The Teleology of Ed-Tech

Audrey Watters

There is a certain teleology to the way in which the history of education technology gets told. Its developments are often laid out in a narrative that posits that, as time has passed, education has become increasingly and necessarily technological. It’s a history that crescendos, if not culminates, with the introduction of the computer. And that is key: the computer as the culmination. This story works to position the digital classroom as inevitable, a computational vision for teaching and learning as inescapable.

That this is the story that gets told should not come as a surprise. After all, the field of education technology is, by definition and design, now almost inextricably tied to the computer. The job of the educational technologist is “ed-tech” — it’s right there in the name. The stories that education technologists tell about the past, present, and future of teaching and learning all require ed-tech. To riff on a phrase from literary theorist Frederic Jameson, it is easier (for some ed-tech types, at least) to imagine the end of the university than to imagine the end of the LMS.

The teleology is a trap.

(The learning management system is also a trap, but that’s a different essay.)

When I started work on my book Teaching Machines, I wrote a proposal and an initial chapter outline that replicated precisely this type of historical predestination. I imagined that the book would start with the multiple-choice teaching machine designed by psychologist Sidney Pressey in the 1920s and his failure to successfully manufacture and market the device, and it would end with the “Kids Can’t Wait” campaign that Steve Jobs launched in the 1980s in an attempt to get schools to purchase Apple II computers. “You can’t stop there,” one education journalist insisted in his feedback to my pitch. “You have to talk about Microsoft too! You have to talk about Bill Gates!” “You can’t stop at the Eighties,” another writer advised. “What about the Internet? What about ‘mobile’? What about AI?”

But I’d argue that this is one of the flaws of so many books written about ed-tech’s past: this insistence that the scope of the story must be stretched to include the computer. Indeed, many books assume that the most exciting part of the story – the foreshadowing! the climax! the happy ending! — must be the bit about the dawn of the computer or the arrival of the Internet, and as such these books tend to rush through what happened prior to that. Anything that occurred before the “digital classroom” is treated simply a precursor to the computer, only interesting or relevant insofar as it points towards the superiority of the computer. One is meant to feel some narrative sense of relief, no doubt, that the computer finally came along. “Progress.”

That is certainly how the teaching machines of the mid-twentieth century – pre-digital machines — are often depicted. They’re written about as failures – commercial failures, if nothing else. All credit is given to the promise of computer, which was looming on the horizon according to this version of events, rather than any other factors — technological or otherwise — for squashing the idea and preventing the widespread adoption of teaching machines.

But teaching machines and the pedagogy that accompanied the devices, “programmed instruction,” weren’t just a blip. The ideas behind these developments – breaking lessons down into small, “bite-sized” content for instruction and assessment, for example, along with the insistence that this would foster “individualization” in education by allowing students to move forward and master concepts at their own pace – were picked up by textbook publishers. They were picked up by the early advocates for computer-based instruction. Even without long-term commercial success for the teaching machine-makers, their ideas about programmed instruction have become “hard-coded,” if you will, into all sorts of educational technologies and pedagogical practices.

So, I decided to rethink my book (ignoring a lot of advice and admonitions, I confess). Instead of writing a narrative that, inadvertently or not, positioned the educational psychology of the 1950s and 1960s as merely a prelude to the educational computing of the 1970s and 1980s, I’m focusing exclusively on those earlier decades.

By moving more slowly through this time period, I avoid another major problem with how the history of ed-tech frequently gets told: teleology – the story that computers are inevitable – is also a framework that grants agency to technology at the expense of any other social, economic, or political issues. It is as though the history of education technology, to borrow from Wired Magazine founder Kevin Kelly is necessarily “what technology wants.” The success or failure of a technology is because of the technology, not because of price or policy or other priorities.

By focusing on teaching machines – on those pre-digital devices designed to automate instruction – my book moves more slowly through the 1950s and 1960s, examining events beyond the machines themselves. I want people to remember that the story of ed-tech isn’t simply a story of tech, and the story teaching machines isn’t simply a story of machines. It isn’t simply a story of B. F. Skinner, the name most closely associated with the teaching machines’ development. It’s much more than that. It’s a story of the twentieth century faith in science and technology and the post-War fascination with gadgetry. It’s the story of automation, standardization, and personalization. It’s a story of businesses’ long-running interest in (and skepticism about) selling products to schools. It’s the story of the rise of educational psychology as a field and the field’s encouragement of psycho-technologies. It’s the story of changing expectations of what the school curriculum should look like and how it should be designed and delivered. It’s the story of how the education system has transformed itself as enrollments grew through the twentieth century and expectations of who schools should serve – some students, all students, business interests, or national defense, for example – changed.

The teleology of education technology – a story that grants agency and ascendancy to the machine itself — strips away so much of this context. And I wonder if one of the reasons that education technology is not viewed as having a deep and rich intellectual tradition is because that tradition and that history have been brushed aside in order to link together a series of press releases and product announcements, promising that the future of education will be necessarily computerized.

Written by Audrey Watters, Education writer at Hack Education, independent scholar and author and keynote speaker at OEB Global 2019.

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