I’ve read a couple of histories this past week on the development of twentieth-century (military) technologies: Thomas Rid’s Rise of the Machines and Douglas Noble’s The Classroom Arsenal. (I’m interested, obviously, in the role of the military in building teaching machines.)

One thing that was particularly striking about these two books – and it’s something I find so often in these sorts of histories – is that they seem to rush through the development of machines that pre-date computers in order to talk about computers themselves. It is as though computers are the pinnacle of technological development, as though any machines built prior to computers are simply computers’ pre-history. Computers are the story.

Interestingly, this approach to writing the history of ed-tech gives me a lot of space to do something different with the story of teaching machines – particularly if I do not make this book the story of how educational computing came to be, particularly if I make it a point to write a narrative that does not suggest (overtly or subtly) that somehow the early inventors of teaching machines failed because they didn’t have the right equipment. (B. F. Skinner wrote a Letter to the Editor of Science in 1989 admitting that “computers are now much better teaching machines,” but he went on to add that most people working with computer-based education were doing it wrong – those silly cognitive psychologists.)

So the question for me: can I get away from this teleology, this notion that the history of teaching machines is merely prelude to the “real thing”?

Audrey Watters


Teaching Machines

A Hack Education Project

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