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The Early History of Edtech

A new book covers the pre–digital era history of educational technology, including the work of B. F. Skinner, who, as this excerpt shows, downplayed the work of the only woman on his team.

October 11, 2021
Portrait of B. F. Skinner at home
Science History Images / Alamy
B. F. Skinner, behaviorist and edtech pioneer

Harvard had given B. F. Skinner a large room in the Batchelder House on campus in 1954 where he and his team of “bright young behaviorists”—a group that initially included Lloyd Homme, Susan Meyer (Markle), Douglas Porter, Irving Saltzman, Matthew Israel, and Wells Hively—had started work on designing their new teaching machines as well as “programs,” the materials that would accompany them.

“We had, of course, never seen an instructional program,” Skinner admitted. “How much of a subject should it cover? How much in a single session? How much in each ‘frame’ (as we began to call each presentation)? If frames were to reappear for review in later parts of a program, how should they be distributed? How much could we assume students already knew, and where were we to find students who were at the right point to a test a program?”

These questions were central to the development of this new instructional technology—indeed, to the very idea that there was such a thing as a scientific practice of instructional design.

By the end of the year, Skinner and his teaching machine group had developed short programs in “kinematics, trigonometry, coordinate systems, basic French words and material to teach French dictation, phonetic notion, vocabulary and rudimentary grammar, as well as single demonstration disks in geography, anatomy, and poetry.” But Skinner recognized that, despite having four “programmers” and two graduate students on his staff, he could not afford to hire people with enough expertise in these and other fields to develop longer or more elaborate programs—the kind, say, that could be used to teach an entire college-level course.

So, Skinner decided that he would serve as the “content expert.” He would use teaching machines for his own class, Natural Sciences 114, a general education course in which he taught behaviorism. He and his team would write a teaching machine program based on his 1953 book Science and Human Behavior. Teaching machines for the course were installed in a “self-instruction room” in the basement of Sever Hall.

The results of this experiment with teaching machines were encouraging, Skinner and his team declared, and students “reported rather favorable impressions of the machine work,” with 62 percent of those students who used the devices indicating that programmed instruction made the coursework easier to understand. Enrollment for Natural Sciences 114 jumped 70 percent in one year, an increase that Skinner chalked up to the popularity of the teaching machines.

Particularly significant to this early work in Skinner’s lab was Susan Meyer (Markle), who’d been hired to write the arithmetic program for the IBM machine. Meyer Markle’s role was often minimized, even by Skinner, who remarked in his autobiography that “the secretarial role... fell to her according to the standard of the time as the only woman in the group.”

In a letter Meyer Markle wrote to Skinner decades later, she talked about how these sorts of assumptions had served to diminish her stature in the field she’d helped found, and she noted that, despite being the first to publish a dissertation on programmed instruction, another man in the field, James Evans, “laid claim to being the first, until, as sexism went down the drain, he asked the date of mine.” She was one of the only members of Skinner’s group at Harvard who was regularly outside the lab and “in the field,” working directly with schools to write programs, to implement their teaching machine projects, and to assess their efficacy.

While Skinner might have introduced the idea of programmed instruction to the public, Meyer Markle helped establish many of its conventions—prompting, fading, and so on. She ran numerous workshops with teachers in order to create and refine teaching machine materials. She also published extensively on the ideas of programming and instructional design, including the books A Programed Primer on Programing (1961) and Good Frames and Bad: A Grammar of Frame Writing (1964). (Meyer Markle insisted that “programmed instruction” have only one “m.”)

Programmed instruction was poised to transform education from an art to a science, Meyer Markle asserted. It was not an entirely new argument; advocates for standardized testing had long contended that the precision of new academic measurements would do the same. But programmed instruction was not merely assessment that occurred at the end of the lesson to gauge student learning; it was the entire lesson itself.

The program “is the controlled environment in which learning is to take place,” Meyer Markle wrote. “Every step that the student is to go through is there, on paper and on tape. The teacher-programer knows exactly what is happening to the student.” That is, even when the programmer was not present, so well-engineered—ideally, of course—was the program, so controlled was the learning environment, that the student’s responses could be predicted and his errors understood.

The program, Meyer Markle argued, “gives information to the student and gets from his responses at each step indicating that he has understood this information. If he does not answer questions correctly, the teacher knows that something has gone wrong in the communication process. On the basis of what went wrong, a change in the controlled environment can be made. The new conditions are then tested for their effect on students.”

When properly constructed and implemented then, programmed instruction would require perpetual revisions to the programming materials—certainly something that would create more work, not less (although work for the engineer, not necessarily for the educator). “The result is an applied science of textbook writing, in which the texts are tested sentence by sentence by the students for whom they are designed. The applied scientists, the programers, vary and revise and reshape the program until it produces the designed result—learning.”

Programmed instruction was individualized instruction. Meyer Markle likened it to the work of a tutor, “a master of intellectual teasing” who adjusts the lesson to her student’s needs but also challenges the student to keep moving forward. If the tutorial relationship was the ideal—something that many educators, often invoking the ancient Greeks, seemed to believe—then programmed instruction sought to become the technological version of this: “Each student was now to have his own private tutor, encased in a small box,” Meyer Markle wrote.

Despite Meyer Markle’s role in developing some of the core concepts of “programing” and her presence from the outset in Skinner’s teaching machine group, she was rarely profiled by the press or featured in histories of teaching machines, except when mentioned as a graduate student tasked with working with his IBM machine. Perhaps that’s because her work was with the “software” and with teachers and students, not with “hardware” and not with industry. (Although she did develop an arithmetic program for IBM, recall that Skinner retained the rights to her work.) Or perhaps that’s because the story of education technology tends to prioritize men and their machines.

Excerpted from Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning by Audrey Watters. Reprinted with Permission from the MIT PRESS. Copyright 2021.

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