Teaching Machines: a 100 year old vision

by Gary Woodill on January 21, 2009

It has been exactly 100 years since the British writer E.M. Forster wrote a short story describing an audiovisual machine that could deliver a lecture to a remote audience. His 1909 short story “The Machine Stops” foresaw television, videoconferencing and instant messaging. (The story is available here.)

The next 50 years or so saw the development of a number of ideas about how machines could be used in teaching and learning, but practical development of electronic learning technologies needed the invention of computers and transistors before it could really take off. In the 1920s, Sidney Pressey, an educational psychology professor at Ohio State University, developed the first “teaching machine” that offered drill and practice exercises, and multiple choice questions. Various other mechanical devices for “automated teaching” were developed in the 1920s and 30s. Norbert Wiener wrote about human machine communications in his 1948 book Cybernetics, and B.F. Skinner, the well-known behaviorist, invented “programmed instruction” and a more sophisticated version of Pressey’s teaching machine in the 1950s. The ‘50s also saw the growth of educational television, and the first uses of mainframe computers for teaching keyboarding and binary arithmetic, and for modelling human brain functioning.

However, the breakthrough idea that led to the tipping point for the development of faster and more powerful learning technologies was Vannevar Bush’s landmark article “As We May Think” in the Atlantic Monthly in 1948 in which he described a hypertext like device called the “memex”. One of the people strongly influenced by this article was Doug Engelbart, an American engineer who went on to invent the computer mouse, hypertext, new human-computer interfaces, and pioneering concepts of “collective intelligence.” Engelbart is still active in these fields.

What we would clearly recognize as one of the earliest examples of e-learning (although the term was only coined about 1997 by Jay Cross) is the PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) system introduced in 1960 on an IBM mainframe computer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The PLATO system featured multiple roles, including students who could study assigned lessons and communicate with teachers through on-line notes, instructors, who could examine student progress data, as well as communicate and take lessons themselves, and authors, who could do all of the above, plus create new lessons. There was also a fourth type of user, called a multiple, which was used for demonstrations of the PLATO system.

In the same year, Ted Nelson tried to implement a functioning hypertext system, called Project Xanadu. The 1960s also saw the development of Sketchpad – the first graphical user interface for a computer, Coursewriter – an early computer assisted instruction (CAI) system, examination scoring by computer, drill and practice programs, and computer networking. The construction of personal computers in the 1970s, the standardization and integration of various computer networks in the 1980s, the rapid growth of compact discs and the World Wide Web in the 1990s pretty much covers the basic infrstructure that we use today. The past ten years has featured immense improvements in the components that make up e-learning technologies, but the focus has now moved to applications for this global machine that we as human beings have constructed.

Utterback’s (1994) analysis of the cycle of innovation would suggest that we are in a levelling off period for hardware innovation, and have moved to a new curve – that of process and application innovation. What we refer to as “content” is exactly that – a mixture of new uses and processes for a technology infrastructure that is starting to mature.

The invention of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s introduced the ability access resources from anywhere in the world through Universal Resource Locators (URLs). But the Web was a step backwards from CD-ROMs in terms of animation and interactivity because of the slowness of computers, modems and the network at the time it was introduced. It is only now that the capabilities of networked computers are catching up to the level necessary to produce the quality of e-learning that was possible using CD-ROMs, 100 years after the vision of an electronic teaching machine began.

(A more detailed “History of Virtual Learning Environments” is available from Wikipedia.)

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