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I’m one day late, according to my own editorial calendar at least, penning this week’s update on the progress on Teaching Machines. I have been busy – I’ve been reading a lot of Douglas Noble and David Noble, for starters. I’ve also been working on a talk I’m set to give next week to Eddie Maloney’s class at Georgetown, in which I plan to argue that ed-tech history matters – and specifically some of the pre-computer history that I’m writing about in this book. I was hoping that the latter could help me sort through some of the things I want to say in my Introduction: why does this particular piece of ed-tech history matter? Why these teaching machines, developed in the period from (roughly) 1925 thru 1965?

I’ve written previously about Silicon Valley’s historical amnesia – the inability to learn about, to recognize, to remember what has come before. All that is deeply intertwined with its idea of “disruption” and its firm belief that new technologies are necessarily innovative and are always “progress.” But I was struck last night reading one of Joshua Kin’s articles on his Inside Higher Ed blog: “Learning Engineers and Higher Ed Change” that it’s not just Silicon Valley technologists who are so caught up in the future that they ignore or dismiss the past.

Kim’s blog entry refers to another IHE article, also on learning engineers, and in fairness that article does mention some sort of historical precedent for the job title – it points to a 1967 essay by Herbert Simon. But I’d argue the roots of all this are much older, much more deeply engrained in how we envision the relationship between learning and technology and (obviously) between teaching and machines.

David Noble’s book America By Design explores the relationship between technology and corporate capitalism through the lens of the field of engineering – a field that emerged at the turn of the 20th century, and for my purposes, I’ll note, a field that emerged at roughly the same time as the field of psychology. Noble draws the connections between psychology and engineering as well as between the university and industry in the development of a new sort of social and technological production: personnel management. Noble makes it clear that “like the other areas of management, education was a problem for engineering analysis and solution.” “In this case,” he writes,“ it was a branch of ‘human engineering,’ involving the usual trappings: psychological tests, job specifications, rating systems, and the like, all of which were designed to afford ‘maximum thoroughness in minimum time.’” Noble continues,

The corporation-school educators sought to reduce education to a scientific procedure, much as they had sought to reduce the problems of management in general to engineering design. Education thus became an integral mechanism of the corporate production process, geared, like all others, toward efficiency and stability, and hardly reflecting the humanity of the material that was routinely processed.

(In my head, I can hear the student protestors in the 1960s decrying the university machine and demanding they be treated with more dignity than those IBM punch cards: do not fold, spindle, or mutilate.)

In Kim’s blog post, he seems to lament that no one cares about whether or not the job title is “instructional designer” or “learning engineer” (or something else). Fair enough. But he also contends that “we wouldn’t be having this whole learning engineer debate if a critical mass of colleges and universities weren’t making significant changes in how students are learning.” But the history of the phrase seem to suggest otherwise: that this is not a new trend, for starters. There is already much in education technology that is engineered and managed. Indeed, that’s been the whole point for about a century now. And if anything, this conversation is a resurgence of the kind of psychologized scientific management that appealed to corporations (and to Ivy-League universities) in the early twentieth century.

That is, this moment is not exceptional; rather it’s part of a much longer history – but not simply the history that those promoting the new job title would want you to think about. Noble, for his part, cites Henry Tukey, the educational director of the Submarine Boat Company, calling for “educational engineers” back in 1921.

Audrey Watters


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Teaching Machines

A Hack Education Project

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