Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning

Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning

by Audrey Watters
Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning

Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning

by Audrey Watters


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How ed tech was born: Twentieth-century teaching machines—from Sidney Pressey's mechanized test-giver to B. F. Skinner's behaviorist bell-ringing box.

Contrary to popular belief, ed tech did not begin with videos on the internet. The idea of technology that would allow students to "go at their own pace" did not originate in Silicon Valley. In Teaching Machines, education writer Audrey Watters offers a lively history of predigital educational technology, from Sidney Pressey's mechanized positive-reinforcement provider to B. F. Skinner's behaviorist bell-ringing box. Watters shows that these machines and the pedagogy that accompanied them sprang from ideas—bite-sized content, individualized instruction—that had legs and were later picked up by textbook publishers and early advocates for computerized learning.

Watters pays particular attention to the role of the media—newspapers, magazines, television, and film—in shaping people's perceptions of teaching machines as well as the psychological theories underpinning them. She considers these machines in the context of education reform, the political reverberations of Sputnik, and the rise of the testing and textbook industries. She chronicles Skinner's attempts to bring his teaching machines to market, culminating in the famous behaviorist's efforts to launch Didak 101, the "pre-verbal" machine that taught spelling. (Alternate names proposed by Skinner include "Autodidak," "Instructomat," and "Autostructor.") Telling these somewhat cautionary tales, Watters challenges what she calls "the teleology of ed tech"—the idea that not only is computerized education inevitable, but technological progress is the sole driver of events.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780262546065
Publisher: MIT Press
Publication date: 02/07/2023
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 831,479
Product dimensions: 4.94(w) x 7.81(h) x 0.86(d)

About the Author

Audrey Watters is a writer on education and technology. She is the creator of the popular blog Hack Education (hackeducation.com) and the author of widely read annual reviews of educational technology news and products.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 B.F. Skinner Builds a Teaching Machine 19
2 Sidney Pressey and the Automatic Teacher 35
3 "Mechanical Education Wanted" 61
4 The Commercialization of B.F. Skinner's First Machines 81
5 B.F. Skinner Tries Again 107
6 Programmed Instruction: In Theory and Practice 135
7 Imagining the Mechanization of Teachers' Work 149
8 Hollins College and "The Roanoke Experiment" 167
9 Teaching Machines, Inc. 179
10 B.F. Skinner's Disillusionment 195
11 Programmed Instruction and the Practice of Freedom 213
12 Against B.F. Skinner 231
Conclusion 245
Acknowledgments 265
Notes 269
Index 301

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Teaching Machines is a vital cultural history of our desire for a technical solution to the fundamentally social problem of how to make education work for all families. Watters has written the rare book that is necessary, important, and readable.” 
Tressie McMillan Cottom, Associate Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; author of Thick: And Other Essays
“Audrey Watters is a singular, indispensable voice in the past, present,[VC1]  and future of education technology. This new volume unveils how the ideas animating the first mechanical teaching machines are still present in today’s learning technologies.”
—Justin Reich, Assistant Professor, MIT, and Director, MIT Teaching Systems Lab; author of Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education
Teaching Machines weaves together a riveting set of histories that offer a careful look at the past, but also an insightful and prescient examination of the present and future of ed tech. Watters is an incisive writer and an insistent scholar, always asking hard questions of technology. This book will change the way we talk about education.”
Jesse Stommel, Associate Professor, Athabasca University; Executive Director, Hybrid Pedagogy

“Audrey Watters proves that there is very little that is groun breaking or innovative about the ‘new’ technologies of the 2020s. She provokes us to ask why ed tech  learns so little from its past failures. A much-needed book!”
Neil Selwyn, Distinguished Research Professor, Monash University

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