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Earlier this spring, I posted a request, asking for The Internet to help me track down Norman A. Crowder, someone I’d hoped to make one of the key characters in Teaching Machines. Six+ months later, I’m really no closer to finding out more details about him. Yes, I’ve made some contacts with surviving family members. I’ve received a few emails from people who say they talked to him before he passed away about his work on teaching machines. But I haven’t found any great trove of letters or documents – nothing that would help me flesh him out into a dynamic character for the book.

And that’s such a pity because he is posited throughout the programmed instruction literature of the 1960s as someone whose theories ran counter to those of much the (now) better-known B. F. Skinner – the latter insisted on “linear programming” while Crowder developed the “branching” method. (Surely there is something to be said here about the difference between the administrative and archival work that happens around the writings of a Harvard professor and that which does not occur for someone who worked for industry.)

I have gleaned quite a bit about Crowder from newspaper, magazine, and journal articles, don’t get me wrong. I know when he was born and when he died. I can piece together some of where he worked – the organization I’m most interested in is Western Design, a division of U. S. Industries. That was where he devised the AutoTutor, from what I can tell. A chapter in a book I am currently reading – Programmed Teaching: A Symposium on Automation in Teaching (1965) – says that he came up with the idea for his “scrambled textbook” in 1955 while working to train electrical engineers. That sounds like a good story, but I’m not in much of a position to tell it since I just can’t uncover all the details.

And that sucks.

Audrey Watters


Published

Teaching Machines

A Hack Education Project

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