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Teaching Machines: Learning from the Intersection of Education and Technology

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Summing up the rationale for his book, he concludes that by “looking at the past, we can surely build more effective teaching machines for the future.” This key point, writes Ferster, has been missed by most contemporary educational technologists, people so enamored with visions of what lies ahead that they forget to learn from what lies behind.


The posting below is a review by Aaron Barlow* of the book, Teaching Machines: Learning from the Intersection of Education and Technology. by Bill Ferster. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. It is from the May/June 2015 issue of Academe, the journal of the AAUP (American Association of University Professors). Copyright © AAUP 2015. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis
UP NEXT: A Better Way to Evaluate Undergraduate Teaching

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Teaching Machines: Learning from the Intersection of Education and Technology (review)

Most often, when I ask educational technologists about programmed instruction, I receive blank stares, guesses based on the two words, or a dismissive, “Oh, one of the failures of behaviorism.” That’s not surprising. Most people involved in the technologies of education today come from the computer sciences. They rarely have a background in psychology or education. Of those who do, few have looked back on the history of technology in education—no further back, at least, than the dawn of the digital age and the Apple IIe.

Apparently I’m not the only one to have noticed this. In his new book, Bill Ferster tries to fill in the gap between the use of educational technology in today’s “digital culture” and what was attempted in the past. Starting with the hornbooks of the later Renaissance, he follows the progression of technological devices in education through to today’s cloud-based possibilities.

Though the term teaching machine is directly associated with the programmed-instruction experiments of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ferster pushes it back and pulls it forward. He never stretches it out of shape; he demonstrates that what we see today is more a progression from the past than a break or revolution. He understands educational tools in McLuhanesque terms, pointing out that contemporary technologies have yet to define their own Technology in American Education possibilities as media but are still replicating what came before.

Ferster is hopeful about the future of our devices for education, expecting that these nascent possibilities will be explored and developed to the benefit of education. I am more suspicious than he that these possibilities will come to define education instead of becoming its tools. The strength of this book is that it does not cut off this debate but, through the background it provides, seeks to make it productive, putting into historical context the development of American education in terms of its technological tools.

The heart of the book is a movement to devise mechanical devices to supplement education that reached its height in the early 1960s. Spearheaded by psychologist B. F. Skinner, this movement focused on individual pacing, mastery, immediate feedback, and adaptivity (modification of pathways based on student responses) and on what its adherents called programmed instruction or, more popularly (but less accurately), teaching machines. Perhaps the most comprehensive adaptation of programmed instruction to the classroom was Fred Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction, laid out in a 1968 article, “Good Bye, Teacher . . . ,” that appeared in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis. Though largely forgotten today, its influence on contemporary educational technology has been substantial.

Ferster begins with a historical overview of the development of devices to aid teaching, including the blackboard, McGuffey readers (primers for grade-school students), and other tools, as well as the development of means of educating through evolving communication technologies. Chautauqua assemblies, correspondence courses, and radio and television educational presentations are all covered. He then turns to the developments that led to educational psychologist Sidney Pressey’s teaching machine of the late 1920s before getting to the machines of the 1950s.

After a careful and detailed description of the programmed-instruction movement, Ferster describes how, starting in the 1960s, “computer scientists [took] the reins of teaching machines from the psychologists.” This change would have both good consequences and bad. The good was that the new technologists were able to take advantage of the cutting-edge tools of the new computerized world—and even helped hone that edge. The bad was that they lacked the psychologists’ understanding of how people learn, something few of today’s educational technologists have regained. One important early project involving the use of computers to aid instruction was the Programmed Learning for Automated Teaching Operations (PLATO), which was developed by Don Bitzer in 1960 and continued for decades. Though it had “no real educational or psychological theory as a foundation,” Ferster argues, PLATO did offer possibilities for effective classroom use. Economics stopped it, he says: “Bitzer and his team were never able to get the cost per instructional hour down to a point where it made financial sense.” That was the fate of many new educational technologies, at least until 1983, when A Nation at Risk, the report of President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education, “spurred the computerization of the American classroom for the following two decades.”

Ferster also discusses Logo, a programming language designed to serve as a teaching tool. Covering a great deal of ground quickly, Ferster describes the importance to the dissemination of educational technology of the CD-ROM, with its substantial storage capacity, and he looks at intelligent tutoring systems, a technology that, like PLATO (according to Ferster), has never realized its potential.

From there, Ferster considers the impact of the “cloud” in education and looks at relatively successful Internet projects such as the Khan Academy and other descendants of the correspondence schools. He then spends substantial time examining the massive open online courses (MOOCs), recently so popular, arguing that their potential to engage huge populations will provide “an ideal experimental laboratory for evaluating the effectiveness of a wide variety of techniques.”

At the end of the book, Ferster admits that “it will take more than better machines to make an impact on education. Teaching machines can be only as effective as the pedagogical methods they employ, the way they are diffused to the public, and how they stay focused on the learner.” Summing up the rationale for his book, he concludes that by “looking at the past, we can surely build more effective teaching machines for the future.” This key point, writes Ferster, has been missed by most contemporary educational technologists, people so enamored with visions of what lies ahead that they forget to learn from what lies behind.

Though I disagree with Ferster on a number of points (including his admiration for MOOCs), Teaching Machines is an important book. Ferster energizes a discussion that could provide an antidote to the technopologic (to adapt media theorist Neil Postman’s neologism) culture that has developed through the digital revolution—a culture that often fails to see the value of anything that came before it. He presents a history that has been long missing from discussions of educational technology and is sorely needed.

Ferster presents three great but distinct advantages to technology in education: increased accessibility (starting with the use of the mail for correspondence courses), potentially lowered costs, and improved classroom efficiency. He also illustrates its greatest danger: belief that the teacher and the education expert can be replaced with the machine and the technologist.

In “The Technology of Teaching,” a talk for the Royal Society of London in 1964, Skinner said that “teaching machines are widely misunderstood. It is often supposed that they are simply devices which mechanize functions once served by human teachers. . . . They thus imitate, and could presumably replace, the teacher. But holding a student responsible for assigned material is not teaching, even though it is a large part of modern school and university practice. It is simply a way of inducing the student to learn without being taught.” Later in the talk, Skinner observed:

It could well be that an effective technology of teaching will be unwisely used. It could destroy initiative and creativity; it could make men all alike (and not necessarily in being equally excellent);  it could suppress the beneficial effect of accidents upon the development of the individual and upon the evolution of a culture. On the other hand, it could maximize the genetic endowment of each student; it could make him as skillful, competent, and informed as possible; it could build the greatest diversity of interests; it could lead him to make the greatest possible contribution to the survival and development of his culture.

Maximizing student achievement requires skilled and educated teachers, something Skinner emphasized, as does Ferster. Machines cannot replace teachers but are simply better tools for them. Today’s educational technologists sometimes forget this, leading them to tell teachers how to do things instead of listening as teachers explain how they need things to be done. Many colleges have processes certifying teachers in uses of technology, yet I have heard of none that certifies its technologists in the ways of teaching or in educational psychology.

Ferster opens up our conversations on technology in education in a way that has been needed for thirty years, bringing back into the discussion forgotten yet fruitful concepts and legitimate concerns about teaching methodologies. I hope this book is widely read by both teachers and technologists, and that the two groups use the opportunity to listen to and learn from each other.

* Aaron Barlow is associate professor of English at New York City College of Technology, City University of New York, and faculty editor of Academe. His e-mail address is