This is an archive of the 2013 version of ocTEL.

Teaching machines and other concepts

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    A great collection of resources. I think the thread running through all the resources is that, contrary to teaching machines, is the value of communicative aspects for learning.

    I must say that I think Teaching Machines have a bad image which is not really fair if you compare some of the recent developments with, for example tablets, that have been heralded. In any case, I wish more people would recognize that criticizing the deterministic Teaching Machines should mean to criticize tablet education. There are some very relevant points Skinner makes, but most people immediately think of the mindless salivating of dogs. Good points are:

    The role of feedback
    No being tested but using hints+prompts -> formative assessment
    Working at your own pace
    Small steps
    Attention to the quality of content/material

    Of course, the claim that education will change forever reminds me too much of more recent claims as well. I think we need to take the best from all the, seemingly opposing, approaches and get the balance right.

    Just my 50 cents 🙂



    I agree – a great selection of resources.

    I also agree, that Teaching Machines have a bad image and I couldn’t image many students engaging in that type of activity these days. Although, like you say, give them an iPad (other tablets are available!) then are they not reciprocating the same activity? The difference is the nature of their learning and that if the resources / activity they are accessing on the tablet is not in the format of Facebook, Twitter, Candy Crush or likewise – they don’t want to know. I sound like a critic but actually in my teahcing practices I am a big fan.

    As a Sport Psychologist at heart, the salivating dogs scenario is a key foacl point, however I also teach reflective practice and learning a lot and am a big fan of Skinner’s view and approach to feedback – particularly in giving prompt but development feedback that allows the learner to realise the quality of content / material, rather than continually being spoonfed the solution / problem. Surely learners also need to learn to identify their own areas for development – and strengths I might add.

    Again, just my 2-pennith. I actually think all the approaches have something going for them in one context or another


    I have a lot of experience as a learner using of one of the business world’s modern equivalents of teaching machines – self-guided training with quizzes (if you fail a quiz, your manager has to unlock it for a retake, and you have to explain  yourself!). Shorthand: SGTs.

    On the one hand this is very effective in getting people to pass quizzes and to absorb constantly changing knowledge in a way that scales, cost-wise. On the other unless they have a way of taking notes so they can re-find the knowledge and apply it when needed, it doesn’t really work too well.

    Another interest of mine is learners with cognitive deficits where “quizzes” or teaching machines which start off highly supportive and gradually remove prompts until the learner can carry  out the activity independently – here the “teaching machine” approach updated to smartphones works very well. (eg )

    Trying to follow the activity, if I think of Socratic method then SGTs do nothing for open questions or the midwifery of thought. If I try to understand emergent learning, which I don’t think I do yet, then I think that SGTs/teaching machines have a definite place as a technique for formative and summative assessment.


    I agree entirely with you Imogen.

    My personal take on the subject of Teaching Machines is that they were as sophisticated at technology in the 1950s could permit.  Of course they are incredibly basic, and could only really test the knowledge of pupils in terms of binary questions, with a right/wrong answer.  However, in a sense they were also very much ahead of their time in terms of the essence of what Skinner was trying to achieve.  I am a big fan of the provision of instant, or at least very prompt, feedback and for learners to be able to self assess.  Of course, this said only limited aspects of learning can be assessed in this fashion, as with MCQs, SGTs, quizzes and the like. Critical thinking, analysis, demonstration of deep understanding and explanation of concepts requires far more sophisticated methods.

    Horses for courses though!  I consider Skinner’s work to have been extremely important as a foundation for many of today’s assessment methods.

    Jillian Pawlyn
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