Teaching Machines: The Drive to Automate Education
"Jujitsu? I'm going to learn Jujitsu?" Neo asks incredulously, as he's plugged in to a machine for the first time since his rescue by Morpheus and the members of the ship Nebuchadnezzar. The operator Tank loads a virtual training program, and Neo clamps his eyes shut, his body jolting in response as the data floods his visual cortex. Seconds later, Neo opens his eyes. "Holy shit!" he exclaims and agrees to more -- 10 hours more -- "programming." Finally, gasping, he exclaims to Morpheus, "I know Kung Fu!"
While The Matrix portrays a dystopian future where intelligent machines have subdued and enslaved the human population, the film's display of learning technologies -- information transferred directly and instantly into the brain – is the sort of thing frequently hailed as a worthy scientific goal: learning that is efficient, scalable, standardized, and fully automated.
The desire to automate teaching and learning is hardly new. It has a lengthy history in science fiction -- a history that certainly predates the Wachowskis' 1999 movie blockbuster -- and a lengthy history in science and education as well -- psychology professor Sidney Pressey received the first US patent for a "teaching machine" in 1928. But despite the achievements imagined in the former -- Neo's rapid mastery of Kung Fu, for example -- the results provided by the latter have been much less transformative. Indeed, while there's much hype about the revolutionizing of education through the creation and implementation of various "teaching machines," that promise remains largely unfulfilled.
Yet the push for more automation in education continues.
My first book, Teaching Machines, will examine this drive, not simply as a technological or scientific or pedagogical development, but as a profoundly cultural one. How have we conceptualized the mechanics of human intelligence, for example, and how has that shaped the way in which we imagine and build so-called intelligent machines? How do teaching machines work -- do teaching machines work? And whose work, whose labor, might they replace or enhance? Do teaching machines offer "personalization" or merely a more efficient standardization? Why have we been so keen for so long to automate teaching and learning? What does this say about our vision of the purpose, let alone the future of education?
(Right now at least) I plan to self-publish Teaching Machines (and will likely hold a crowdfunding campaign some time this fall to help pay for copyediting and cover design). The book is due out in late 2013 or early 2014. The chapter outline and bibliography are available here, and feedback -- via email or via the GitHub repo that powers this site -- is, of course, welcome.
Audrey Watters is an education writer, rabble-rouser, rambler, recovering academic, lifelong learner, serial dropout, part-time badass, mom.
- The Myth and Millennialism of "Disruptive Innovation", May 24, 2013
- Click Here to Save Education: Evgeny Morozov and Ed-Tech Solutionism, March 26, 2013
- Hacking at Education: TED, Technology Entrepreneurship, Uncollege, and the Hole in the Wall, March 3, 2013
- Top 10 Ed-Tech Startups of 2012, December 21, 2012
- The Real Reason I Dropped Out of a PhD Program, August 29, 2012
- "The Audrey Test": Or, What Should Every Techie Know About Education?, March 17, 2012
- Apple and the Digital Textbook Counter-Revolution, January 19, 2012
- Codecademy and the Future of (Not) Learning to Code, October 28, 2011
- The Wrath Against Khan: Why Some Educators Are Questioning Khan Academy, July 19, 2011
- For Mr. Callahan, March 20, 2011
2013 Ed-Tech Trends
2012 Ed-Tech Trends
Support Hack Education
This website is deliberately advertising-free. But the research and writing that I do here is my full-time work — again, deliberately so. If you find my writing interesting or insightful, please consider a donation.