Long before the advent of personal computers, inventors and researchers created what they called “teaching machines” in hopes of revolutionizing education. Some of these creations date back to the 1920s, and were made from wood and brass.
Yet today’s edtech leaders often ignore or choose to forget this history, argues Audrey Watters, a longtime critical observer of edtech, who calls it “historical amnesia of the past.”
“It’s part of the narrative of this idea [by edtech founders] that, ‘we’re innovators and we came up with these ideas and no one, no one has ever thought of this stuff before. So thank goodness we’re here to save education,’” she says. “I wanted to show that in fact, people have been using technology in the classroom since the beginning, … and these ideas of personalized learning in particular aren’t new either.”
Watters traces the history of these pre-computer-age gadgets in her new book, “Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning.” We connected with Watters for this week’s EdSurge Podcast.
She argues that it’s important for today’s educators and policy leaders to know this history to understand the types of people and institutions who have pushed to bring automation to education. Since the beginning, she adds, there has been a contradiction between the promise of making learning more personalized and the reality that teaching machines often required a higher level of standardization.