Teaching Machines

I just finished @audreywatters’s new book “Teaching Machines”, and my reaction is: Wow!

Cover of "Teaching Machines: The history of personalized learning" by Audrey Watters. A smiling school-girl from ca. 1950s pushes a button.

1. It is an important book, because without such a deep insight into the history of teacherless instruction, today’s new teaching machines are probably doomed to repeat some crucial errors over again.

It is enormously impressive to follow the naivety towards snake-oil promises through so many decades, and to see that it is almost exactly the same as today.

For me, chapters 1 through 10 were often resonating with my experiences in the university computer center. How cumbersome it often was to negotiate and convince some staff of even trying things out, when obviously they just were not able to imagine the academic affordances of some new tools.

Also, the book provides a vivid portrayal of the educational mood and hopes of the time of my own elementary school, the 1960s. So now finally I know more about the historical background of my favorite children’s book :-).

But, “the book is also about issues and events beyond the machines” (p. 16). From chapter 11 it gets even more interesting. Particularly, I liked insights such as

“despite all the talk of teaching machines enabling the individualization of education, programmed instruction was more apt to strip away student agency and selfhood.” (p. 226)

and I liked the wide diverse connections that are being considered, such as the Jetsons, the encyclopaedia salesmen, Summerhill, Bruner, Freire, Papert…

Wandering through the wealth of interesting details, the reader gets inspired to ask themselves what it is that makes these machines now appear so alienating, even ridiculous and embarrassing?

2. My take is as follows.

Associated with the image of a machine, are many discomforting and uncanny ideas,

  • that we are not in control but under remote control, surrendered to an unyielding (non-negotiating, mercyless, stubborn) mechanism that compels us to predetermined outcomes,
  • monotonous, repetitive button-pushing, and small (and context-less) steps,
  • maybe a general aversion and mistrust against an optimized, business-like, utilitarian solution, perhaps with external suspicious beneficiaries,

while a human teacher — exerting the same pressure, towards the same predefined goals — seems a lot more mitigating. (At least it seems so to the teacher him/herself — while the pupil may perceive this power as similarly scary as some critics perceive the all-too mighty programmer, in particular the ‘programmer’ of inaccessible AI.)

So, is the human teacher just a mitigated, inconsequential, ‘watered down’ version of the optimized machine teacher that has been prototyped during many decades? Or does our discomfort reveal something about the goal of the optimization itself — content memorization and retention — that is still largely unquestioned? To function optimally, the machines needed to focus on checkable, binary (true or false) facts for immediate reward feedback, and on atomized small steps within the isolated context of the predefined sequence. No ambiguity, no wider context, no ‘by-product’ of the content ‘McGuffin’. So our discomfort may also entail a subsurface intuition that something was wrong, was too narrow, and that an important part of education was missed.

For some, the discomforting association may also be the idea of working alone, without teacher and classmates, which is the inevitable tradeoff for the machine’s infinite patience and dedication to the pupil’s pace, and also the price for the perpetual opportunity of trying and asking, and in particular for an individual, reversed sequence of topics, guided by iterative curiosity and ‘navigating’ the connections, rather than a shared predefined path for the whole class.

A ‘shared gaze’ on the world’s topics is certainly the best option at the earliest stage of education when the infant discovers things through their parent. But if learning theories claim to apply to the whole range from this earliest learning, to the undergraduate in higher education, to the lifelong informally learning professional, they will account for different needs and preferences — and asynchronous, silent, individual work is certainly a preference of many students, as the pandemic has shown. (I, for one, loved the silent work in our two-room rural school, and I think I did benefit from, and still welcome, the independent style.)

Textbooks (and homework, which was waived in the Roanoke Experiment, p. 177) for silent, individual, solitary work can be seen as a precursor or variety of teacherless instruction, and ‘interactive’ electronic textbooks may be seen as precursors of the modern teaching machine. They are said to be more engaging, not only through immersive audio-visual material, but already through merely responding to interspersed questions. Currently in H5P open textbooks, the ‘branching’ content type seems to be the most advanced type of programmed instruction — Crowder’s “TutorText” (from 1958 !) called it “intrinsic programming”, see p. 139.

But the bulk of ‘interactivity’ consists of dialogs that just simulate the teacher, and even ‘intelligent’ textbooks are mostly limited to the paradigm of a single page (or popup) at a time, i.e., the sequential traversal of ‘programmed’ instruction. The unique affordances of independent student’s work such as juggling with concepts within rearrangeable contexts, or ‘talking to’ the text itself by annotating the striking passages with questions to the ‘later self’, are typically still omitted.

So, the limitations of the teacher-mediated instruction are carried over into the asynchronous solitary world — which seems to me like combining the worst of two worlds.

This entry was posted in eLearning and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Teaching Machines

  1. x28 says:

    Thanks to Stephen Downes for the comment https://www.downes.ca/post/72734


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