Information Age Education
   Issue Number 145
September, 2014   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, four free books based on the newsletters are available: Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

Education for Students' Futures
Part 14: The Future of Teaching Machines

David Moursund
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

Historically, the elementary school has been totally labor-intensive. Tomorrow's elementary school will be heavily capital-intensive. (Peter Drucker; Austrian writer and management consultant, and self-described social ecologist; 1909–2005.)

Nothing could be more absurd than an experiment in which computers are placed in a classroom where nothing else is changed. (Seymour Papert; South African/American mathematician, computer scientist, and educator; 1928–.)


Written materials—along with knowledge and skills in reading and writing—were the first general purpose teaching machines. What a great technological breakthrough! Teach students the rudiments of reading and writing, and then provide them with books and writing implements. The book, as a teaching machine, could both help students gain a steadily increasing level of literacy and could also help in gaining knowledge and skills in any area that could be represented in written form. Moreover, writing is a powerful aid to the human brain in both communication and problem solving.

The advent of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) over the past 60 years has made possible the development of teaching machines that include all of the capabilities of book-based reading-assisted instruction and writing-assisted problem solving and communication, and also greatly extend these capabilities.

Isaac Asimov’s Vision of a Teaching Machine

Science fiction writers have long considered the possibility of teaching machines that were better than books. Isaac Asimov, one of the leading science fiction writers of the 20th century, addressed this topic in a 1976 short story, The New Teachers.  In his essay of the future, each student had access to a teaching machine that included access to a global library. Quoting from the essay:

We can reasonably hope that the teaching machine will be sufficiently intricate and flexible to be capable of modifying its own program (that is, “learning”) as a result of the student’s input.

In other words, the student will ask questions, answer questions, make statements, offer opinions, and from all of this, the machine will be able to gauge the student well enough to adjust the speed and intensity of its course of instruction and, what’s more, shift it in the direction of the student interest displayed.


All teaching machines would be plugged into [a] planetary library and each could then have at its disposal any book, periodical, document, recording, or videocassette encoded there. [Bold added for emphasis.]


Our technological progress during the 38 years since 1976, now allows us to build teaching machines that surpass Asimov’s fictional futuristic teaching machine.

Historical Background

Beginning in the late 1950s, the United States and Canada built an “early warning” system of radar and computers that could detect and report on missiles being launched over the North Pole toward their countries. Operators viewed a computerized TV display screen and could act on the data they were receiving. The same display screen could show simulated (previously recorded or computer generated) data. So, system operators could be trained/educated using quite authentic simulations. The integration of a problem-solving tool with a teaching tool was a huge breakthrough in teaching machines.

In 1960 the first PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) system became operational on a computer at the University of Illinois. Like any well-conceived teaching machine project, PLATO’s capabilities grew over time as better hardware became available, as data was gathered from users, as research progresses occurred in theories of teaching and learning, and as the content developers and programmers became more adapt at their tasks.

One of great powers of teaching machines is that they can gather data as they interact with students. As Asimov forecast, this data can be used to individualize instruction. In addition, it can be used in research into the areas of teaching and learning.

The results of this research can be incorporated into the software of teaching machines. Compare this easy upgrade of the machine’s capabilities to the task of  “upgrading” hundreds of thousands of human teachers. This ease of updating teaching machines is one reason they will gradually play a larger and larger role in lifelong informal and formal education.

My “Near Future” Teaching Machine

Of course, my teaching machine will be small and portable. It will have a high-resolution color display touch screen, long battery life, fast connectivity to the Internet, voice input, voice output, and automatic translation among languages from both text and voice. Using its built-in intelligence, compute power, and connectivity, it will be able to solve or help greatly in solving a huge range of problems of the types that people encounter in school, in their everyday lives, and on the job. This teaching machine will be aware of its user’s location, will act as a GPS, and will access and process the visual and sound information that its user is receiving from both the physical and electronic environments. It will always be available, and it will facilitate “just in time” learning.

Here are some details elaborating the previous paragraph.
  1. You are probably familiar with a computer named Big Blue that defeated the reining world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, and a computer named Watson that defeated two of the best human players of the TV game Jeopardy in 2011. IBM’s work with its computer system named Watson captures the flavor of progress in using powerful computers to help solve a wide range of human problems in healthcare, research, and a number of other areas.

    My “near future” teaching machine not only provides students with ready access to such systems but also integrates use of such systems into the everyday curriculum. See my IAE-pedia article Two Brains are Better Than One.

  2. Here is a recent personal story. I had a question about some details of Piaget’s four-stages of human cognitive development, and I was unable to find an answer via an hour of Web searches. So I sent my question to a Piaget distribution list. A couple of the responses cited references in Spanish and French. Another then noted that he was unable to find an English translation of the French citation that he felt contains an answer. That led to a response from another person who said roughly, “That’s not a problem. Simply copy the French text into the free Google Translate system on the Web.”

    We already have relatively good voice input systems that translate speech to text. We have good voice output systems that translate text into voice. The combination of these capabilities with language translation capabilities means that students throughout the world will be able to easily communicate orally and by text with each other.

  3. We know a considerable amount about individual differences among learners, the value of individualization of instruction, the value of human tutors, and the value of computer tutors.  My teaching machine will respectfully accommodate our understanding that there are many aspects of teaching and learning in which human teachers and student-human interactions are both absolutely necessary, and are much more effective, than our current computer teaching machines.

    However, it will also reflect that there are already many things that a teaching machine can do better than human teachers, and there are many things that a human teacher plus a computer teaching machine working together can do better than either working alone. A student’s computer teaching machine will gradually learn which of these three approaches works best in a particular learning area for a student it is serving.

  4. We know that there are considerable differences in beliefs and understandings among people of different nationalities, cultures, and religions. Many years ago, one of my students exposed me to the idea of the imperialism of one country inflicting its educational system and curriculum content on another country. This might be acceptable to both countries in the discipline of math, but quite unacceptable in global and national history, politics, and in many other disciplines. For example, some of the curriculum content of the fine and performing arts that is broadly accepted in many areas of the world may not be at all acceptable in other areas. Add to this the need for students to learn to communicate in their native language and culture, and that inherent to a language is a great deal of culture and history.

    This means that the teaching machine needs to have a great deal of content and teaching methodology that is specific to the huge number of different sects living throughout the world. In education, one size does not fit all at the individual student level, the family level, and larger groupings. The document List of Wikipedias presents information about how the Wikipedia is currently addressing this problem.

  5. The first Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were developed in 2011. By making use of data about the performance of all students enrolled in such a course, we are gradually improving MOOCs. My forecast is that eventually such courses will have the characteristics of today’s Highly-interactive Intelligent Computer-assisted Learning (HIICAL) courses. My teaching machine will provide students throughout the world with free access to a huge number of HIICAL courses they learn from at a time and place of their choosing.

  6. Some of our best success stories with teaching machines involve developing and using computer simulations. A good teaching/learning simulation engages a student in actually solving problems and accomplishing tasks. The simulated versions of the problems and tasks need to be close enough (authentic enough) to the “real thing” that there is very easy transfer from the learning to the use of the learning. We are making good progress toward creating Star Trek’s Holodeck simulations.  Simulations will be an important facility provided by my teaching machine.

  7. My teaching machine will be quite portable, thus largely obviating the need for students to have individual walking/talking robots. When helpful to students, the teaching machine will be wearable technology and include a future version of Google Glass. Thus, for example, a student will be able to glance at a person and the computer system will display the person’s name and identification information via the glasses. (Is the person is someone I have met before, I want my teaching machine to retrieve information about previous meetings and conversations.) Similarly, students will be able to quickly retrieve information about almost anything (including people) they see, hear, or think about.

Final Remarks

The design, production, and distribution of teaching machines needs to take into consideration both the educational needs of today’s students and the changing educational needs of future students. We humans now have the knowledge, skills, and production capabilities to provide every person on earth with a quite good teaching machine. Once this approach to education is widely accepted, the capabilities of the teaching machines will increase rapidly as more and more materials are developed to facilitate this type of aid to teaching, learning, communication, and problem solving.

Human teachers and teaching machines working together can make education a lifelong endeavor and provide all people with an education that rivals the best education that currently is available to only a limited number of students.

We can overcome the technological and manufacturing challenges. But, can we overcome the acceptance, distribution, and other human challenges? I wish each of you a long life so that you can participate in and witness the outcomes of this endeavor.

Asimov, I. (1976). The new teachers. In Robot visions. London: Orion.

Kaku, M. (2014). The future of the mind. New York: Random House.

Author

David Moursund earned his doctorate in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A few highlights of his professional career include founding the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology. He was a major professor or co-major professor of 82 doctoral students. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops.

In 2007, he founded Information Age Education (IAE), a non-profit company dedicated to improving teaching and learning by people of all ages throughout the world. See http://iae-pedia.org/Main_Page#IAE_in_a_Nutshell.

Reader Comments

We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and discussions pertaining to this newsletter. To use Disqus, please click the Login link below and sign in. If you have questions about how to use Disqus, please refer to this help page.


Readers may also send comments via email directly to moursund@uoregon.edu and bobsyl@uoregon.edu.

About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at http://iae-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://i-a-e.org/, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading. See all back issues of the Blog at http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Blog and all back issues of the Newsletter at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.