Joy Lisi Rankin’s book A People’s History of Computing in the United States tells a story that runs counter to what she describes as the “Silicon Valley mythology”:

“This compelling myth tells us that, once upon a time, modern computers were big (and maybe even bad) mainframes. International Business Machines, much more familiar as IBM, dominated the era when computers were remote and room-sized machines of the military-industrial complex. Then, around 1975, along came the California hobbyists who created personal computers and liberated us from the monolithic mainframes. They were young men in the greater San Francisco Bay area, and they tinkered in their garages.”

Rankin contends that this mythology “does us a disservice” by skewing the story – and the culture – towards one group of West Coast, white male “geniuses” who founded companies and away from the groups of students and professors at colleges and universities elsewhere in the US who developed early computer systems. And so she tells the latter’s story – the story of BASIC at Dartmouth, of PLATO at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, of Oregon Trail in the Minnesota K–12 school system, arguing that these efforts involved a set of creative and collaborative practices. She calls this “citizen computing,” one that recognized computational power as a public utility and one that is quite distinct from the consumer-oriented computing that Silicon Valley still peddles.

She doesn’t write much about teaching machines, save a handful of mentions of the phrase in her chapters on PLATO. Even then, there’s no nod to the history of teaching machines that I’m exploring in my book (and it’s always a relief when you’re mid-project to see that your thunder has not been stolen) – no links to educational psychology’s efforts to build these machines in the 1950s and 1960s, for example. Rankin does mention that one of the goals of the PLATO system’s instructional capabilities was “individualization,” but the thrust of her argument points to a different priority: community.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how “personalization” as today’s education (technologist) reformers frame it runs counter to community (and perhaps too to democracy) – and how it draws quite heavily, no doubt, on that Silicon Valley mythology about the lone coder genius white guy revolutionizing the world from his parents’ garage. But “personalization” – and specifically the individualization that many have hoped can be accomplished via machine – also draws on the history of educational psychology and a different set of actors, many of whom were also professors at some of the same institutions working at the very same time as the protagonists in Rankin’s book.

Teaching machines failed – or so the story goes – because of the rise of computers. But that’s not quite right, is it. The kinds of educational software that seems to have triumphed with the computer doesn’t seem to be bound up in the collaborative practices of “citizen computing” that Rankin writes about. It’s much more closely aligned with the behaviorist bent of the psychology lab rather than the computer lab – a place in which students are pigeons, not co-creators.

Audrey Watters


Teaching Machines

A Hack Education Project

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