Audrey Watters on the History of Personalized Learning [podcast]

min read
Community Conversations | Season 2, Episode 3

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

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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.

John O'Brien: I'm thinking that is kind of one of the tensions in the book and in your voice before and hopefully after the book is that teachers, faculty, discovering this on their own and making it their own personal passion is different from the sort of mandate, which is what you started talking about, and you said you're of a "certain age." Me too, and I'm also thinking that there's a certain skepticism that comes from being the generation that saw that, remember land darts, the lawn game with the point on it that you would throw across the... Yeah. So it was a time when it seems like you could sell anything, right? What could possibly go wrong?

Audrey Watters: Yeah. Although I would say, I mean more recently, I think that this sort of ties into my skepticism about what we hear about edtech is it was around 2010 when I started Hack Education and my website and I could see this sort of renewed interest and this renewed fervor among the Silicon Valley crowd who have amnesia and don't remember that just a decade before, they had gone through a similar thing in the dotcom era, but this really renewed interest that edtech was going to save us and you could see a lot of the lawn darts being developed by the startups who were certain that what they were developing wasn't a toy that was going to put someone's eye out, but it was a toy, a tool, that was going to revolutionize education. Yeah.

John O'Brien: So I think it's on your website when I first sort of discovered you, I think you referred to yourself as an edtech Cassandra. Am I remembering that right?

Audrey Watters: Yes.

John O'Brien: I was actually wondering how literally you take that. The Cassandra myth is that she... What happens? She irritates the gods and then she can see the future, but nobody believes her.

Audrey Watters: Nobody believes her. Yeah. I mean, I would say that my formal academic background is in folklore. I have a master's degree in folklore and so I didn't choose the name Cassandra because Cassandra doesn't end up well, if you will.

John O'Brien: That's where I was going with it.

Audrey Watters: The story for Cassandra isn't so great. I mean, it's not just that she was ignored, but yeah. Yeah. I mean, I have felt as though I have spent at least the past decade, if not longer, saying maybe we should ask some questions. This doesn't seem like a good idea. Please do not bring this wooden horse onto campus if you will, and yet things seem to sort of move forward and people do say, oh, there's Audrey again. When Michael Horn reviewed Teaching Machines he sort of made this comment, like Audrey's positioned herself as someone who's snarky and I'm like, snarky? Cassandra wasn't snarky. Cassandra was saying, holy crap, we have to think about this before we... Please don't, kind of thing. Yeah.

John O'Brien: She wasn't snarky. She was right, but you're right. It doesn't end well, but I see you as sort of a counterbalance to all the other stories. It must be a little exhausting though, if it feels like whack-a-mole for you.

Audrey Watters: Frankly, it is really exhausting and I think that for a lot of reasons, partially the book coming out, but for a lot of other personal reasons and pandemic reasons, I have sort of taken this year of hiatus and I haven't been writing on the blog. I haven't been paying attention to edtech, but there's that voice inside my head that's like, it's okay because I promise you, the things that you wrote about in 2014 are exactly the same things and you could sort of pull up a story that you've already written cautioning about surveillance, or data security, or the future is AI, or you name it and those are the same stories that the marketing wheel is still churning those out. So I feel okay with taking a break from edtech, because it is exhausting and to be repetitive, as any parent knows, is really, really tiring.

John O'Brien: Well, the thing about the book that's so overwhelming is just, you take one very narrow example and do all this massive research, and this is just one story and there's so many others and I see this as an exemplar, that this is you go into Skinner for example, in so much detail, but I see your book as an antidote to hype, that hype is here and then Audrey's here and you can't understand one without the other.

Audrey Watters: That's great. I mean, it's funny writing the book, I really wanted to write... I mean, this is the scholar in me... I wanted to write a scholarly book. I wanted to write a serious book, but there was the part of me that really had to hold back because it almost at the end of every paragraph or section or chapter, I wanted to sort of say, and this is exactly what we're dealing with today. Someone like myself who spends a lot of time thinking about the history of education and of edtech and of computing, that it was really striking to me how many of the conversations that were happening in the 1920s and the 1950s and '60s are absolutely echoes of the things that we hear today and this fantasy, this really sort of imaginary, about the future of education being this grand technological project. As much as we like to think about sci-fi and this stuff as being futuristic and exciting and new, I mean, a lot of these stories that we hear are a century old and I think that's shocking in some ways, but I think it's also indicative of the way in which our imagination is not as expansive and the kinds of promises of innovation that a lot of, I think the edtech entrepreneurs really want to sell and it has a lot of appeal to, I think, American culture, but specifically, I think to administrators, school administrators, to businesspeople, to politicians, these stories are actually not that innovative and they actually have a much, much longer interesting history, but a much longer history to them.

John O'Brien: But as you note sort of despairingly, they're great stories. I mean, you write in the book a lot about the comm video, which seems to irritate you with every viewing in a different way, but you know what I mean? You can say that is a selective history. It's wrong in this area as it's... When you say all that in the book, but there's no getting around, it's a great story.

Audrey Watters: It's a great story and it's a powerful story and I think a lot about... I mean, it's interesting because one of the things that inspired me to write this book was actually a weekend that I spent, was invited with some other people that spent with Sebastian Thrun in the sort of height of the craze late 2012. He gathered a bunch of us down in Palo Alto to sort of talk about the future of education and it was so fascinating listening to him and listening to his own story about how he came to start thinking about at the time, he's onto new things now, but at the time, why he wanted to focus on education, why he wanted to focus on online education and he was inspired by the TED Talk that Sal Khan had given and Thrun was at the same TED.

Audrey Watters: Thrun gave his talk at that TED on the self-driving car that he'd been working on, but he saw that talk. I think Sal Khan's TED Talk is one of the most popular ones, and again, it's the story of all of us, suddenly, now we have this capability to personalize education. No one's ever thought about this before. No one's really ever thought about online education before, but those sort of TED Talks are a particular genre I think that's really powerful and I could see in the story that B. F. Skinner in particular told about going to his daughter's classroom for the first time and seeing the teacher, observing the classroom, and then deciding to do something about it and invent a teaching machine.

Audrey Watters: I could see the sort of TED Talk version in his little anecdote. It's a very, it's an anecdote he often told. It's an anecdote that gets repeated a lot in the histories of edtech and you can sort of see the language. We get so motivated by these really simple, easy stories that they're very compelling and they seem to solve what is, of course, a really complicated, complex problem. Education isn't something that you can silver bullet, and yet we sure love it when someone's got a 10-minute story that sounds like it will.

John O'Brien: Or Thomas Edison talking about films are going to change the class where in 10 years, higher ed or the teaching will be unrecognizable.

Audrey Watters: Yeah. I mean, and I think that's the interesting piece too and that when we talk about tech, we don't often, for those of us who are in education or in education technology, we talk about the tech, but we don't often talk about the business of the tech and one of the things I think that is so interesting about Edison is of course, Edison made this prediction and of course, Sebastian Thrun predicted that universities will go away, but Udacity will survive. Of course, Sebastian Thrun predicts that we will all use self-driving cars.

Audrey Watters: It's not just that they're saying this technology is magnificent, but they're literally invested as business people in the future looking a certain way, and Edison was literally invested in the future of teaching being film. It wasn't just film is really amazing and compelling and you can introduce ideas and people and voices into the classroom in new ways. He was like ka-ching, as EdSurge likes to say, this should be the future because I'm invested in it.

John O'Brien: After talking to you, I'm realizing another thing we have in common is just this interest in storytelling and for me, I suppose we both have a similar academic background in that way, but funny time right now. I think we've been hearing about the Elizabeth Holmes trial and then I was literally reading an article about that while I got another article from somebody about Oregon Trail turned 50 yesterday, and just thinking there's the technologies that come and go and have a big noise and then nobody hears about them.

John O'Brien: And then there's these amazing technology innovations back 50 years ago that I guess I'm not sure where I'm going with this other than to say your voice is so important and so powerful in sort of unveiling a bigger story that is being told. Have you a version of edtech where you point to a story and say, that's got it right? Instead of the cautionary, that's not right, the part that I think would be exhausting, the whack-a-mole part, as opposed to saying, and/or here's an education technology that did everything right. Is that a story you've told and I've just missed?

Audrey Watters: I mean, I think that to me out there, there are really two, that I wish there were more than two, but there are two that I think about. One is Desmos, which I think people at K through 12 are probably more familiar with than in higher ed. Desmos is a free online graphing calculator and the graphing calculator, this insistence that's connected to standardized testing, that every student in high school has to purchase a hundred dollar graphing calculator in order to be able to meet the requirements of certain standardized tests is this market that Texas Instruments in particular has really capitalized off of long after the graphing calculator seems to be a thing that we need to ask students to shell out money for. So in some ways, Desmos, because it's free and online, it helps to questions about why are certain technologies, why are we compelled to use and buy certain technologies? Why the graphing calculator? Why the Texas Instruments graphing calculator, and the answer isn't because it's the most amazing graphing calculator on the market. That's never the answer. The answer is always about politics and what are the relationships, the business relationships that mandate it, and how do the technologies then shape our practices and the kinds of things that teachers have to teach because that's the way the technology works, or the ways in which teachers have to teach because that's how the technology works.

Audrey Watters: I like Desmos because the priority of Desmos is also that the founder loves math. His goal isn't we're going to have students do much better on standardized tests. His goal is that he wants students to have a different understanding of math that's more playful. There are ways in which you can, and students do, use Desmos to draw cartoons. So they're using mathematical formulas, stuff that as a humanities person, I don't understand, but using mathematical formulas to draw cartoons and play with math in a way that's, I think, outside how math is often taught and thought about and used by students, and I think that's really special.

Audrey Watters: The other story, which is more higher ed, I think, is the work of Domain of One's Own that started at the University of Mary Washington, and to me, that's really the crucial piece of technology that I wish more faculty and students would adopt is everybody having their own domain—universities supporting that. And so that students have a place to showcase their scholarship and you can see it with the pandemic and this panic that we've had, this sort of moral panic about cheating and this need now to adopt these really invasive surveillance technologies in order to proctor exams. Instead, I would love to, instead of seeing students as these potential fraudsters, see students as scholars in training and that we can help them not just put their essays that they've written for a class online, but really think of themselves as contributing to the web, the original vision of the web, which was a scholarly exchange.

Audrey Watters: I mean, I feel myself as someone who, not affiliated with an academic institution, has really managed to sort of make a career with my scholarship through posting on my website, and I feel that's something I wish and I would like to see more of is that adoption of domains and helping students think through digital citizenship, their online identity. We can fill in lots of other blanks around it, but I think it's a really powerful way of using technology that can be transformative and is very different than my old nemesis, the learning management system.

John O'Brien: One of the things that I love about the book is it would be easy to do your own version of telling a selective story and just focus on the missteps you see within Skinner's approach, but I think you really do a good job of capturing that his heart was in the right place, that he really wanted to do what he thought was the right thing.

Audrey Watters: To me, that's one of the really interesting pieces. I mean, I tried really hard not to make Skinner into the villain. I think he could have so easily been and when I think about behaviorism, I do think of some of this ends up being more like villain-y, but the science, the best science, and we can use "best" loosely here in terms of behaviorism being the best science, but the best science doesn't win and that's, I think, the case throughout all of edtech. You can see a lot of folks do like to say that X, Y or Z study has proven or demonstrated, and our stuff works because, but it's not the science that is the thing that makes edtech get adopted. It's not proof, again, we'll use that loosely, that it works and I think that a lot of people who are doing research around these things.

Audrey Watters: That's not the piece that gets picked up and adopted necessarily. I think that's the challenge of science becoming applied science, becoming a product that makes it to market, but the science, Skinner really wanted the science. Skinner was really, and Sydney Pressey, who was another education psychologist that developed a teaching machine, they were committed to the science, that committed to the science of behaviorism, of education psychology. They wanted this to work in a particular way and they had a very specific vision of what that looked like, and the manufacturing companies did not care. That was not the priority. The priority of a company is to make money.

Audrey Watters: And so Skinner didn't win. Other companies, I think that were less gripped by the need to be right, Skinner was definitely had a very strong vision. A lot of other ed teaching machine companies were much more successful. Skinner wasn't successful at all in getting his machine to market. I get a lot of emails from people who notice that their water heater is made by Rheem Manufacturing, which was the company that Skinner worked with in order to try to get his teaching machine made, but that's what we would know Rheem Manufacturing for is our water heater. It's not a name that we typically associate with a contribution to edtech.

John O'Brien: One of the other things I enjoy in the book is back to something you said earlier, you said as you were writing it, you were sometimes tempted to say and see, this is still, to draw the comparisons with the current situation. I'm glad you didn't and I think you don't have to because it's always more powerful when you see it yourself, and there are moments in the book where you're talking about something that just seems so relevant or even more relevant somewhere in the middle of the book. I don't know if the context was Skinner, but you were talking about this whole notion of our teachers through technology, will teachers be liberated or replaced and that's a theme throughout the book really in a way, isn't it?

Audrey Watters: Yeah, I think so. I mean, this is one of the things, again, with these stories that we hear. A lot of these seem to me to be, I think, deeply American stories to I think Americans in particular are so... Since the early 20th century, we've been so compelled with ideas of individualism. So this idea of personalized learning fits very well with this deeply American idea, which is like, it should be about me. My education should be about me. It's not about the collective. It's not about a social shared experience. It should be about what's best for me. So that dovetails perfectly, but I think also efficiency. Again, back to Sebastian Thrun and he was explaining how self-driving cars are going to make everyone drive, going to make roads 90% more efficient, which I don't know how we get to that number. It's one of those magic numbers that-

John O'Brien: Thomas Edison map will be a hundred percent more efficient.

Audrey Watters: It'll be 90% more efficient, and I think he then mapped that to his vision for the future of education. If we make education more technological, we can sort of turn the dials on this grand engineering project. I guess literally Sydney Pressey was turning literal dials. They get more metaphorical as we advance, as the technology advance. I don't even know if kids today know what we mean when we talk about fine-tuning.

John O'Brien: Well, they had to Google the Jetsons.

Audrey Watters: But I think this idea that we can make education more efficient, that we can make it cheaper, faster, better is again, this very 20th-century American idea and this idea that teachers, the human teachers and frankly, it's often gendered, female labor somehow stands in the way of efficiency. Teachers are too emotional. They're too subjective. You can see the history of 20th-century technologies really being this idea of how do we address this question that teachers are humans and what we really want is this more robotic object to make the machine run more smoothly.

John O'Brien: You talked about the edtech adventure that you capture in the book being uniquely American and I know you've lived in other parts of the world. So is there a version of the book that would be different in France or in the UK?

Audrey Watters: Yeah, there were other countries at the time that were developing teaching machines and I left that out partially because I really did want to showcase how the technology fits within culture and within society. It's not just a story of this gadget came. Then this gadget came, there's a cultural context, and again, this is the humanities person in me. The cultural context really matters, but there were teaching machines developed in the Soviet Union. There were teaching machines developed in east Germany and in the UK as well. In fact, Norman Crowder, who's one of the characters in the book, did live and work in the UK for a while developing his teaching machine there.

Audrey Watters: What's interesting is, I think, this idea of individualism wasn't as, quite obviously, it wasn't as central to the development or the usage of teaching machines, particularly in the Eastern bloc. Teaching machines in the Soviet Union weren't seen as this great and perhaps dangerous way to individualize education, and students and teachers used the machines quite differently, more collaboratively in the classroom, and so the context to these, I think really does matter and I think the tech does carry with it, some of its own ideology, of course, but when objects like this move into other cultures, they do get repurposed and they get built with different goals and of course, the teaching, the milieu in which the system, the classroom in which they're plopped down into, looks very different.

This episode features:

Audrey Watters
Hack Education

John O'Brien
President and CEO