughter’s school, Skinner was inspired to build his own “teaching machine.”

Waters is known for his long-running blog,”Hacker education,” and her skeptical and critical attitude towards the education technology industry.

“A lot of people actually accuse me of being a pessimist,” she said. “And I am not a pessimist. In fact, I am hopeful.”

She said that she is currently reading “Hope in the Dark” by Rebecca Solnit, which tells how the study of history is an important source of hope for the future.

“When we don’t understand the past, we feel hopeless,” Waters said. “When we don’t know that people have fought back before, and people have fought back before, we feel desperate.”

In her research, she found people who resisted the teaching machines and deterministic philosophy of people like Skinner: “This is where I find hope today. It is the students I see questioning, resisting students, and establishing Serving the local needs of the communities of their practice, rather than satisfying the needs of engineers.”


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