Audrey Watters on the Early Momentum of Edtech [video]

min read

John O'Brien, EDUCAUSE President and CEO, talks with Audrey Watters, author of the new book "Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning".

To hear the full conversation, listen to the podcast "Audrey Watters on the History of Personalized Learning"

View Transcript

Audrey Watters
Hack Education

John O'Brien
President & CEO

John O'Brien: So welcome to another EDUCAUSE Community Conversation. I'm excited to be here today with Audrey Watters, whose new book is Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning. I love the book. I'm a fan of your work. I think your voice is so important. I'm curious, we all have our stories before the stories, but what's your story with educational technology?

Audrey Watters: Oh, this is such a great question and thank you so much for having me on your show, John. So it's really hard to sort of pinpoint one particular moment for me. I mean, I have a very... I don't know. My whole educational history is a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I'm from Wyoming, but my mom is British and when I was in fourth grade, for example, she decided that it would be fun for me if I went to live with my aunt and uncle in England for part of the year, and I went to school there and I went to high school, ended up being sent away to school in England in high school. So I've had a lot of different education experiences in general and I think that even before we talk about, think about technology.

Audrey Watters: I think that that has helped me see the ways in which education is something that is really connected to society and culture, and that it's not natural, so to speak. It's organized in different ways with different goals and different practices, and so really my whole educational history has sort of been this observer about what we do when we do this thing called school and I'm a "certain age." So I suppose the personal computer was around when I was a kid, but I have to say it really, our schools in Wyoming, we didn't have a lot of opportunities to use computers. I was very fortunate that my grandfather decided when the Apple 2E came out.

Audrey Watters: That he was going to invest in my brother and my future and got a computer for us at home, but really edtech wasn't something I started to think about until graduate school interestingly enough, when in the late nineties at the University of Oregon, we were received word on high that we needed to start putting all of our course material into this new software that the school had adopted called Blackboard, and so really my first experiences teaching college as a grad student were entwined with this mandate to use a particular piece of edtech, and so I've been thinking about the ways in which again, these practices have evolved, these technologies evolved for a very long time, long before I sort of turned my focus to edtech.

John O'Brien: I have two thoughts while you were talking, one is having a very clear recollection in the '90, which is the decade I think we're referring to here, being in a meeting room and at that time, I had what I still think was the dream job. I was half-time teaching English and half-time being an evangelist for edtech at that sort of breathless time where telling a faculty member you could use Excel for your gradebook and it will make everything... You mean I can do that? It was kind of a time, but I also remember being in a meeting room where a bunch of people kept saying the phrase, "We need to throw up more courses on the web," and then nobody, and I kept looking around to see if anybody caught the irony of that and it wasn't a time for catching irony, I think that decade.

Audrey Watters: I think so. Yeah. That moment of enthusiasm is so interesting because I mean, another job I had at the time was I worked at the University of Oregon. They had a conference management department that did continuing ed and they ran conferences, mostly education conferences, and there was this little conference, a little national conference, national education computing conference and it was pretty small, a couple of thousand people went every year, but in '97, they held it in Seattle and the keynote speaker was this fellow, Bill Gates.

Audrey Watters: And suddenly it went from a very small conference to like 7 or 8,000 people showed up, and so I just remember that all-of-a-sudden moment in the late nineties, it felt like people were felt compelled to sort of get on board with this edtech thing. Even though I think teachers, especially innovative teachers had been using it for decades really, that it really felt that there was this sense that wow, we all have to get on board.