Using Computers for Teaching, 1967 to 2013

A girl at Brentwood Elementary in Palo Alto using a "light-pen" to complete learning exercises in school in 1967.

A girl at Brentwood Elementary in Palo Alto using a “light-pen” to complete learning exercises in school in 1967.

Stanford professors Pat Suppes and Dick Atkinson once hoped that their computer-enhanced teaching systems could help elementary school students learn better — they developed curricula and computer exercises that would help students with their reading and math skills. An article about this computerized learning experiment describes the fundamental basis for this experiment’s pedagogy as follows:

A student, whatever his supply of intelligence may be, seems to learn best when his lessons are tailored to his own pace of learning.

Although this sounds familiar to us as educators facing a new horizon of educational technologies today, this article is from a 1967 issue of Life magazine. I discovered this article, “The Computer as a Tutor,” while doing dissertation research on popular representations on computers in the 1960s, and I couldn’t help but be surprised at both how much, and how little has changed in our discussions about technology in the classroom.

A Computerized Teaching Experiment

This is an image from the Life magazine article "The Computer as a Tutor." The original caption reads, "The sight of a small pupil ornamented like a pilot is rare, but may be common someday."

This is an image from the Life magazine article “The Computer as a Tutor.” The original caption reads, “The sight of a small pupil ornamented like a pilot is rare, but may be common someday.”

The American public school system underwent many changes in the 1960s, spurred by the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, by the Soviet Union in 1957.  U.S. policymakers feared that Americans, and American children, were behind their Soviet counterparts education-wise, and that this deficit would put the country at a disadvantage when it came to competing with the Soviet Union as an industrial and economic global power. One of the ways that the U.S. sought to catch up with the U.S.S.R. was through improving the American public school system, especially education in science and math. In 1967, then, educational experiments abounded (do you remember “new math”?), including the experiment with computers featured in Life magazine.

The Life article, from the January 27, 1967 issue, focuses on how institutions from elementary schools to graduate schools had been using computers for teaching and learning. (Remember that computers in the 1960s are a relatively new venture — the first modern computers were code-breakers during WWII, and it’s in the 1950s and 1960s that computers started to become part of non-military industries and government institutions.) One of the main computer learning experiments that the Life article focuses on is one at Brentwood Elementary School in East Palo Alto, CA (today an Edison School).

In this particular high-tech classroom at Brentwood, 18 computers provided by IBM lead children in exercises meant to help them learn reading and math skills. “Guided by the computer,” the article says, “every child moved at his own pace” through their lessons. When a student makes an error, the computer instantly recognizes this and gives the student additional exercises to help the student learn how to do what they’d missed. This sounds a lot like the kinds of assessments that MOOC courses use, where the computer can give instant feedback based on the kind of wrong answers a student might give.

The Instructor Teaches Meaning, Not Things

But what about the role of the teacher in this scenario?  This too, is probably familiar territory for those of you who have been following the latest on blended learning and the flipped classroom. The computer, one expert from the article says, can teach things, while the human teacher will teach meaning.  The teacher also has to develop more technological skills in order to instruct students who are using computers. “More broadly,” the article says, “the teacher becomes a trouble shooter, both intellectual and mechanical.” The teacher needs technical skills as well as teaching skills in order for this system to work, but the article doesn’t discuss the costs and effort that would need to be involved in training teachers.

In our technological day and age in 2013, more and more as educators we are expected to have technical skills that an earlier generation of teachers did not. The more we want to use the kinds of technological tools available, the more we need to know about how to use those tools ourselves, even if it is our students who will be asked to use them.  For the students and teachers at Brentwood in the 1960s, it was very much the case that the teachers would need to develop new skills — not to mention the students themselves. I know that we don’t often like to think of ourselves as technological troubleshooters, but it’s something that we have to figure out if we want to keep pace with the changes going on in higher education with technology today.

Reaching for a “Universal” Student with Technology

A series of images from the article showing children of different ethnic backgrounds learning via the computer.

A series of images from the article showing children of different ethnic backgrounds learning via the computer.

One of the things I found most fascinating about this article was the images, and the representation of the students themselves, as they are a group of ethnically diverse children. Showing people of color in Life is unusual — in 1967, the people gracing the pages of this magazine were white much more often than not. The Brentwood classroom experiment targeted a school that had students who tended to perform below the national average, and they also tended to be students of color from lower-income families.

Until around 1990, the population of East Palo Alto, where Brentwood Elementary is located, was predominantly African American due to redlining (a form of institutionalized racism and classism that prevents people of color and poorer folks from accessing services in a wealthier area, i.e. Palo Alto proper). According to Life, the population of East Palo Alto was 85% African American at the time and, “too many of the school children are one or two years behind the norm in elementary reading.” Neighboring city Palo Alto, of course, is the home of Stanford University, where the professors conducting the learning experiment from, and it is a center for MOOC-related activities (Coursera co-founders Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller are/were computer science professors from Stanford).  The choice for Stanford professors to do educational research with computers at Brentwood in East Palo Alto was for specific reasons — helping students that are behind due to a lack of familial and community resources “catch up” to the national average. I find “experimenting” with the educations of lower-income students and students of color more than a bit problematic.

Of course, I don’t think that it’s a bad thing to want to improve all students’ education, but I find that using a technology itself as the solution to deeper problems of institutionalized poverty and racism is not the answer. We all use technology as a tool, but it is only that: a tool that can provide the means to an end, but the tools in and of themselves are not solutions. Last week when I read about the Los Angeles County School District’s announcement to partner with Apple to provide iPads to 655,000 students, I can’t help but think of the Brentwood computer experiment. Does giving students access to specialized consumable (and largely disposable) electronic devices help them learn? Will access to those devices help disadvantaged students “catch up” to their wealthier counterparts? I’m not so sure.

Ultimately, this article revealed more questions that I have about educational technology policies than anything. Although it is Life magazine, and therefore not really an article meant for “serious” reading, it can tell us a lot about our attitudes about technology and education even in 2013.

About Kim Mann

Kim Mann is the editor and a writer for the Academic Technology Blog. She earned her BA in English from the University of Minnesota in 2003 and her MA in American Studies from William & Mary in 2009, and her PhD in American Studies at the College in 2014. Her research is on technology, the interface, and the body in mid-twentieth century science fiction.