This is an archive of the 2013 version of ocTEL.

Teaching machines – a product of their time

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  • #2335

    What struck me about the teaching machines and the application of that technology to teaching and learning is how much of its time it is in its favouring of product over process. The machine is fact-based, targeting those questions where there is a ‘right’ answer, where the answer is a binary ‘yes’ or ‘no’, rather than ‘well, that depends’. It follows the banking model of education that Freire objected to so strongly. The teaching machine is the technology that met the needs and assumptions of that particular time. Behaviourism was a dominant pedagogical theory, and so the technology was behaviourism-based. In one sense, we could argue that all technology conforms to the paradigm of the time, otherwise it wouldn’t be adopted or become accepted, but we then need to look at whether those particular needs and assumptions are accurately known and acknowledged rather than driven by partisan factors other than educational merit. Illich argued that other ‘institutions’ (in the widest sense of the word) should not be excluded from involvement in education, and that’s a position I agree with. However, we need to be very careful about their motivations. Commercial companies for example may push particular educational products because those are the ones they can make most profit with, rather than providing tools and resources that teachers feel have the most educational merit. Illich himself described those advocating for a free market in education as “The most dangerous category of educational reformers.” As an aside, I see the current attempt in the UK to change the national curriculum into a more facts-based, rote learning curriculum as an example of this commercial distortion of educational ideals. Once you have a set of facts you can then sell testing services to ‘assess’ those facts and then we have the rise of standardised testing that is being so heavily criticised in the USA.
    The learning machine does allow students to work at their own pace and get immediate feedback, but it’s arguable whether the feedback is anything more detailed than a simple confirmation of success or failure. Students work alone and collaboration is likely to be seen as cheating – the product is the important thing (the right answer) not the rich, nuanced process by which collaborating students might arrive at the answer.


    “we could argue that all technology conforms to the paradigm of the time, otherwise it wouldn’t be adopted or become accepted”

    I think this is a very profound comment. We need to change the way society thinks about itself before we can change the way it educates itself basically. If we want a more open (source)  education system, we need to open our society and way of thinking of each other at the same time.


    (you made me think…)


    I agree with you Duncan. It actually is the main reason why I wanted to point out the similarities between TM’s and, for example iPads. But where behaviourism is seen as ‘bad’ and outdated, history repeats itself with an uncritical adoption of (one) machine(s) and commercialization.

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