The Case for ‘Educating Machines’


Cover of Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning by Audrey WattersTeaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning by Audrey Watters

Printed in August 2021

One in every of Audrey Watters’s observations in her deeply researched Educating Machines is that ed-tech evangelists seldom make an effort to study the historical past of academic applied sciences. For these incentivized (ideologically or financially) to position expertise on the heart of studying, the one related time-frame is the long run.

This unwillingness amongst ed-tech 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 liable to misjudging the potential influence and success of our efforts.

In brief, realizing some historical past of academic innovation might trigger us to curb our enthusiasms, mood our guarantees and concentrate on our potential to trigger hurt.

In constructing a historic and sociological case for the bounds of expertise to advance studying, Watters rewinds the story to the predigital period.

The instructing machines of as we speak, 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 units 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 New York Occasions in 2012, the dream of technologically enabled self-paced studying had been dreamed and productized.

Watters fastidiously tells the tales of predigital studying units’ 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 via the center of the twentieth century, with B. F. Skinner’s creation of his “instructing machine,” constructed round Skinner’s rules of operant conditioning that got here to dominate psychology idea.

It’s not doable 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 via main paperwork, letters, contemporaneous information accounts and different archival supplies.

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

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

The notion that training can benefit from the productiveness good points of different info industries if solely we will apply the best applied sciences and strategies and incentives lengthy predates 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 midcentury promise of Skinner’s instructing machine.

In Educating Machines, Watters has supplied 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, and each deserve a central place in our tutorial conversations about the way forward for instructing and studying.

What are you studying?


Our names are Fareedah and Kamilah Amoo. We are seven and five year’s old sisters and live in Ontario, Canada, with our parents and little brother, Awad. We love writing stories, painting on canva, coding, reading books, and enjoying arts and crafts. Our goal is to motivate every child worldwide to read more books.

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