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Learning Technologies Then and Now

By Mark Notess / February 2015

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Bill Ferster, research professor at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, has written a historical overview of educational technology. His book, Teaching Machines: Learning from the Intersection of Education and Technology, is first and foremost a history, with a focus on the people behind the innovations leveraging technology to transform the educational landscape with improved quality or economies of scale. His attention is mainly given to formal education, including K-12, higher education, and, to a lesser extent, adult education. The scope of his overview is purposefully limited by his definition of a teaching machine. A teaching machine, he explains, is "a way to deliver instruction by using technology that marries content and pedagogy into a self-directed experience for a learner and which relies on minimal assistance from a live instructor." Ferster remains cautiously optimistic about what technology can accomplish in this arena despite the many inconclusive results and outright failures he documents along the way.

Beginning with nineteenth century correspondence courses to the programmed instruction of the 1960s—covering educational film, radio, and television along the way-the first half of the book is the strongest. Ferster tells an interesting story, sketching colorful characters, and even making a personal connection, having himself inhabited, in his infancy, a "baby tender"—a climate-controlled crib invented by B.F. Skinner. Each innovation is described and assessed. Correspondence courses were very popular, but completion rates were low. Mass media technologies scaled but provided too little opportunity for interaction, or were designed with inadequate attention to pedagogy or context of use. Anachronistically included in the mass media section are computer- and Internet-based mass-media solutions such as the Teaching Company recorded lectures and MIT's Open Courseware initiative, both of which likewise lacked support for interaction. Although these technologies do logically belong in the programmed instruction chapter, their inclusion breaks up the otherwise chronological flow of the narrative. Summing up, Ferster writes that programmed instruction suffered from being applicable to a limited range of subjects and having little teacher acceptance.

The second half of the book is devoted to the story of interactive digital technologies, although at times Ferster provides only a cursory description. For example, although he seems optimistic about the benefits of intelligent tutor systems, he provides little by way of example to convey a feel for what interactions with these tutors are actually like. Earlier efforts, such as Logo, PLATO, CD-ROMs, and games, are better described. Games, a current hot topic, receive a few pages of attention. Ferster notes that games, like CD-ROM-based learning, do not have strong research supporting their effectiveness. He also discusses how computer-based instruction suffered from a variety of shortcomings, including high cost of development and poor fit with the classroom environment.

In the final historical chapter, covering Internet-based learning technologies, Ferster mistakenly equates the Internet to cloud computing. But the mistake is mostly harmless. Ferster also covers elearning, learning management systems (LMSs), and the Khan Academy. As for MOOCs, both the "idealistic" Canadian model and the "capitalistic" American iteration are also covered in this section. But when Ferster attempts to describe an expansive and moving target, his analysis is necessarily less certain. For example, he faults LMSs for imposing a content-driven pedagogy, yet it may be more a matter of instructors choosing to use LMSs in the way that requires the least transformation of teaching practice and ignoring the features provided that could support a different pedagogy. The hope that Ferster holds out for the Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) standard making a difference seems rather over-optimistic given the limited impact of previous learning object interoperability frameworks. While his treatment of the Khan Academy and MOOCs tempers the obviously popular enthusiasm for both with unease about the role venture capital and profit motives are playing, the reason for such unease has been present from the first early for-profit correspondence course. This chapter does not bring us quite up to date; discussion of mobile learning or software-as-a-service models for LMSs is notably absent.

Ferster ends his book with a discussion of common themes abstracted from the technologies he has described: pedagogical methods, economies of scale, diffusion of innovation, politics, and economics. His gold standard for learning is one-on-one tutoring, and so he is most optimistic about technologies that might provide tutoring or instant feedback at scale: intelligent tutoring, essay grading based on artificial intelligence techniques, or models that provide peer feedback.

Social analysis that would situate formal education, its participants, and its innovators in a broader context of motivations and loyalties receives little attention in this book. Lacking, for example, is any discussion of the credentialing role of higher education or the social context and interaction that research into student engagement has found to be so important. Nor is there any questioning of whether the Internet-based innovations such as MOOCs primarily serve "autodidacts," people already well educated and skilled in efficiently teaching themselves what they want to learn, leaving disadvantaged learners behind.

In Ferster's book, learning is primarily a cognitive activity. Yet despite this focus, people new to educational technology may find this book to be a readable, thought-provoking introduction to the issues encountered by prior attempts to innovate. It provides valuable historical background, memorable stories, and a thoughtful tour of today's landscape. Those working towards an initial, but informed, opinion of the possibilities of educational technology will find the book helpful.

Teaching Machines: Learning from the Intersection of Education and Technology
Bill Ferster
Johns Hopkins University Press (2014)

About the Author

Mark Notess heads up the User Experience and Digital Media Services department for the Indiana University Bloomington Libraries. He holds a Ph.D. in Instructional Systems Technology from Indiana University and consults on education-focused technology topics through Very There Consulting. He is also an eLearn Magazine editorial board member. Mark can be found on Twitter @mnotess.

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