The spring semester at Columbia School of Journalism starts this week, and I’m enrolled in Sam Freedman’s fabled “Book Writing” class. Although my Spencer Fellowship proposal didn’t involve writing a book, I plan to focus on getting a solid proposal and chapter done on Teaching Machines. (Don’t worry. I am also working on my “ed-tech mafia” research too.)

In order to get into the class, one has to pitch Sam on the idea. Here’s what I wrote him:

The book Teaching Machines will chronicle the history education technology and the long-running efforts to mechanize education, not simply as a technological or scientific or pedagogical development, but as a profoundly cultural one. The history of education in the twentieth century is in many ways a history of education psychology and that, in turn, is in many ways a history of psychological machinery.

The book will explore how we have conceptualized the mechanics of human intelligence, and how has that shaped the way in which we imagine and build so-called intelligent machines. It is less an analysis of how teaching machines work or if they work (that is, it’s not focused on education research per se) but rather is a study of why their inventors and investors have believed they were (and are) necessary. The book will consider how teaching machines have been viewed as labor-saving devices, making the classroom run more efficiently. But more importantly perhaps, it will explore how teaching machines have been seen as enablers of “personalization” in the face of the institution of mass education, how the practices and systems of standardization in schools have cultivated a demand for some sort of technological intervention on behalf of individualization. As such, the book asks what the efforts to mechanize teaching and learning might say about our visions of the purpose and the future of education.

Teaching Machines will recount the development of teaching machines by Sidney Pressey, B. F. Skinner, Patrick Suppes, and others – from Pressey’s early testing machines in the 1920s to the development of “intelligent tutoring machines” of the 1970s to contemporary calls for “big data,” learning analytics, and personalized learning. The book will investigate how psychology professors have tried to turn their research into businesses, and what, if any, lessons education technology has learned from their failures – and from their successes, of course. After all, one hundred years later, many people are still advocating for teaching machines.

As the semester progresses, I’ll be writing updates here on this site, chronicling my research and my thoughts on the writing and pitching processes.

Audrey Watters


Teaching Machines

A Hack Education Project

Back to Archives